What will office design look like in post-pandemic...

What will office design look like in post-pandemic Detroit?

"The overarching, macro shift that successful companies will engage in is the idea of empathy. At the most basic level, you have to earn trust by making sure the building is safe."

Woman reading in semi-private seating area in an office next to windows and a living wall

Image provided by Stantec Architecture

Many white collar Americans have been out of the office and working from home for over a year. But with COVID-19 vaccines seeing wide distribution in the U.S., that might change in the next few months.

That doesn’t mean we’ll return to the office in the same way prior to the pandemic. Americans found that they like working from home, and companies found that productivity didn’t suffer much either. And safety concerns over large gatherings indoors continue. 

Courtesy photo

So what will offices look like once the pandemic ends? To get into the details of this question, we spoke with Heather Greene, principal and commercial studio lead at the Berkley office of Stantec, a global architecture, engineering and interior design firm. She’s also the former president of CREW Detroit, a membership network of women in commercial real estate. 

Despite an uptick in local office vacancy rates in 2020, Greene said she’s hearing from many Michigan companies that they are starting to look at bringing people back to the office in late summer and early fall — and the smart ones are thinking strategically about designing for a different kind of office work. 

Greene spoke to us from her home office. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Detour Detroit: After a year outside the office, it seems people prefer remote work or at least the option to work remotely. Will we see more companies opt for a hybrid office/remote model? 

Greene: There are a couple of big drivers behind the hybrid movement and why so many companies are intrigued and looking at it. For one, it empowers the team and provides them with the choice to design their workstyle in a more individualized way. Companies also saw that productivity numbers were fairly consistent. 

At the same time, people miss other people. Things like collaboration, mentorship, brainstorming, innovating and getting to know your coworkers — those don’t happen, or at least they don’t happen at the same level, if they’re not in person. There’s a huge drive for attraction and retention and to engage workers in this way because they want it and are asking for it. But they’re also asking to come back to a place, and a number of studies back this up. 

Image provided by Stantec Architecture

How will that shift office design? 

The most challenging piece of designing a successful hybrid workstyle is that you have to design on two different axes: place and time. For the former, you get to come in and choose where you work. Maybe there’s a “neighborhood” — smaller touchstone areas within an office where I’m going to bump into people I know — where you touch down. If it’s in a huge corporate campus setting, you can still see people you work with. 

For time, there are choices about when I do my best work. Maybe you’re a morning person, maybe I get my best ideas in the afternoon. Shifting the idea of a 9-to-5 schedule. But you also have to layer in the fact that if I show up in the office and none of my team is there, what am I coming into office for? Leadership, human resources and real estate all have to be thought of in overlapping circles because we know that through place, we can design social collisions where people can get to know each other and see each other. And once you build foundations of trust, they will collaborate at much more engaging and higher levels. So really we’re designing opportunities around human experience.

Do you think there will be more “hot desk” offices, where employees can work from anywhere in the office? 

There’s a misconception that owned spaces or personal spaces, desks, go away entirely. I don’t think that’s going to happen. No one collaborates for seven-plus hours a day. Our brain needs to cycle. We need to have places where we can recharge, quiet our minds, get reinspired and engaged. It’s less about the desk vs. an open office, but more the ratios of each, which many clients are struggling with. It’s more about the work modes that we go through throughout the day. 

So you’ll see more of these neighborhood identities that have some open collaboration, some closed collaboration, some desks that may be assigned because people need or want to come in on a more regular basis. 

Image provided by Stantec Architecture

It’s interesting so many city metaphors get used in office design terminology.

We look at this a lot like the way we describe a college campus. When you’re a student, there’s a lot of empowerment and choice about where you spend the day outside scheduled class times. Taking a similar lense to that and applying it to the workplace, I could go to more social areas, like a quad, where I might see more people I know. Or I might enjoy being alone together — just being around activity and people feels good. I also might start to find quieter places like a library or coffee shop. 

But trying to design different experiences into place isn’t a new trend. 

How are offices going to adapt to people’s heightened awareness around germs and health? If people don’t feel their office is sanitary, I imagine there will be a lot of reluctance to return.

The overarching, macro shift that successful companies will engage in is the idea of empathy. Not everyone will want to come back — companies will have to deal with some spectrum of fear. Sure, some will be excited and ready to get back to the office. Others may have to manage through that anxiety. At the most basic level, you have to earn trust by making sure the building is safe. Once you’ve established trust, then people will be more willing to come back.

But I also think you’ll see the employment of technology to improve not only health and wellness but to make the experience generally smarter. Do I have to push the elevator button or can that be automated? Do I need to touch the pen to sign in that 5,000 other people have touched? You’ll see wellness stations pop up. There’s been great research around air filtration systems, not only to mitigate a virus but also as a catalyst to human health. Other things like investing in walking paths, outdoor spaces, rooftops or creating partnerships with other businesses to create those services if your building doesn’t have them. 

Taking a more progressive stance on the impact of place on people’s holistic wellbeing may be one of the silver linings to come out of the pandemic. Given all the sacrifices we’ve made, I think people are primed for some innovative community engagement and to think about the urban context in a new way. 

outdoor space design at an office showing seating areas and workers
Image provided by Stantec Architecture

What are you hearing from some of your clients and partners about a timeline for returning to offices?

The vaccine rollout is obviously going to be huge. The more that people get vaccinated, the quicker we’ll be able to move along the path. MIOSHA (Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration) still has reasonably strict guidelines in place through October. But most companies are looking to start bringing people back in a meaningful way in the late summer and early fall. Which is in line with the rest of America. 

The good news is that leases and construction are picking up, which makes me optimistic. 

Aaron Mondry is the editor of The Dig and a reporter who covers development, housing, architecture, real estate and land use in Detroit. He was previously the editor of Curbed Detroit.