The office will never be the same

A glimpse at the future of work.
purple monochrome photo modern sparse office
COVID-19 has accelerated our move towards the modern office. Laura Davidson
purple banner reading the modern office with icons of office life
Icons by Maria Kislitsina Design by Sara Chodosh

In The Modern Office, PopSci gives readers a glimpse into the workplace of the future, from seismic COVID-era shifts in our built environment to the long-awaited demise of the 9-to-5.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic immediately altered when, where, and how we work, and more changes are yet to come. As public health officials have come to understand more about the novel coronavirus, it’s become increasingly clear that our offices, our most common commute strategies, and even our elevator rides can contribute to the spread of this deadly disease. But protecting people from the ravages of COVID while still processing invoices and running meetings is a tricky balance, and one we’re only just beginning to strike.

The typical American workday is already radically different than it was in February: The percentage of employees in the US working remotely full-time rocketed from just 5.2 percent before the pandemic to roughly 50 percent at its peak in May. At home, workers are juggling deadlines, children, pets, and the stress of a mass casualty event. They’ve given up commutes and conference rooms to keep each other safe. But what comes next? We spoke with experts in management, design, and cognitive science about workplace trends of the near past and future, and how they might factor into our return to a new normal.

What does a healthier office look like?

purple monochrome photo open office plan
Open offices aren’t just unproductive, they’re unhealthy. Marc Mueller

Perhaps the biggest change to the office will be the number of people working in it at any given time. Despite its grand proclamations about a remote work future, Facebook began calling select workers back into the office after the Fourth of July, according to Business Insider. But employees work in shifts to ensure the building remains at just 25 percent capacity. Even those on site on any given day must practice social distancing, with limits on the number of people in meeting rooms, “grab and go” meals replacing the communal cafeteria, and work stations spaced 6 feet apart. In other words, the social network’s offices likely won’t feel very friendly for some time.

To limit the spread of COVID-19, employers across the country are considering new strategies for socially distant elevator rides, upgraded air filters, and hygienic cubicle barriers. Tech for in-office contract-tracing—smartphone apps, for example, that track which employees interact, where, and for how long—could soon be worth $4 billion annually in the US, according to market research company International Data Corporation. The lobby of the future likely “resembles an airport security checkpoint,” according to the New York Times, with facial recognition, touchless entry, and health screenings creating “a kind of no-fly list.” The number of available and proposed new gadgets and gizmos grows everyday as sanitation-minded startups race to meet demand.

Despite the challenges, some of these pandemic-era changes could bring about long-awaited innovations in office design. Anja Jamrozik is a cognitive scientist who studies both physical and digital domains. In her research, she’s found that small things, like proximity to daylight and a good view, can have a profound effect on people’s workday well-being, as well as their sleep and emotional state outside the office.

For example, “when people are experiencing noise, especially speech, it’s very distracting to people’s work,” Jamrozik says. While few people enjoy a perfectly quiet space—the background din of a coffee shop or the artificial buzz of a white noise machine is helpful to many employees—an excess of these sounds, and especially crystal clear conversation, are disruptive to many. But current popular office layouts have often flagrantly disregarded these basic needs. “So many offices have moved to this open-office concept, where there are no specialized areas, and people are generally unhappy with that,” Jamrozik says.

Historically, “[m]uch of modernist architecture can be understood as a consequence of the fear of disease,” writes Kyle Chayka in The New Yorker. Tuberculosis sanatoriums of the late 19th century were designed to maximize fresh air, sunlight, and minimalist interiors, all of which doctors believed would heal patients. In turn, we designed our homes and offices much like sanatoriums, with big windows illuminating our sparkling white space. More recently, office layouts have prioritized cost-effectiveness, eliminating private offices in favor of open floor plans that maximize the number of workers who can fit into a tiny space. Architects are now designing with infection in mind once again, but the coronavirus—and our enhanced understanding of disease transmission—demands something different.

While open-office floor plans have long been touted as a way to encourage collaboration, studies suggest they actually have the opposite effect—with face-to-face interactions plummeting in open spaces, replaced by electronic interactions, like email or instant messaging. Now, these layouts also seem potentially deadly—the very opposite of social distancing. As companies reconsider their conventional best practices, researchers say they have an opportunity to think not just about cleanliness, but worker satisfaction.

What makes a space into a workspace?

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Home offices may become the norm. Mikey Harris

Since at least the early 1970s, when former NASA engineer Jack Nilles coined the term “telecommuting,” employees have eagerly anticipated the promise of widespread remote work. But the pandemic may finally make this dream a reality. Everyone who can is working from home, and even when it’s safe to return, 53 percent of Americans say they’ll be reluctant to go back to the office full-time.

Timothy Golden, a professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, has been studying remote work for 20 years. Initially, he says, telecommuting was about reducing the burden of commuting on employees and their communities by keeping people out of overtaxed transit systems. But people liked the policy for other reasons. “Employees generally tend to like choice,” Golden says. It can help them pursue hobbies and curate free time. It can also make things like childcare and eldercare simpler, though these responsibilities are always tough to balance, especially when schools are closed. And logging on from home got easier and easier to do with the rise of smartphones and workplace apps.

Today, “it’s hard to find a large company that doesn’t have some form of policy,” Golden says. “Telecommuting is almost a signal to employees to say, ‘Hey, we care about you, and we’d like to accommodate your needs and desires,’” he adds. “If you don’t have a telecommuting program, it’s almost the converse…[a] signal that you don’t care.” In one study, researchers showed that just having the option to telecommute increases engagement, which is shorthand for an employee’s commitment to their organization and motivation to succeed.

But remote work can be a double-edged sword. It may give employees better work-life balance, but Golden says it also requires them to “to carefully manage their home environment.” Establishing a routine is crucial. Each day needs a defined start—and a clear ending—or you might end up burning out. People still need to find a way to bond with their colleagues virtually to have functional working relationships and a sense of solidarity. And at-home workers need a separate space, no matter how small, to get down to business. Ideally, this creates some sense of separation from your roommates (including a spouse or children), and screens out distractions like TV.

Telecommuting won’t work for everyone in the long run: Some people do their best work in the office, others get lonely at home, and some jobs—like the hardware designers and operations managers who are already back at Facebook HQ—simply demand substantive in-person time.

But for those companies that will continue to have employees working remotely, Golden says formal telecommute policies—and remote work training programs to help people put those policies into practice—will be essential. To prevent frustrating and burnout, managers need to work with their charges to develop written agreements that outline, among other things, when employees will be available—and when they won’t.

How could we restructure the work week?

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If you don’t need to commute, your work week could look very different. Eric Prouzet

The American work week has always been in flux. But without a commute—another casualty of COVID—it stands to change even more.

Before the pandemic, few companies offered total flexibility. In 2018, Erica Coslor, a senior lecturer in marketing and management at the University of Melbourne, and her colleague Edward Hyatt published an analysis of how government employees in the U.S. responded to a three-month pilot program where they worked four days a week, but for 10 hours at a stretch. The researchers found that 65 percent of staff were generally satisfied with the situation. But despite their short-term reports, it may have negatively impacted them in the long-run: “A drawback for everybody—and that included people who approved of the program—was fatigue,” Coslor says. On a 4/10 schedule, employees appeared to take more sick days than before.

The middling success of the program fits with earlier findings. In 2008, researchers at Brigham Young University found that employees reported feeling more productive on a 4/10 schedule and having fewer work-family conflicts than those who remained on a more traditional schedule. But workers with a compressed work week experienced no real change in overall job satisfaction, which is typically one of an organization’s primary goal when shifting schedules.

Researchers aren’t sure why this disconnect persists. But part of it may be about an employee’s sense of control over their own time. The people in Coslor’s study were, in the words of ABC News in Australia, “forced to be flexible.” Their companies decided on a compressed work week, instead of empowering employees to create their own truly flexible schedule. When employees felt their managers did a good job transitioning the staff to a new routine, Colsor’s research indicates, they were more receptive to the program.

Coslor thinks that truly flexible hours could alleviate some of these issues. Employees who spend three to four days a week working outside the office are the most engaged, according to Gallup. They often have a smaller environmental footprint. And they may be healthier than employees working more rigid 9 to 5s: At least four studies have shown improvements in metrics like blood pressure, sleep quality, and social support among employees with flexible schedules.

Flexible hours aren’t a silver bullet. Employees actually tend to work more when they have control over their own schedule. Heejung Chung, a sociologist at the University of Kent who has researched this phenomenon, thinks it might be a case of “gift exchange theory”—people treat their flex time as a gift from their employer, and want to return the favor with hard work and dedication. It’s also possible that when people aren’t in the same room as their boss from 9 to 5, they find other—potentially destructive—ways to make up for what they perceive as their own slacking. Researchers have linked this “always on” work culture to anxiety, depression, and stress.

But if companies are transparent in their policies, and workers can ask for the support and structure they need, the pandemic may bring about the remote work culture many American office workers have been dreaming up for decades.

What is vacation with nowhere to go?

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Traveling to a tropical beach for vacation is a lot harder now. Ethan Robertson

Americans have always been terrible at taking vacations. In 2018, they left 768 million days of paid time off on the table. This is all in one of a few developed nations that doesn’t even guarantee paid time off (PTO) in the first place. The problem is only magnified by the pandemic: Even if workers took their days off, they’d have nowhere to go.

Giving employees unlimited time off, as Netflix did starting in 2004, might seem like a good way to encourage vacations in some form or another. But Kenneth Matos, senior director of research at the Families and Work Institute, told ThinkProgress in 2015 that it doesn’t really work that way. “With unlimited vacation it’s blurrier,” he said. “How much are you missing out; could you have taken more; should you have taken more; what’s your benchmark for taking time? It becomes a lot more of your own emotional ability to manage your time boundaries versus demands made of you on your job.”

In 2017, the human resources company Namely published its annual “mythbusters” report, which analyzes data from 125,000 employees to evaluate how studies, surveys, and business promises stack up. It found that employees actually took less PTO under an unstructured plan. Business researchers attribute this to “choice overload”—the cognitive burden placed on an employee when they’re asked to choose between, well, unlimited options. The loosey-goosey policy had other downsides, too: Employees on an unlimited plan typically aren’t compensated for unused vacation days if and when they leave their company.

When Robert Sweeney, an entrepreneur and former Netflix software engineer, started his own company, Facet, a staffing start-up for the tech industry, he decided to do things differently. Instead of an unlimited vacation policy, in late 2019 Facet implemented a minimum vacation policy that requires every employee to take five weeks (25 days) off each year. If they want or need more, they can negotiate with their managers. But one way or another, Sweeney says they have to meet the minimum—even in the pandemic. A few other start-ups, like Authentic Jobs, Buffer, and Balsamiq have made headlines for their own mandatory vacation plans. The idea has yet to go mainstream, however.

Facet’s policy is still in its early days, but Sweeney says he hopes to see several major changes. He wants his employees to be healthy and capable of being creative. He wants to ensure that managers can’t overschedule employees, and that employees aren’t wholly dependent on their managers for achieving work-life balance. And he hopes to reduce attrition. By creating an environment where everyone feels rested and ready to work, Sweeney thinks employees will be more likely to stick around.

Vacation days are harder than ever to use, as the pandemic has brought long-distance travel to a standstill. But you don’t have to jet to a foreign beach to reap the many rewards of some time off. Instead of hoarding their days with the hope that everything suddenly returns to normal, employees would be better off using vacation time on smaller trips, “staycations,” hobbies, and home improvement. Research suggests even a few days off can help you catch up on sleep, which can improve memory, regulate blood pressure and glucose, and, crucially, stave off burnout. It’s no week-long retreat to the Bahamas, but time to lounge around the house or play video games can offer a much-needed reprieve from the churn of remote work.

Which perks actually make people happy?

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Lounge spaces and free food are only helpful if you actually go into an office. Croissant

For many tech workers, the pre-pandemic office was a wonderland. Mini golf, on-site laundry, and lunch prepared by Michelin-starred chefs with kombucha on tap were just some of the perks that companies like LinkedIn, Google, and Dropbox were using to lure top-tier employees. But leaving those in the past might not be a bad thing.

Even as perks have grown more common (and more elaborate) over the last few decades, many Americans have remained discontented with their jobs. Only 34 percent of workers reported they were “actively engaged” in their work, according to a 2018 Gallup poll. A full 13 percent were “actively disengaged,” and the rest fell somewhere in between.

It’s no surprise perks haven’t increased performance or engagement, says Neel Doshi, co-author of Primed to Perform: How to Build the Highest Performing Cultures Through the Science of Total Motivation. Most leaders “use various forms of sticks and carrots to create motivation to drive performance,” he says. This includes the traditional schemes, like raises for good work (a carrot) or the threat of firing for poor behavior (a stick). But it can also include more modern concepts, like guilt over making use of the company’s unlimited vacation policy or valet parking at the office. While the carrots are increasingly colorful, Doshi says “motivation is a lot more complex.”

Drawing on the work of psychologists like Richard Ryan and Edward Deci at the University of Rochester, Doshi identifies two types of motivators: direct and indirect. Direct motivation includes play (the things you naturally find fun), purpose (the ability to see your contributions have an immediate effect), and potential (the belief in a longer-term goal). Indirect motivation, by contrast, includes emotional pressure (think guilt or FOMO), economic pressure (the desire to be rewarded and avoid punishment), and inertia (when you mindlessly keep going).

Many organizations are oriented around indirect motivators. That’s fine when all you need from employees is what Doshi and his co-author Lindsay McGregor call “tactical performance”—the kind of tasks that follow a script, keeping things simple and efficient. But if you need more of the quick-thinking, creative, and spontaneous work that Doshi and McGregor call “adaptive performance,” indirect motivators will destroy your employees.

Unfortunately, even when companies have tried to create a sense of fun or purpose, they’ve often taken an indirect approach. “To serve play, organizations give you a ping-pong table,” Doshi says. “To serve purpose, they give you a mission statement.” But play, purpose, and potential need to come from the work itself.

By continuing to focus on indirect motivators, no matter how cool, companies may be inadvertently contributing to a culture of dissatisfaction, high turnover, and burnout. Instead of stocking a bar or installing scooters in the office, Doshi says they need to make sure that employees have jobs that are varied and interesting enough to excite play, feel purposeful enough that no one is easily expendable, and make everyone believe that they and the company are both headed somewhere big.

The pandemic may offer employers an opportunity to reorient workplaces around employees’ true desires. “Maintaining a life outside of work—that’s a real perk,” says Sweeney, the founder of Facet, a start-up connecting tech workers with industry employers. Everyone wants more flexibility in their schedules, both in the hours they keep and the places they can work from. Millennials want more benefits in the form of student loan repayment, reasonable maternity leave, and professional development, according to Gallup. And a survey of 1,614 North American workers found the number one “perk” is not free lunch, but natural light.

These motivators are a mix of direct and indirect. But all of them suggest that rather than playing foosball in the office after dark, employees want to go home at the end of the day with the resources and support they need to live their lives right.