Picture yourself living in the manicured, walkable suburbs of Bethesda, Maryland. You work full-time at a multinational corporation, but your two children and two dogs require seemingly constant attention. Pandemic lockdown was tough, but it forced you to pull together a home office that now fits like a glove.
Sure, it’s frustrating to be interrupted by your sick 3-year-old when you’re pitching a bold new idea to VPs. But life is better when you can be more accessible to your children, make lunch at home, and take the dogs for a walk around noon.
And yet … sometimes you catch yourself dreaming of a few hours of deep-focus time. You really do need a haircut and to hit the gym more often. And it would be nice to have some more casual time with your boss not via scheduled Zoom call. But going to the office isn’t worth the time and hassle of driving and arranging childcare, and no one can have it all. Or can they?
If your fictional suburban avatar works for Marriott International, then the solution to their problems may in fact be to spend more time at the office. The company opened a new 785,000-square-foot headquarters in downtown Bethesda late last year that was designed to compete—and win—against the allure of work-from-home. The first floor has a public plaza and coffee shop, the second a dining hall with outdoor seating, and the third a gym and childcare center. A doggy daycare and a spa sit just blocks from the building. You can eat, exercise, shower, and meet with your manager all in a space that feels more like a hotel rather than an office.
Marriott’s headquarters, constructed almost entirely during the pandemic, was designed by Gensler, one of the world’s largest architecture and design firms. Gensler helped define the cutting edge of what the office used to be, through projects with clients including Adobe, NVIDIA, and Airbnb. Now that it has become clear that many workers prefer home over the offices of 2019, Gensler and Marriott are among a swathe of companies attempting to launch a new concept of the office that can prosper in the WFH Covid era.
What does this new version of the office look like? A kaleidoscope of hotel, spa, restaurant, library, and home. “During the pandemic, when all of a sudden we’re all sitting at our dining room tables, Marriott didn’t blink. They said, ‘You know what, we agree with the strategy that an amenity-rich environment is going to draw people back to work,’” Jordan Goldstein, an architect and managing principal for Gensler, tells WIRED.
Photograph: Garrett Rowland/Gensler
Despite the enduring popularity of remote and hybrid work, many corporations have embraced plans for new office headquarters, campuses, and buildings, remaining convinced that employees need to return to the office to sustain high levels of productivity and feel connected to their company culture (or just to control their workforce, depending on who you ask).
The first phase of Amazon’s second headquarters is scheduled to open in Arlington, Virginia, in the third quarter of this year (though construction of the second half has been indefinitely delayed). Apple is still planning a new campus in Durham, North Carolina. And while Google is planning to give up some leased office space, it still intends to break ground this year on a massive San Jose office and residential project.
But with employees well aware of—and often in love with—their newfound ability to work from home, projects like those now have to meet new criteria: how to make the office a place that people—like you, in your hypothetical Bethesda existence—actually want to go to, even when they don’t have to.
The answer, so far, involves adding design features and perks that try to be more meaningful than those of the prepandemic recent past. Open floor plans filled with a sea of desks are out. Private meeting spaces and flexible one-person offices are in. Planners like to talk about “amenity-rich environments,” meaning not just pool tables and office snacks but more practical offerings such as abundant private offices and meeting spaces, gyms, dentists, retail, and childcare.
They’re all wrapped inside structures that more often feature natural light and outdoor space, sit at a central urban location, welcome the surrounding community on at least the ground floor, provide services outside the traditional remit of employer benefits, and offer flexible ways of working rather than an array of desks. The overall package, architects say, should produce a feeling of comfort—even luxury—in the office that competes with that of staying at home.
“Going to the workplace should be more convenient than it is to work from home, so that the workplace earns its commute,” says Grant Kanik, a partner and workplace consultant for architects Foster and Partners, which led the design for Apple’s headquarters, Apple Park. “I call it corporate-to-comfy,” says Brian Parker, principal of the Interiors Studio at Cooper Carry, a firm that designed the State Farm office campus in Georgia and had been tapped to work on Microsoft’s potential Atlanta headquarters before the plan was paused.
Before the pandemic, office buildings and campuses were often constructed almost to a formula, Parker says. The number of employees, percentage of different types of jobs, and predictions about future headcount growth went in one end; out the other came the number of desks and square feet required. Function ruled over form. The design work could even be boring.
Under that model, most offices were structured with about 80 percent of usable, functional floor space for desks and 20 percent for meeting rooms. Designers spent most of their time drawing floor plans with different iterations of desks and offices and tucking conference rooms into the corners. Even before the pandemic, it wasn’t unusual for a third or even half of all desk space to go unused during parts of the day, Kanik says. Companies that did manage to heavily use their space often did so at the expense of making workers feel packed into the open floor plan.
“Something wasn’t working,” says Janet Pogue McLaurin, global director of workplace research at Gensler, who identifies the same sense of pre-2020 formulaic malaise as Parker. “The pandemic provided an opportunity to rethink all that,” she says.
With clients more open to new ideas and taking the time to craft each building for maximum flexibility, specific company needs, and worker appeal, designers and planners see this moment as a rare chance to implement more of their ideals and training. “The overall palette has gotten much richer in terms of what architects and designers are looking at and designing with,” says Goldstein of Gensler.
Even furniture and furnishings can now be more creative, as designers and clients try to compete with home environments. For the Marriott headquarters, many of the pandemic-prompted design changes revolved around furniture rather than the actual building chassis. Office projects in general now often include more money to spend on furniture. “The shift in budget allocation on a workplace project for furniture is unbelievable,” says Parker of Cooper Carry. “It’s so much broader than putting in some chairs and tables.”
Office supply companies that once focused on white desks and wheelie chairs have responded to the demand. Steelcase, one of the largest corporate furniture suppliers, has now acquired the rights to sell more than twenty “ancillary” hotel and home furniture brands to make offices more homey. Furniture from those brands, including West Elm and a collection designed in collaboration with the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, now makes up the majority of the company’s offerings.
The death of the cookie-cutter office space has also led companies to bring employees into the design process. Gensler will eventually build a 750,000-square-foot headquarters for CoStar, a commercial real estate company in Richmond, Virginia, but first the architects must gather data from employees about their preferences for meetings, training, workplace technology, health, and wellness, a practice rarely embraced by companies before the pandemic but now common across such projects.
That companies feel they must reinvent the office to lure back workers raises a more fundamental question: Why bother building these structures at all?
All of the architects and designers WIRED spoke with—who, to be sure, have a vested interest in office-centric work—responded to that question in a similar way. Yes, the pandemic proved that businesses can successfully operate remotely. But these planners believe that without a gathering space for a company to relay its values and build employee relationships, people become disconnected from their work. Companies need a physical space to define themselves. “The workplace is really the three-dimensional manifestation of your organization,” says Kanik of Foster and Partners. “It is the physical embodiment of your brand.”
Of course, proof that these new concepts for office life are more sustainable than the old depends on people actually showing up. No “post-pandemic” building has been open for more than a few months, and no architect, no matter their design genius, can be sure they’ve figured out how to draw workers away from the comforts of working from home.