When we do go back to the office, what should that office look like?

Pilita Clark: A hybrid way of working could end much of what was hopeless in open-plan offices

Very little of consequence typically happens in a nanosecond.

Yet in the wake of promising Covid vaccine news, it hasn’t taken much longer than that for some bosses to predict that workers will be hauled out of their homes and back to the office sooner than expected.

There is “no question” that firms will start pulling people back the moment a vaccine hits, Lewis Horne, told a Californian newspaper the other day.

Mr Horne might say that. He is a top executive at the US commercial real estate giant, CBRE, and responsible for its business in southern California, where office occupancy has this year reportedly dropped by an area equal to that inside two Empire State Buildings.


But he has a point. The question is, when we do go back to the office, what should that office look like?

Two days

Let’s assume that employers listen to the 72 per cent of office workers from 10 countries who recently told researchers they want to keep working at home post-crisis, mostly for about two days a week.

That is a big assumption, but a cheering one for those who like the idea of doing their jobs at home and in the office. Done well, this hybrid way of working could end a lot of what was hopeless in the office buildings that emptied at the start of the pandemic, starting with their rows of open-plan desks.

These were supposed to foster teamwork and productive chats, which is precisely what some types of work need – at times. But open-plan designs also force workers to endure a vexing amount of noise, distraction and lack of privacy, as studies have shown for decades.

Things have grown worse as companies have cut costs and floorspace. “Twenty years ago, the average worker could expect about 25 square metres each; today it is less than 10,” writes Gideon Haigh in a new book charting office history, The Momentous, Uneventful Day. Mr Haigh thinks one reason working from home has proved popular this year is that it has restored the privacy workers have lost over the past half century. I agree.

It also seems likely that hybrid workers will be coming into the office mainly to meet other colleagues. So why not convert some open-plan space into something sorely missing in a lot of offices: readily available meeting rooms.

Since some in the team will be at home, hybrid meeting rooms will need decent wifi for zooming and enough power sockets to recharge several laptops at a time.

Dedicated space

Speaking of zooming, the hybrid working office is likely to need more dedicated space for people to take part in video calls or the webinars that seem certain to last beyond the pandemic.

And since Zoom and its rivals are far from perfect, I like to think they will be replaced by a cheaper version of the high-end telepresence rooms that make virtual meetings feel more like the real thing.

Apps that let you quickly see who is in the office and who isn’t will be vital.

Likewise, while open-plan desks make it hard to do work requiring deep, focused thinking, so does a home with a toddler or two in it. So more open-plan space could be transformed into something else most offices lack: ultra-quiet areas where people can easily work uninterrupted for hours at a time.

What else? “Hotwalls” might be useful. That’s a big screen connected to an always-on video camera that some firms have used for years to keep distant colleagues in the loop. In a hybrid office, they could be put in spots like a lunch room so home workers could see what their colleagues are up to and chat with ones they like.

More possibilities

There are lots more possibilities. They won’t all suit each office. Ultimately, the pandemic has undermined managers with Taylorist tendencies who think workers need the constant surveillance offered by open-plan desks. But it has also caused enough economic pain to induce even greater cost-cutting. There is, though, a chance for hybrid working to turn the office into a vastly better version of what it was before Covid-19. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020