Guest Post by Andy Roscoe, Eastern Regional President at Project Management Advisors, Inc.

Prior to the pandemic, workplace amenities tended to center around social and recreational activities. The higher-end office worker of 2019 could enjoy gyms, lounges, happy hours, snacks and, occasionally, free or subsidized lunches as perks to offset the mandatory five days a week they spent at work.

But after three years of remote and hybrid work, many companies looking to bring their people back into the office are finding that the amenities and design trends of the past are no longer hitting the mark for employees. At the offices of some of the world’s biggest tech companies—where many of the past amenity trends originated—there are new ideas about how employers can create space to better accommodate the needs of the post-pandemic workforce.

These early adopters are now promoting amenities that provide a myriad of options for optimizing individual productivity and comfort in the office. They are looking for new ways to make the social aspects of work a productivity driver, rather than an on-site distraction and a differentiator between the office and your home. They’re also thinking about how flexibility comes alive in the often-inflexible restrictions of office space.

Work today doesn’t only happen at the office, or between the hours of 9 and 5. It may not even happen Monday to Friday. The pandemic’s erasure of workplace norms has introduced many more complicated factors into workplace development, when attendance can boom and bust day-to-day and workers have more power to demand individualized options. With the future of work still very much up for debate, corporate real estate teams have to make their best guess on where attitudes are trending, and design office space accordingly.

As a partner to many of the world’s biggest tech companies, we have noticed some interesting trends in the ways employers are creating their spaces to better accommodate the needs of a post-pandemic workforce. Workspaces are being reimagined with flexibility and a hybrid-first model in mind, creating a blueprint for what the future of the office may look like for many in a few short years.

Musical Chairs: Workspace Customization for Productivity

As employees begin to trickle back into the office a few days a week, many companies are intentionally optimizing their floorplans by adding new kinds of seating and workspaces within the confines of the office. From traditional open-plan desks to couches, focus rooms, phone booths and outdoor lounge areas, it seems larger companies are beginning to realize that a one-size-fits-all approach to office seating hinders productivity. And with flexibility being the primary driver of office renovations, starting with furniture is a wise choice to prevent potentially expensive development blunders.

When an office has a multitude of areas where people can work, employees can tailor the space they use based on their personal preferences, as well as the kind of work they need to get done at any given time. While an extraverted employee may usually thrive in a collaborative environment with lots of social interaction, when the time comes to put together an annual report, having the option to retreat to a library-type area where they can focus without distraction is essential. Likewise, an introverted employee who is comfortable working from their living room sofa may feel more at home at the office if they are given the option to work from a quiet and comfy couch with a nice view.

Additionally, we are seeing a lot of collaborative spaces being created outside of conference rooms, so that employees can connect and debrief both before and after meetings. Often it’s within this time – and not in the meeting itself – that the most creative and innovation-driving solutions are born, which is something that’s just not possible within the context of a Zoom meeting.

Based on what we’re seeing from some of these larger tech companies, the office of the future will look and feel a lot more like a private members club, with an array of plush seating options that can be rearranged to create different kinds of spaces depending on the day. This is an optimal set up for a hybrid work model, as not every employee is going to be coming in daily and those who do come in may want to work from somewhere other than a desk. By providing a range of seating options and furniture arrangements, companies are demonstrating that they have learned from the pandemic that employees work best when their needs are taken into consideration. Having a hybrid working model should mean more than just the ability to work from home – it also means having the choice of where to work when in the office. This focus on workspace flexibility is a differentiator for employees who are tired of the same-old scenery in their home office, and it may very well drive them back into the office.

Quiet as a Commodity

Given the flexible nature of post-COVID office design and what is likely to be the enduring popularity of a hybrid working model, the need for quiet space within the office is more important now than ever before. In the past, most meetings would take place in person, but today, Zoom rules the roost. Even employees working from the office are likely to jump on a few different video conferencing calls every day, whether that’s to connect with clients across the country or chat with colleagues working remotely. Additionally, while providing employees with an array of different areas in which to work, eat lunch or connect in person is good for their productivity, it does require companies to provide ample areas where noise is not an issue.

We are seeing a lot of big companies building phone booths, focus rooms, library spaces and reservable offices or conference rooms to ensure that employees always have a quiet place to make a call or work without distraction. Many companies are converting space previously occupied by large copy machines or printers—which are falling by the wayside with renewed environmental focus—into small, soundproof rooms with doors that shut.

After spending more than two years working exclusively from their homes, where loud neighbors, doorbell rings, unruly pets and playful children often interrupted even the most serious meetings, offices with dedicated quiet space can be a respite for employees tired of the constant distractions. When it comes to enticing employees back into the office, we believe companies that consider quiet as a commodity will have the edge over offices that stick with the predominantly open plan seating of the past. While we are likely never going to get back to a five-days-in-the-office model – which is objectively a good thing for employees and employers alike – companies can’t exist in workplace limbo forever. The value of the office on a company’s culture and ability to bring together talent has been proven, but how much space each company needs is still up for debate. Until companies mandate return-to-office and a solid strategy, flexibility is the best bet for making the most of the space they have and planning for the space they need in the future.

Andy Roscoe is Eastern Regional President at Project Management Advisors, Inc.