With the vaccine rollout underway and companies gradually forming plans for a return to the office, one of the challenges is how to entice workers back. For many, it’s a chance to rethink the office: what was working before, what we’ve missed, and what seems a little safer now than it did at first. Office environments will be different – but how?

Initial return to work plans were focused on safety – adding barriers and custom signage to get everyone moving safely in the right direction. Now, the conversation has turned to ways to make it appealing and give employees a reason to come back. For that, the office environment will have to be more than just safe. As we dip a toe back into the pool of in-person work, there are some early indications of how to make office design not just safe, but productive and compelling as well.

1. Expect flexible design concepts.

If 2020 has taught us anything, it has been a lesson in adaptability. Office workers who suddenly became remote workers got used to re-engineering their living quarters to make space for their work. 

Many people find that they miss the innovation, creativity, and collaboration that only occurs in the office. Creating spaces that foster those interactions may take a little time. The ability to start with one concept, see how the space is used, and change to another reduces the risk of re-imagining what will work best 6 months or even a year from now.

With that in mind, many companies are shifting towards hackable, evolving office design. With flexible floor plans, a company is free to experiment with a layout, keep what works, and change what doesn’t. Modular and moveable furniture that’s designed to be moved around is at the root of this flexibility.

In the long run, it may serve us well to continue to be ready for whatever the next big shift might be. With flexible office designs and furnishings, companies can quickly grow and change and even shrink when needed. The office itself supports adaptability, positioning the business to grow and change – even overnight.

2. Look towards enhanced user controllability.

Working at home, we got used to doing for ourselves – making our own coffee, setting the thermostat to our own temperature. We even sort of liked it.

Having a certain amount of autonomy over how and where we work can provide people a lot of comfort. The easiest way to reassure employees about safety when they travel to the workplace is to allow them a degree of user control over their work environment. Control really can be as simple as providing a height adjustable workstation so employees can change their desk height throughout the day, as they choose.

(Kessebohmer’s Counter Balance Sit-to-Stand Tables: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tu-i87mVOPo)

(Sidebar) Are standing desks worth it? 

There are many reasons that users request a standing desk –to improve focus, to reduce inactive sitting time, or to increase ergonomic comfort. So the measure of a standing desk’s value varies from person to person. One factor that remains the same for everyone is user controllability: being able to adjust desk height at any moment, regardless of the reason.

3. Expect resimercial to flourish.

Working from home and migrating from the couch to the kitchen table may not have been the most ergonomic setup for many. On the other hand, the home experience is guaranteed to be as comfortable and familiar as a person can get. Resimercial design – that mix of residential comfort combined with commercial grade quality and features – will go a long way towards helping employees feel at home returning to the office. 

One of the biggest arguments for bringing employees together in person is to foster creativity and collaboration. Comfortable seating, cozy upholstery, and natural materials create the sort of familiar spaces that enable both. Any gradual upgrades brought to the workplace can help reinforce the homey atmosphere. A breakout space with an upholstered couch and height adjustable lounge tables brings some warmth and familiarity from home.

(Laptop and Bistro Tables: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pI2hoQ5s3Bs)

4. Focus on reuse.

The last year has shown that we can adapt to new work environments, and adapt quickly. At this point, we are still envisioning what the next year will bring. Particularly in smaller and mid-sized businesses, the focus for the coming year will be on retrofitting wherever possible. An existing private office may become a private, bookable room for hoteling. When rethinking the old office space, by all means keep the existing chairs, but do make the space more configurable with a moveable desk.

 

There is no perfect blueprint for office design in 2021, and the best version of each office may take a while to shake out. It’s safe to say that what looked normal at the beginning of 2020 will look different now. That may be an opportunity that doesn’t come along often.

It’s still too soon to tell which changes will be lasting, and which will go the way of the fluorescent lighted cubicle. But rest assured, a desk that can go anywhere and adjust to the changes right along with you will continue to find a place.

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