Executive need to listen

ARTICLE | March 22, 2023 | 5 min read

The office is back, but you may not recognize it

Employers are bringing in architects to create spaces that reflect the way of work in a post-pandemic world.

By Howard Rabinowitz, Workflow contributor

Walk through LinkedIn’s new 250,000-square-foot global headquarters in Sunnyvale, California, and you’ll hear an inviting hum as people chat in the 500-seat cafeteria or exchange pleasantries on the wide, skylit staircase. On higher floors of Building One, as it’s called, you’ll see teams pitching ideas in glassed-in multipurpose rooms, remote members joining virtually onscreen, while a manager and her mentor huddle on elevated benches. On the top floor, hushed as a library, workers at desks and in deep-focus pods hunker down on deadlines.

Teams are back on site at the social media company—but their environment has changed. In 2021, a year after the pandemic sent everyone home to work remotely, Lisa Britz, director of workplace design, and her team scrapped their original design for Building One and went back to the drawing board. “We realized, even before we had a hybrid policy in place, that things were going to be different when we came back,” Britz recalls.

Welcome to the new, hybrid office. With 83% of workers preferring to work remotely at least part of the week, according to Accenture research, companies are throwing out the old pre-pandemic rules and reimagining space where they work together: the office. And this reinvention isn’t just happening in Silicon Valley, but everywhere, with 77% of global companies planning to redesign their offices, according to a survey by B2B research firm Sapio. Business leaders are recognizing a simple fact: To entice employees back to the office will take more than coercion. The physical office will need to give them a reason—and the inspiration—to come in.

That means adopting a few new rules: Bake wellness into the design. Create different zones for people’s different ideal work styles. Infuse technology into everything to make virtual collaboration effective. In short, create a space where people can do their best work when, where, and how they want.

Pre-pandemic, the old office was where you came to do your work, and you left your life outside the cubicle. Designers are recognizing that the new hybrid office needs to sustain both work and life.

“Clients are embracing the idea that the office needs to be a regenerative space for people’s mental and physical health,” says Caroline Morris, associate partner at Clive Wilkinson Architects (CWA). At CWA, Morris and Amber Wernick leveraged client and employee research and surveys to create the 12 Building Blocks of the New Workplace, which lean into employee well-being with dedicated Wellness Rooms and both indoor and outdoor “park” spaces to provide natural oases for employees to recharge during the workday.

Related: Rebooting your culture for hybrid work

The integration of natural light, fresh air, and greenery is getting mainstreamed in hybrid office design, says Danielle Logan, modern, sustainable work experience lead at Accenture.

“For a long time, many thought that productivity and well-being were the antithesis of each other,” she explains. “The pandemic accelerated the realization that they’re really complementary, and that people do their best work when they feel mentally, physically, and spiritually supported.”

Beyond boosting productivity, baking wellness into office design is a powerful tool for attracting talent.

Gallup research finds that 61% of workers considering a new job view a company’s support of well-being to be a “very important” factor in their decision. And workers who feel like wellness is valued by their companies can be attraction magnets for other talent, with 71% advocating to others that it is a good place to work.

We realized, even before we had a hybrid policy in place, that things were going to be different when we came back.

The vast majority of workers—a whopping 83%—say they would come into the office more regularly if it offered their ideal work environment, according to the architecture firm Gensler’s U.S. Workplace Survey 2022. But that environment wasn’t a simple dichotomy between “home” and “office.” Gensler found employees’ preferences encompass eight different “vibes,” from creative “laboratories” and low-key clubhouses to amenity-rich coffee shops and even boutique hotels.

“People are seeking those enriched amenity spaces because they have pleasant scents, soft music, or plush couches and lighting,” says Hannah Hackathorn, director of workplace and studio design at Gensler. “They have a hospitality component of good coffee and pastries and the social buzz of other people working there. The new workplace we’re starting to design incorporates that diversity of space types.” 

Case in point: LinkedIn’s Britz and her team eliminated 40% of traditional workstations from B1 and organized the entire building vertically as work zones, from Starbucks-like cafes on the ground floor to quiet zones on the highest floor “for people who do their best focused work away from the distractions of home,” says Britz. 

And more hybrid workers are drawn to the office for precisely that purpose, according to Gensler’s 2022 survey, which surprisingly found that the top reason workers leave home for the office is “to focus on my work” (48%), well ahead of “to meet with my team” (38%).

As companies build new physical spaces with more collaboration and social interaction, technology is providing solutions to keep things humming.

Consider the logistics of time-shared spaces. For its more than 700,000 workers in 49 countries, Accenture has begun to use a workflow automation platform to reserve meeting rooms and desk space in its offices, simplifying a potentially mind-boggling complex scheduling process, Logan told a breakout session at Knowledge 2022, ServiceNow’s annual conference.

Then, there are the challenges of hybrid video conferencing. Throughout the pandemic, remote workers often felt sidelined in these calls, vexed by audio issues and unsure when to interrupt a speaker due to lack of visual cues.

Designers of the hybrid office are putting technology in place in collaborative spaces to ensure that everyone participating has an equitable experience.


Percentage of workers who prefer remote work part of the week

That means conference rooms with the right layouts, lighting and furniture to optimize virtual meetings, and state-of-the-art parabolic microphones and cameras that can modulate sound levels and zoom into the face of whoever is speaking.

The vast majority of companies that are redesigning their offices are investing in the latest communication tech to blend the digital and physical experience, such as virtual collaboration software (92%), headsets (89%), and cameras (86%), according to Sapio Research

But even the best technology has pitfalls. “I had a situation with a client who installed amazingly sensitive microphones,” Logan recalls. “During a virtual meeting, there were whispered sidebar conversations that were not audible to people in the room. And those of us on the phone were thinking, ‘We can hear every word.’”

As Logan notes, it’s not just an amusing anecdote but a reminder that, as much progress as designers are making in reimagining an office that will entice and inspire a diverse remote and on-site workforce, the new hybrid office remains a work in progress.


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Howard Rabinowitz is a business and technology writer based in West Palm Beach, Fla.

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