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The Office of the Future Is Competing With Everywhere Else

An office design research team at Herman Miller quizzed hundreds of companies to learn what it will take to get workers back to their desks.

An image of what an office “neighborhood” could look like, with spaces for team interaction as well as private work. 

An image of what an office “neighborhood” could look like, with spaces for team interaction as well as private work. 

Source: Herman Miller

Do we even need offices? It’s a question few people would have asked before the pandemic, but the massive shift to remote work over the past year and a half has forced companies to think long and hard about the physical spaces they occupy, and what role they play in fostering — or inhibiting — collaboration and inclusivity. Surveys show that executives are much more excited about returning to offices than rank-and-file employees, while many Black workers prefer working from home, free from the microaggressions they face in the office. The decisions companies make now with their workspaces will not only impact their corporate cultures, but will influence the shape of cities for years to come.

Some office design improvements are obvious, like making conference rooms more Zoom-friendly, but it’s often not clear what exactly employees really want to see when they return to their desks. That’s where Ryan Anderson comes in. Anderson, the vice president of research and global insights for office furniture maker Herman Miller, leads a team of workplace-design experts who had in-depth interviews and roundtable discussions with leaders from hundreds of companies last year to understand their Covid-related concerns and map out their future office plans.

“It’s not a time for surveys,” Ryan says, referring to the quantitative research methods that typically kick off the design process. “Things were just changing too rapidly. Surveys are a snapshot in time, so they’re very helpful if done longitudinally, but not very good as one-offs unless whatever you’re measuring is fairly static. That wasn’t the case, so it was time to dig deeper.”

Herman Miller, whose designers created both the cubicle and the Aeron chair, is now pushing companies to evolve beyond the open floor plans that have dominated in recent years. Instead, it’s advising a so-called “neighborhood” approach that creates a dedicated space for people in the same department to collaborate, grab coffee or work alone if they choose.