An evolution in our control


Since the 1950s, office environments have used efficiency of space as a primary design driver: pack more people into smaller spaces to generate greater revenue per square foot. In the majority of cases, the result of this approach typically trended toward minimal flexibility for individual work preferences, lack of individual environmental control, and design that is focused on spatial efficiency instead of employee satisfaction and effectiveness. The sustainability movement has helped to advocate for the individual and improve the quality of space, light, air, and material in our office environments. The movement is defined and primarily driven by global energy and water concerns. It has taken decades to gain traction, in part, because it is difficult for the general population to see the results of the exhaustive efforts invested in changing a global issue. But what if the driver for change is a clear and present danger that impacts each of us personally?

Suddenly, we have in front of us, a design challenge driven by the immediate health and safety of humankind. If that was not enough of a driver, most people have been forced to immediately and dramatically change our day-to-day work, personal routine, habits, and expectations. Resetting a habit can take anywhere from 21 to 70 days depending on what source you read, yet, changing personal expectations is typically a much harder challenge.

Now extend that to a society and the task becomes herculean. Enter necessity. The mother of all inventions. In the past three months, we have seen expectations around work environments on a personal, corporate, national, and global scale turned on its head. I hesitate to say never, but I do not believe we will see another opportunity in our lifetime to effect change in workplace architecture like we have at this moment.

What will this change look like?

First, let’s focus on you. Are you at your desk? Sit back and take a moment. Look around. Think about these questions:

Are you working from home? Do you have a good view? Do you like your lighting? Are you comfortable? More or less comfortable than in the office in which you typically work? Why or why not? What amenities do you have at home that you miss in the office? What about things from the office that you miss?

For most people I have talked to over the past couple of months, working from home has been an enjoyable experience from the perspective of their environment and in more time with their families. The majority of people working from home have carved out a dedicated space to use for their professional activities. Some spaces, like mine, are centralized and in the middle of the primary circulation path. The spaces are high-energy and very distracting at times, but have great light and views. Some spaces are in separate rooms, basements, or even kitchens. One person I know uses his RV as a home office. No matter the eclectic set up, there are some inherent consistencies and benefits of work-from-home spaces. I asked some of our staff to share a glimpse into their newly professionalized living spaces and they are shared at the end of the article. The variety is wonderful.

  • Personalization. This space is yours. Be it a rental, condo, or a single-family residence, the space has been customized for you, by you.
  • Quality daylight and views. You chose to live in this space in a large part because of the light (even if you did not know it at the time) and, for some, you typically have better access to views than a previous living situation.
  • Warmth. From finishes to the color of the light, there is an identifiable warmth to the space.
  • Intimate human scale. Be it an alcove off the kitchen or a corner in the living room, all spaces I have seen are well scaled to the user.
  • Personal control of lighting. You dim it, make it brighter, set it to rave mode. You have control at all times throughout the day.
  • Temperature control. Our home control of temperature and ventilation is typically greater than in an office.
  • Easy access to food. Sure, it’s not the Google gourmet cafeteria, but food is never more than about 20 feet away.
  • Access to nature. Be it ambling about the backyard garden, a stroll down the block, or access to a nearby trail, we have universally better access to nature and the outdoors from our homes.

The primary factors that have allowed people to enjoy their visual environment are quality of light and quality of view. Home offices are typically better daylit than corporate offices and the electric lighting is generally softer and more controllable. The views are typically out into neighborhoods, gardens or backyards, or overlooking city streetscapes. They are the views upon which we based our decision to rent or buy our homes –they are personal. If your home office environment is more flexible and enjoyable than your typical office space, you may have be experiencing thoughts of working from home after communities are allowed to return to the office or you may be thinking about how your typical office environment can change to reflect the benefits you are experiencing at home. However, not all home offices are sunshine and rainbows.

On the flip side, some DIY offices are relegated to the basement, a large walk-in closet, or the attic space that almost allows you to stand up straight without hitting your head on the rafters. In these cases, the daily visual experience is lacking in daylight, views, and, often, adequate electric lighting. This can lead to an increase in stress and dissatisfaction with working from home.

In other cases, the visual environment is pleasant as described above, but outside influences such as in-home child care and education responsibilities, isolation from colleagues, overcoming communication difficulties, and other anxieties or distractions can outweigh and negate the positive physiological and psychological impacts of quality light and views in the home office. This typically leads to a stronger desire to return to your typical office and “normal” routine sooner.

Given the diverse, individualized experiences of the population, the idea of returning to the office environment looks different for all of us. There have been some great interviews, surveys, and papers written about how the issues and benefits of working from home will reshape our traditional office environments. The links below offer a wide variety of ideas, data, and visions of what our return to work will look like. Companies like Twitter have stated they will allow all employes to work from home permanently once their offices reopen.(1) Facebook is predicting that within the next 5-10 years, 50% of their workforce will be working from home on a permanent or more regular basis.(2) Most large tech employers have updated their work from home policies to allow remote working until 2021.(3)

The increased flexibility of robust work from home policies reflect a general agreement that employees can stay engaged, productive, and effective when working remotely. However, that does not mean that the general office worker population wants to work remotely forever. In a recent Gensler survey of over 2,500 office workers from multiple industries, it was found that only 12% of U.S. workers want to work from home full-time, 44% would like to work 1 to 4 days at home, and the other 44% do not want to work from home.(4) The overwhelming consensus across all of the surveys and interviews with different companies is that the majority of people want to return to a dedicated office environment .

Here is where it gets exciting!

We all have a new perspective and reference point for what we want, do not want, and need in an office space. What you are experiencing or have experienced over the past several months will leave a lasting psychological imprint and will influence your perception and expectations of your office environment, be it at home or in a more corporate setting. Some of the feedback coming from multiple commercial office sectors that workers returning to the office will be looking for:

  • More space (less density) to allow for physical distancing
  • Reliable access to communication and productivity technology
  • Increased quality and control of electric lighting
  • Increased controllability of individual environmental controls (light, air, temperature)
  • Increased access to daylight and views
  • Face-to-face reconnection with fellow employees (distance makes the heart grow fonder)
  • Comfortable and flexible spaces designed for smaller in-person meetings
  • Fewer large group face-to-face meetings
  • Increased cleanliness and sanitation
  • A return to assigned seating or private offices (personalization and safety are the primary factors here)
  • Flexibility to work from home on a regular basis, but still have access to the community of an office

Some of these wants and needs are in indirect or direct conflict for the design solutions to give office workers a feeling of equity, empowerment, control, and security. This will require careful exploration and consideration.

Our present global challenges have created an unprecedented opportunity to reshape how we think about and design of our office environments to meet these newly reinforced expectations. Architects, engineers, researchers, and contractors around the world are stepping up to theorize, design, test, and make our future office environments places balanced around safety, equity, and flexibility for employee satisfaction. This is a keystone moment in the evolution of office architecture. Let us not waste it, but embrace a future where our values are redirected from maximizing people per square foot to harmonizing our office environments into human-centric, adaptable, and sustainable environments.

If you are interested in reading about the design changes being put into practice now, visit these additional resources:

If you are interested in workplace design throughout history, visit these resources:

Article References