What to do with all that space?
It’s the question companies eyeing hybrid or remote work arrangements post-pandemic have had to ask themselves about the extra room they have on their hands. The answers have ranged from renting it out to startups and freelancers to spreading out workspaces for social distancing to novel ideas like gyms, nap rooms and art installations. (The prize for the most creative solution for suddenly unneeded space has to go to Austin, Texas-based software company Zoho, which, once it was clear its people would not be returning to a physical office full-time, transformed 360 acres it had purchased before the pandemic for a new HQ into a community farm.)
While a healthy inventory of commercial real estate in many cities has made subleasing a nonstarter, companies have taken the surplus square footage problem and turned it into an opportunity to generally create a more utilitarian and employee-friendly environment. That has meant instituting flexible workspaces and bringing the comforts of home into the office.
“We know the expansive, open concept will need some adjustments, and there are options for creative teams to collaborate at their level of comfort and need,” said Allan Smith, VP of global marketing at the office solutions brand Steelcase. “People’s experiences at home have shaped what they want to see in the office.”
While many employees enjoy working from home, it has also led to feelings of isolation and decreased productivity. That’s inspired Steelcase to develop new products like flex-frame walls and a collection of rolling TV screens that pair with Microsoft Surface computers to connect remote and in-office teams wherever they want to meet. Another of its innovations — and another use for all that extra room — is the freestanding, individual “work tent,” which the company describes as “rooted in the human desire to seek shelter and protection from the natural elements … providing people in the office with the same shelter and protection they crave.”
Several companies said they are converting their extra space into studios for creating marketing content. Among them is the New York and Miami-based digital marketing firm Socialfly, which, after going fully remote last March, needed to make use of its main office space in midtown Manhattan. The project “allowed us to utilize every inch of the office, which was completely empty, and take advantage of all the natural light,” said associate creative director Lindsay Gilbert. Using existing layouts of the different rooms, it created multiple photo and video rigs, mock living spaces and other turnkey production setups that could be easily modified to suit various content and production needs.
Meanwhile, Mark Hayes, head of marketing at the Sydney-based consultancy platform Kintell, recommends filling the void with flora. He points to a study by the University of Technology in Sydney finding that greenery leads to lower rates of stress and depression among employees. “If you’re looking to fill up that extra space with something affordable, beneficial to your team and that is appealing for the office environment, get creative with your interior décor and start with plants,” he said.
Grant Aldrich, CEO of the edtech platform OnlineDegree.com, plans to convert his company’s spare space into a nap room, which, he said, “shows employees you care about their wellbeing.” Such a quiet area can also be used as a meditation space or for brainstorming with other employees. “The key is that employees can go there when they need a retreat from the stress of work,” he added.
Devin Johnson, CEO of the Indianapolis-based software company Kennected, is in the process of reimagining three separate office locations now that the company has transitioned to remote working. He is considering options like an employee gym (complete with locker rooms and showers) and a fully equipped kitchen — an idea that came to him after arranging for Zoom cooking classes for employees during the pandemic. Creating a “sleeping quarters” is another concept. “We have an international team in seven countries and it would be awesome to be able to put them up in our offices when they are allowed to travel again,” said Johnson.
However they are reconfigured, the office of the future will be a whole new world — with room to spare and plenty of ideas on how to fill it. “Maybe it’s a brainstorm on couches with colleagues or a quiet work area,” said Stephen Brown, CEO of the Toronto agency Fuse Create. “We envision a collaborative team environment where workers can make the space what they want it to be.”