The New Yorker: “Has the Pandemic Transformed the Office Forever?”


Companies are figuring out how to balance what appears to be a lasting shift toward remote work with the value of the physical workplace. (Read full article here.)

By: John Seabrook


David Corns, the California managing director of R/GA, a global advertising and marketing agency, needed to decide whether to renew the lease on the company’s office in downtown San Francisco. It was spring, 2020, and the lease was set to expire on August 31st. Before the covid-19 pandemic, commercial real estate was pricier in San Francisco than it was anywhere else in the country, including New York, where R/GA has its headquarters. Since leaving the office on March 13th, the hundred-person S.F. staff—the creatives, designers, strategists, account execs, and technologists who make digital products and services for Slack, Reddit, and Airbnb, among many other brands, along with support teams—had been working from home. “We have seen productivity go through the roof,” Corns told me. So why did the staff require so much expensive office space? Did they need any at all?

In the past three decades, a series of quiet revolutions in design have changed the way offices are used, erasing former hierarchies of walls and cubicles and incorporating workplace methodologies from the technology industry into team-based, open-plan layouts. At the same time, digital tools such as e-mail, Excel, Google Docs, video conferencing, virtual whiteboarding, and chat channels like Slack have made a worker’s presence in those offices less essential. The pandemic has collapsed these divergent trends into an existential question: What’s an office for? Is it a place for newbies to learn from experienced colleagues? A way for bosses to oversee shirkers? A platform for collaboration? A source of friends and social life? A respite from the family? A reason to leave the house? It turns out that work, which is what the office was supposed to be for, is possible to do from somewhere else.

The pandemic has presented R/GA and countless other large enterprises with an unprecedented opportunity to rethink the importance of presence, proximity, and place in workspace planning. Twenty-seven per cent of the American workforce will be remote in 2021, according to a recent survey by Upwork, a freelancing marketplace. About twenty million workers have moved—many of them out of major cities—or are planning to. Office vacancies continue to rise: CBRE, the world’s largest commercial-real-estate-services firm, recently estimated a San Francisco vacancy rate of more than sixteen per cent, the highest on record. Major real-estate companies such as Boston Properties and Vornado Realty Trust, which, owing to long-term commercial leases, have traditionally been recession-proof, have lost more than a third of their stock-market value in the past year. Managers—and workers—are struggling to figure out what their post-pandemic offices will look like, and how to balance what appears to be a lasting shift toward remote work with the advantages of the physical workplace.

Before the pandemic, the physical and virtual workspaces often seemed to be at odds. The digital resources that now allow many workers to do their jobs from home had made it possible to come into the office and spend all day online. Although these tools claim to enhance the physical workspace by improving communication, they can undermine office culture by reducing the face-to-face encounters that open-plan layouts purport to promote.


 

“Digital technology should not be a substitute for human connection,” Microsoft’s C.E.O., Satya Nadella, told me. (It is sometimes, of course, used for precisely that reason in open-plan offices—you can’t concentrate on your own work if someone next to you is talking, and there are few spaces in which to speak privately with a colleague.) “Digital technology should help human connection when there are constraints of space and time,” Nadella added.

Corns discussed options with R/GA executives in New York, including Sean Lyons, the C.E.O.; Wes Harris, the global C.O.O.; and David Boehm, who oversees the company’s real estate and facilities. The New York executives also had to decide what to do about the company’s two-hundred-thousand-square-foot Manhattan base, an office, at 450 West Thirty-third Street, that was designed by the celebrated British architecture firm Foster + Partners. The design process is depicted in Gary Hustwit’s 2016 documentary, “Workplace,” which charts the evolution of the twenty-first-century office.

R/GA’s headquarters used to be a stop on design tours of cutting-edge New York City offices. Another must-see workspace was Campari America’s office, done by Gensler, the world’s largest workplace-design firm, and situated in the Grace Building, overlooking Bryant Park. But, as the pandemic dragged on, an expensive showplace office in Manhattan, where rental costs in a Class A high-rise can amount to twenty thousand dollars per employee per year, began to seem like an albatross of costly, unused space.

In San Francisco, Corns’s decision was relatively simple: “We said, ‘Let’s pull ourselves out of this lease, go fully virtual, and treat the office like we would treat any client project, where we start from a blank slate.’ ”

During the first six months of the pandemic, R/GA’s Talent Experience Team conducted a series of surveys and workshops with the agency’s sixteen hundred employees around the world. Wes Harris told me, “The first one was just: Are you able to get any work done? Are your clients satisfied? How are you feeling?” Results were positive. Remote work was working, by and large. Thirty per cent of supervisors said that their workers were more productive at home; only seven per cent said people were getting less done. Two months into the pandemic, it seemed likely that working from home would be a permanent change, rather than a temporary stopgap.

Pictured above left: Author, John Seabrook, courtesy of John Seabrook


 

The next set of surveys, conducted in June and July, asked, Harris said, “Now that we are successfully working in a virtual world, what should the future post-covid office look like, and how do you blend the physical and the digital in this new paradigm?” Everyone said that they missed seeing their colleagues in person, but very few workers envisaged returning to the office five days a week. One to three days was more appealing.

“People want to be able to work from anywhere, but there are times they want to collaborate,” Harris told me. Instead of a big central office like 450 West Thirty-third Street, with seating for twelve hundred and fifty employees and a two-hundred-person conference room, it might be better to have smaller satellite offices nearer to workers’ homes. Sean Lyons referenced “Dunbar’s number,” the British anthropologist Robin Dunbar’s theory, derived from studies of Neolithic villages and tribes, that humans can maintain stable social relationships with no more than a hundred and fifty people at any one time. R/GA was planning to open a hub office in Brooklyn, Lyons said, because so many of their New York people lived there.

Six months in, the final round of surveys showed that employees—driven by adrenaline and anxiety about underperforming, and because there wasn’t much else to do while sheltering in place—were working all the time.

The surveys turned up a number of “pain points,” including a lack of spontaneous interactions with colleagues, difficulty integrating new hires into company culture remotely, Zoom fatigue, and ergonomically incorrect seating. But the sorest was felt by R/GA staff who had young children. For a stressed-out parent, W.F.H. can quickly turn into W.T.F.!

But, for many of the company’s employees, fewer opportunities for collaboration and the erosion of company culture weren’t major drawbacks. A summary of the survey results reported that conducting meetings over Zoom meant “more voices are being heard and there is better meeting etiquette.” One respondent wrote, “People tend to wait for others to finish their thoughts before speaking.” Another observed, “WFH actually forces our entire team to work more closely.”

Pictured right: Studio O+A co-founders, Primo Orpilla and Verda Alexander


 

Early in the pandemic, Microsoft’s Nadella suggested in a conversation with editors of the Times that effective remote collaboration relied in part on “social capital.” The concept that communities grow out of personal interactions was popularized in Robert Putnam’s 2000 best-seller, “Bowling Alone.” In a job setting, social capital is accumulated by working in the presence of others, and depleted during virtual interactions. Nadella told the Times he was concerned that “maybe we are burning some of the social capital we built up in this phase where we are all working remote. What’s the measure for that?”

But when I spoke to Nadella he allowed that when you see people in their homes, with their noisy children and importunate pets, struggling to stay focussed and upbeat, “you have a different kind of empathy for your co-workers.”

At R/GA, the survey also revealed that, without the company’s New York headquarters, people who worked in other cities and countries felt much more involved. One worker wrote, “New York has stopped acting like it’s New York and everyone else.”

Finally, the survey asked the staff to imagine the office of the future: “More spaces for collaborating. Less individual desk space”; “Would love to see more team-oriented spaces like a table, screen, and partial privacy that a team can use and have informal meetings instead of everything requiring a conference room”; “The office can be very overwhelming and very hard to concentrate, that’s been the best part about working from home, being able to focus”; “I feel very wary of big open floor plan spaces, which have always made it easy for bugs and viruses to travel.”

In all, R/GA gathered fifty-five hundred comments from seven hundred and fifty workers. Harris and his colleagues incorporated these findings into briefs that they would share with architects and designers as the company made its post-pandemic plans, beginning with the San Francisco office. David Boehm told me that he hoped the resulting design would serve as a prototype for the R/GA office of the future.

In August, Corns took out a lease on a new, smaller space in a high-rise on Fremont Street, in San Francisco’s financial district, at a much lower rent. “We had talked about getting three smaller spaces—in South Bay, Oakland, San Francisco—to cut people’s commute times,” he told me. “I thought we would actually go that route, but people said, ‘We want to be together.’ ”

Corns then sought out a designer to help create a workspace. After a brief search, he chose Primo Orpilla, a principal and co-founder of Studio O+A, an award-winning San Francisco-based architecture and design firm with three decades of experience creating workspaces for companies such as Facebook, Uber, and Yelp, some of them also clients of R/GA.

Pictured: Facebook; Photographer: Cesar Rubio


 

If you entered office life in the eighties, as I did, hierarchy was everywhere you looked. Bosses and other big shots had walled offices with views, while small fry toiled in cubicle reefs, bathed in fluorescent light. The industrial open-office setting where C. C. Baxter labors in Billy Wilder’s 1960 film, “The Apartment,” a kind of white-collar factory, gave way to the cube farm where Lester Burnham sits in “American Beauty,” from 1999. Conformity still reigned in the cubicle era, but at least an office schnook had partial visual privacy on three sides. (For sound privacy, you needed an office.) Although they are now derided, cubicles held their charms; I met and courted my wife in one. However, like Bud Baxter, my dream was to have a door with my name on it.

The cubicle evolved out of utopian notions of office flexibility and flow that were promoted in the sixties by Robert Propst, the head of research for the Herman Miller company. Propst grasped that office work was fundamentally different from factory work. Nikil Saval, in his 2014 book, “Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace” (2014), writes, “Propst was among the first designers to argue that office work was mental work and that mental effort was tied to environmental enhancement of one’s physical properties.” Propst believed that, in particular, knowledge workers—a term coined by Peter Drucker in 1959—would benefit from what he called a “mind-oriented living space.” He sought to integrate a more dynamic concept of work into a program of hinged partitions and standing desks. The Action Office, as Propst called it, débuted in 1964. But by the mid-eighties it had evolved into the inert cubicle, and Propst was blamed for fathering it. What happened?

Propst’s action-oriented designs may or may not have increased productivity and collaboration, but they did enhance the bottom line, allowing office managers to add more employees without having to move to a bigger space. As density increased, partitions collapsed into the smallest possible footprint: the ever-shrinking cube. Two years before Propst’s death, in 2000, he told an interviewer, “The dark side of this is that not all organizations are intelligent and progressive. Lots are run by crass people who can take the same kind of equipment and create hellholes. They make little bitty cubicles and stuff people in them. Barren, rathole places.”

Not long after I had been promoted to a private office—it was closer to Jonathan Pryce’s in “Brazil” (1985) than to Tom Hanks’s in “Big” (1988)—a democratizing design spirit began to emerge out of Silicon Valley, upending settled markers of status and reshuffling personal and collaborative space according to a more communal philosophy of team-based work. Perimeter offices moved inside, so that the whole space got natural light; the boss, at least, was more accessible. Cubicle walls dropped from sixty-five inches to forty-eight, then to thirty-six, and then disappeared altogether, replaced by contiguous desks, which was my allotted space at the New Yorker office when the pandemic hit.

Pictured: Yelp; Photographer: Jasper Sanidad


 

Like many older workers who once had offices, I hoped the pandemic might reverse the open-plan trend; people working in open offices take sixty-two per cent more sick leave, according to a 2011 Danish study. As I was to discover, the pandemic, far from reversing the decline of personal space in the office, seems likely to hasten its demise.

Growing up in the Bay Area in the seventies and eighties, Primo Orpilla got to see at first hand a new democratic design aesthetic bubbling up from the California tech scene. In the early eighties, the offices of most large tech companies were still what Orpilla calls Dilbertvilles, after the cubicle-dwelling engineer in the Scott Adams comic strip. “They were heavy, heavy hierarchical structures,” he told me—like those of Initech, the company in Mike Judge’s 1999 satire, “Office Space.” “Cubicles, offices, meeting rooms—that was it. We hadn’t had a brainstorm room yet—collaboration wasn’t even in the conversation. You just went from meeting to meeting to meeting.”

Orpilla studied interior design at San Jose State University, and, in the mid-eighties, he interned at a workplace firm in Sunnyvale, where he did space planning for the defense contractor Lockheed Martin, which was based nearby. “I got to observe engineers and how technology gets made,” he said. “There would be one superstar engineer who was the chief tech officer and the smartest guy in the room, and then a bunch of other engineers who needed guidance would form around him.” He noted how engineers would use movable whiteboards to create ad-hoc brainstorming rooms of their own. Unlike teams in hardware design, which tended to be stable and to pursue projects from beginning to end, software teams would form, dissolve, and reconfigure as the work progressed and as new, unforeseen problems arose.

Engineers were the company’s “brain trust,” Orpilla said. But “they were dealt with as second-class citizens. They took the cubes in the middle of the warehouse without windows. If you were a big sales guy, you had an office. It was all about the guys selling the product.”

By the late eighties, office managers started asking designers to facilitate this new, team-oriented style of work. “It all became about: How do we take care of the people who create this product?” Orpilla said. “They need to be inspired, they need to be fed, and we need to give them the spaces to do their work.” Free food and other amenities kept engineers in the office, coding into the night. “They work long hours, they tend to work in the dark,” Orpilla went on. “They like to hang out for long periods of time.”

The Internet boom of the nineties, which was led in part by entrepreneurial engineers, played a role in spreading the team-based methodology to other forms of knowledge work. Creating a successful digital product such as Google’s Ad Words—an invention that helped turn the money-losing search company into an advertising-driven colossus—often involves cross-disciplinary teams of engineers, marketers, and product managers. As software became the engine of growth in the tech industry, and in the economy as a whole, hard-walled barriers between formerly separate divisions of workers continued to melt away.

Orpilla and his design partner, Verda Alexander, started Studio O+A in 1991. Over the years, the amenities they provided became increasingly lavish. “We did skateboard ramps with DJ turntables, lots of game rooms with pool and ping-pong tables; we did music rooms and cafeterias with sophisticated barista bars and beer taps,” Alexander wrote in 2019, in an essay for Fast Company. Workplaces had laundry service, napping rooms, and gyms—further incentives to keep employees from leaving the office.

Read the full article here.

Pictured: Uber; Photographer: Jasper Sanidad

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