Updated Nov 21, 2021 - Economy

COVID smashes office architecture

Illustration of a COVID wrecking ball aimed at an office building.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

The huge, decked-out corner office for executives was already dying. The pandemic may have delivered a final blow.

The big picture: As hybrid and remote work become more common, the office is transforming from a place for focused work to a destination for collaboration. Meeting rooms and open plan café-like seating areas are replacing offices — and where you sit and work no longer denotes your place in the hierarchy.

By the numbers: Some 60% of firms are re-designing their offices for the post-pandemic era, according to a new report from the commercial real estate firm CBRE, which surveyed large companies around the world. Of those companies, a quarter are eliminating private offices entirely.

  • The firms that are holding onto private offices are downsizing them. Around 80% are limiting them to 149 square feet or smaller.

"People are choosing to do their heads-down work at home," says CBRE's Susan Wasmund, the lead author of the report. "They want to come back to collaborate, and they want to come back for team events."

  • As the office is revamped for teamwork, companies are giving the square footage they're taking away from private offices to meeting rooms of all shapes and sizes.
  • And they're adding amenities to make workers' time in the office worthwhile. CBRE looked specifically at firms' headquarters and found that 58% are building auditoriums, 31% have outdoor spaces, and 69% have onsite baristas or coffee shops.

Yes, but: "Private office space will never totally go away," says Wasmund.

  • Traditional companies like investment banks and law firms will likely be the last holdouts, retaining some aspects of formal office hierarchy and trappings for C-suite executives.
  • Many workers will experience pandemic nervousness for a few years and seek out personal space, says Peter Cappelli, a professor and director of Wharton's Center for Human Resources.
  • And video meetings will continue to be popular, since not everyone will be in the office all the time, and people will still need rooms to duck into to attend those meetings.

What's disappearing is our old idea of private offices — earmarked for one person and decorated with framed family photos. Companies are replacing those with call rooms or study rooms that anyone can reserve as needed.

  • In fact, the share of firms using desk reservation systems for workers coming into offices has jumped from around 15% pre-pandemic to around 50% now, Wasmund notes.

One more new trend: In the past, workers had to submit requests — and often provide medical reasons — to get standing desks. Now, 65% of firms say offering a sitting and standing option is standard for the offices of the future.

The bottom line: As companies try to lure workers back to the office, even if just for a few days a week, the rooms with the best views and the nicest furnishings will increasingly be the common spaces, not the executive suite.

Go deeper