The function of the office will increasingly be to foster culture, says Nicola Rutt, partner at Hawkins Brown


There is still great uncertainty about the impact and durability of the coronavirus, but having been in lockdown for three months, there are now some facts available to help us make informed predictions about what our future workplaces may look like.

We will never go back to business as usual. Even if we wanted to, by the time we can get back into our offices without having to be socially distanced – say in six months’ or a year’s time – working from home will be so ingrained into our routine and psyche (to say nothing of the cost of the commute for those who are unable to use active forms of transport) that we are unlikely to want to give it up entirely. A handful of recent surveys unanimously supports this view.

Big tech firms are already announcing that their employees can now have greater flexibility to work from home, with some saying they never have to return to the office. That would provide huge savings both on capital costs and on salaries, if they can hire people who live outside cities and have lower living costs. As we head towards recession it is obvious why businesses might see this as an attractive option.

So will the rest of us follow suit? And if we do, what happens to the office as we know it? The model above will not suit everyone. The more likely – and less radical – outcome is that many businesses will adapt or reduce their space-take, give themselves and their employees greater flexibility to work from home, and amplify the space they do have to function in a way that reflects their brand and culture, becoming more of a shop window than a workshop.

Businesses will adapt or reduce their space-take, and amplify the space they have to function in a way that reflects their brand, becoming more of a shop window than a workshop”

For architects that culture is largely defined by creativity, collaboration and a sense of doing something for the greater good. Most of us prefer to call our premises studios than offices in order to reflect this culture. The increase in video conferencing will impact how we work in the studio, with less one-size-fits-all, open-plan layouts and more tech-enabled private spaces and booths for meetings with colleagues and clients working remotely. Many workplaces were already heading in this direction as we recognised that smaller spaces were needed for more focused work, and that an increased variety of workplace settings had a positive impact on productivity.

The disruptive nature of the pandemic has forced us to reflect on what works and what does not in all the various facets of our lives. I have no real desire to be sitting next to headphone-wearing colleagues tapping away at computers, but I do miss the buzz of exchanging and developing ideas, sitting round a table together hand-drawing in real time and experimenting with models and materials. I miss friendly exchanges, spontaneity, human chemistry and body language, the quick informal chat after a meeting that gets to the nub of the issue. It is a whole nuanced layer of communication that we are missing out on.

Of course working from home, even for a few days a week, does not suit everyone, and getting the balance right will rely on business leaders understanding and reacting to the preferences of their employees, or changing their business model and accepting that not everyone will be able to adapt.

Over the last five years, some of the more progressive commercial developers were already allocating a growing proportion of the office floor area to spaces for amenity, collaboration and health and wellbeing, in an effort to attract and retain talent. They were commissioning buildings that enable a fluidity of functions, and they were also embracing sustainability. This model is only going to accelerate, and architects will help drive this change.