Is this the Office of the Future?

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While the COVID-19 pandemic dramatically transformed the way Americans work, with millions of people now working a hybrid schedule, the office itself remains stuck in pre-pandemic times.

“The offices that we have have largely been designed as a place that people need to come. Many of them are cube farms that are really boring, unexciting, and nobody wants to be there,” says Aditya Sanghvi, senior partner at McKinsey & Company, who leads the management consulting firm’s real estate practice. “The office has suddenly become a choice. It’s an option. And the office has to be better for someone than working from home and enduring the commute to come into the office.”

More Americans than ever have a hybrid schedule, splitting time between working from home and going into the office. A spring 2022 survey of 25,000 Americans by McKinsey & Company found that 58% of respondents were able to work from home at least one day a week. The U.S. Department of Labor reported that more than one-third of Americans, 34%, worked from home at least some of the time in 2022.

Despite these changes in how Americans work, the workplace has largely remained the same.

“If you’re going to be working in a cubicle, you might as well be working from home. You won’t have to engage in the commute, which is a productivity killer,” says Ryan Luby, an associate partner at McKinsey & Company who co-authored the report. “And then when you get to the office, if you’re not engaging with anyone else, you might as well not be there.”

Enter the U.S. federal government. Even though the government is often perceived as an unwieldy bureaucracy where little changes, the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), the agency that oversees federal buildings, is among those taking the lead to determine what the office of the future will look like.

“What we’re trying to do is create a workplace and an environment that allows you to be as productive as you can be without getting in the way. And that means a variety of spaces for a variety of the people that work for us,” says Chuck Hardy, GSA’s chief architect.

Hardy is overseeing GSA’s Workplace Innovation Lab, a 25,000-square-foot space, located inside the organization’s Washington headquarters, where federal workers can try out the latest in workplace furnishings and technology, supplied by private vendors. During the yearlong experiment, federal workers from across the government can sign up to work in the lab, testing out the different layouts and latest innovations. In return, they are asked to provide feedback on their experience.

“The office should be a magnet not a mandate. We’re looking to have an office that brings people back to it purposefully,” Hardy says. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all. And in certain agencies and certain offices, it can be multiple solutions. And so, we’re looking at what is that mix of a solution?”

Some spaces in the lab feature comfortable chairs and sofas. Others look more like traditional workspaces. Almost everything can be moved around. The air quality is monitored, and sustainable technology solutions are being tested. Hardy says the office of the future also needs to have advanced acoustics and technology.

Sanghvi foresees more seamless meeting spaces.

“There needs to be immersive conference rooms where it almost feels like there’s no difference between whether or not someone’s sitting with you in the office or somebody’s by video,” he says. “And I assume over the next 10 years, we’ll get a great evolution in that.”

The office needs to change because the role of the workplace has changed, according to Luby.

“The office should be a place where you’re doing group work, where you’re doing community-oriented collaborative activities,” Luby says. “That space should be suited for collaboration, community gathering and facilitating those moments that matter. It’s going to be much more group oriented. It’s going to be a more flexible space, more modular.”

The office of the future might even help workers with their errands.

“One of the reasons that a lot of people work from home is that they have to pick up the kids or do dry cleaning. They have to take care of the dog,” Sanghvi says. “And so, what if there were pet care in the building? What if there was child care in the building?”

Sanghvi believes landlords have to take a more active role in transforming workspaces for the new post-pandemic reality.

“We all trust our hotels to help us with services when we stay in a hotel,” he says. “Many retailers trust the shopping mall owners with doing marketing on behalf of everyone and driving traffic. So, it’s just a different motion for offices, but it’s pretty well-established elsewhere.”

Office planners of the future will likely try to address three main criteria, according to Hardy at the GSA.

“It has to be quality, has to be serving a purpose, but it still has to be beautiful,” he says. “And so, that’s what we’re looking for here — you don’t want to go into a building that looks like you’re in a basement. … You’re seeing office settings that have similarities to a living room setting or have similarities to a den. You’re seeing furniture that’s a little more comfortable.”

Which means the office of the future could feel a little bit more like home.

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