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The Way We Work Has Changed. So Should Offices.

The office of the future has the capacity to accelerate change and to support a totally new kind of work and workforce.

The Berlin headquarters of online retailer Zalando in 2019.

The Berlin headquarters of online retailer Zalando in 2019.

Photographer: HG Esch/HENN

The American office has changed dramatically as it evolved from the factory-like office floors of the early 20th century, to the cubicle-bound postwar corporate world, to our own era of flexible workstations and open-floor plans. But the stresses now coming to bear on the white-collar workplace are unlike anything we’ve seen before.

Three factors, distinct yet deeply intertwined, have conspired to make the work environment a site of unprecedented contention, as well as tremendous opportunity. First, the ongoing move away from manufacturing toward a knowledge-based digital economy has made the idea of the brick-and-mortar workspace (and the hierarchical structure that comes with it) seem outdated. Second, the Covid-19 pandemic allowed a huge number of people to begin working from home — and many are not enthusiastic about resuming their former habits. Finally, there’s been a tectonic shift in the way Americans are thinking about work itself, as evidenced in the phenomenon some have called “the Great Resignation.” How can offices adapt to this new and complex condition?