The Future Of The Office

by Fredric Hamber

Jensen Architects transformed an old printing factory in Jackson Square into Next World Group’s 9,000-squarefoot workspace. The colorful collab mixes open space with defined areas for those seeking a quiet corner.

The pandemic accelerated a much-needed evolution of where we typically spend most of our time. Now that the future is here, what exactly does it look like?

Ever since William Hewlett and David Packard began collaborating in a one-car garage in Palo Alto, considered the “Birthplace of Silicon Valley,” San Francisco and Peninsula workspaces have been places of creative innovation, from co-working startup “incubators” to the tech campuses of Mountain View to the Salesforce Tower.

Lately the pandemic has turned white-collar workers of all industries into part-time amateur space planners and interior designers, contemplating questions we’d never considered. How to set up one’s environment for video conferencing while being mindful of what will appear in the background? How to carve out private space and participate in virtual meetings when living with roommates, spouses or children who may be conducting their own meetings within earshot? Those are the challenges of home offices. But what about office offices? To the extent that workers may be requested or required to return to company headquarters in the coming months, how will those spaces be designed, configured and utilized differently than in the past? We’ve turned to a few experts in the field to learn what trends the future holds.

In the neighborhood

A return to 100 percent full-time office work, with individually assigned desks for each team member complete with a photo of a loved one or pet is a thing of the past, says Kelly Dubisar, who works with technology clients in her role as a design director at Gensler. Free address, also known as “hot desking,” is a trend the pandemic has accelerated, whereby a particular desk is reserved same-day, on-demand. But the key to implementing free address, Dubisar says, is “by neighborhood, so you’re with your people. You’re not coming into the office and walking around with your laptop trying to hunt to find an open desk.” She likens it to homeroom in elementary school. “You might travel to another room for a certain class but you would always come back to your specific group of people,” she continues. “But within that group of people, your desk could move around. You might have a variety of vantage points.” Dubisar co-authored a Gensler white paper about the Connected Workplace with renderings of walls used as digital dashboards that show trending conversations and team members attending meetings via 3D avatars.

According to Mark Jensen, there will also be a focus on designing the experience of “multiple reality” meetings, where some participants are gathered in person and others are participating virtually. The founder of Jensen Architects suggests that although there is a technological and interior architectural component, “the real thing that we’re going to be confronted with is behaviors and procedures and protocols,” he says. “You could even call it manners: how you interact with your colleagues in a way that’s productive and respectful and equitable.”

More gathering spaces

Global design firm IDEO called on Jensen to help reenvision their workspaces at San Francisco’s Pier 28. “There’s going to be this whole new taxonomy of space types that were starting to appear prepandemic, but are going to become fundamental to how offices work,” he says. “It’s all the stuff between the desk and the conference room. Increasingly, spaces will start to mimic spaces you’d find in a house: There’s a living room, there’s a dining room, there’s a kitchen, there’s an entry foyer, a study, a den, a craft room, a family room.”

The reason for this, Dubisar concurs, is that if companies are requiring employees to return to a shared space, they need to ask — and answer — the question: Why? And the answers will have to do with the value of collaboration. “People recognize the magic that happens when we all come together. But what it looks like physically could be very different depending on each company and their culture, their values.”

How do culture and values get translated into tangible design solutions? The faculty at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford, known as the d.School, are experts at just such skills. Sarah Stein Greenberg, the d.School’s executive director, is author of Creative Acts for Curious People: How to Think, Create and Lead in Unconventional Ways, published in September by Ten Speed Press. “Many people get stuck in routines because their space isn’t designed to be flexible,” she writes. “But even in the most formal conference room, you can shift the dynamic and alter how people relate to each other in that space. The easiest trick? Remove all the chairs.” Try that and watch how mixing and mingling happens as participants’ brains follow the body’s lead in being less sedentary.

The physical spaces we interact with every day “play a role in shaping our feelings and experiences,” writes Stein Greenberg. “For instance, a window that gives you a sense of control, a light that restores your good mood.” Case in point: In the redesign of a former printing factory in Jackson Square for the European financial services company that now occupies the space, Jensen installed color-changing LEDs tucked into the skylights to gently glow, rather than reflect as dark mirrors, during evening hours.

Tomorrow’s conference room, as rendered by Gensler, is reminiscent of home. The open, inviting space incorporates new ways for employees to collaborate and connect.

… And more non-gathering spaces

Phone booths may make a comeback as call rooms within offices as people remember that not every conversation needs to be accompanied by sharing screens and faces. “We’re seeing an increase in hyper-focused spaces,” Dubisar says. “A lot of people can’t focus at home. We have a ton of designers and young people who live with multiple people. Being able to come to the office and support that type of focus is equally important to the coming-together, gathering, socialization, cultural spaces.”

Outside elements

The Gensler team advises that an emphasis on well-being and outdoor spaces will increasingly be a part of office designs going forward. “Revitalized rooftops are one of the biggest rediscovered opportunities in real estate development,” says Dubisar. “Another alternative is to reconsider underutilized plazas or the space between the sidewalk and a building’s entrance.”

To bring a feel of the outdoors to an indoor space, Marin-based technology and content company cFire specializes in LED screen displays and 3D mixed reality, covering entire walls with immersive slow-moving videos of places like redwood forests, Western ranches or beach waves filmed in high-resolution by their global network of videographers. “The point is to bring calm into this urban chaos, bring a sense of connection,” says CEO Peter Sapienza. “It’s biophilic design.”

Jensen points out that “you can talk about the design of the physical office, but where it is, the context of that office in the local economy, socially, culturally, economically, affects that office” and willingness of workers to return. San Francisco had a high density of offices concentrated in a small downtown area that used to be bustling but is now experiencing blight, whereas “neighborhoods that have a mix of housing, commercial and restaurants, they’ve actually done quite well and seem to be bouncing back.”

A final thought comes from Daniel McCoy, who has consulted with Genentech on workforce commute issues, and says lately he has been “haunted by” an E.M. Forster short story, “The Machine Stops”: “It envisions this dystopian future where everyone lives in their own little cube or pod,” he summarizes. “Everything is brought to the individual virtually or provided by the machine. Slowly the machine starts to break down because no one knows how to fix it because everyone is becoming less and less capable. Collaboration between human beings and the energy that is created in interpersonal relationships that exist in real time in real life — that is fundamentally human, and we cannot give that up.”

Gensler In Memoriam

The architectural design world lost a beloved icon in May with the death at age 85 of M. Arthur Gensler, Jr., founder of the global firm bearing his name. The first Apple stores, Shanghai Tower, San Francisco Airport’s Terminals T2 and T3, and Moscone West are just some of the properties he put his stamp on during a remarkable 65-year career (chronicled by the Gazette’s Catherine Bigelow in her profile of Gensler in the March 2018 issue of the magazine).

As an architect and entrepreneur, Art Gensler made his mark on landscapes and locales now familiar to so many, like SFO Terminal 2 and Moscone West.

To his employees, Gensler was the colleague who showed up to work early each day, wheeling his briefcase to his office. He was a man of humility who referred to his role at the firm as “ just the founder.” Scott Dunlap, managing principal for Gensler’s Northwest region, who has worked at the company since 1986, shared insights on Gensler as a boss and a leader, including his early first impressions of ”how approachable and collegial he was,” Dunlap recalls. “Pretense was not in his vocabulary. Art was always providing mentorship, but he would also say that he was always learning at the same time. Art taught us to focus on two things: our clients and our people.”

Terminal 2

Gensler was also a “stickler for detail,” Dunlap notes. “It was not uncommon for him to stop by somebody’s desk, look over their shoulder and ask what they were working on.” His questions were from a client’s perspective, such as about maintenance or how the window washer would get to a particular spot on a building.

Dunlap says it was remarkable how Gensler adapted to and embraced new technologies. “Art stayed current. He wandered around and did meetings through an iPad. In the early months of the year he was using Zoom and [Microsoft] Teams just like anybody else.”

Moscone West

A longstanding company tradition at Gensler is the December Appointments Ceremony, “where we recognized new associates, senior associates and principals,” says Dunlap. “Art would be the first one in the room and in the first seat of the front row. He loved the recognition of our people and he knew most by name.”

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