Is the emerging workplace still urban in a post COVID-19 world?
Information technology has not replaced the value of cities as workplaces
by Andrew Laing PhD
Laing re-examines the trends he identified in 2014 towards dense, collaborative technology-enabled urban workplaces or ‘work-scapes’. He argues that the post-pandemic workplace will reinforce those pre-existing trends but will, nevertheless, result in stronger preferences for certain kind of building types and urban areas. Four scales of impacts are explored: the shift to home working; changes to the office workplace; changes to building types; and the evolution of the urban ‘work-scape’. Cities will continue to provide unmatched value as workplaces but our ways of working and living in them will be different.
In my 2014 Work&Place article[i] , ‘The emerging workplace is urban’, I argued that the scale of the workplace was shifting to be urban; that our focus should no longer be on the office but on the city at large. I also argued then that our focus should not only be on the older form of bricks and mortar urbanism, but on the new kind of physical city that is imbued with information and connectivity, a powerful combination of the physical and the digital.
Is that shift to an urban ‘work-scape’ likely to continue? Or, in a COVID-19 world, or even in a post-COVID-19 world, if we dare to imagine it, do our concepts of work, workplace, technology and the city need to be re-imagined yet again?
To get a sense of where we might be going, I’ve looked mostly at articles in the press during the pandemic. In this speculative update to the 2014 article, I argue that the directions of change identified back then are still largely in place; they are even likely to be intensified as a result of our responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the logic of how this will play out is not straightforward; there are significant counter-vailing tendencies.
During the pandemic, people have indeed pulled away from cities, out of necessity, avoiding high density, physical collaboration and shared spaces. But, in the longer term, these countervailing tendencies will be overcome by the continued, attractive centripetal pull of cities that provide an unmatched value for working.
Nevertheless, the ways we work in cities, and the quantities and kinds of spaces and buildings that we occupy, will be radically different than in the recent past. Certain kinds of urban areas and building types seem likely to perform better than others.
In 2014, the direction of change seemed to be towards what I called ‘collaborative urban work-scapes’
- Urban workplaces / workspaces that are hybrid, mixed use, connected and permeable – the opposite of twentieth-century Modernist ideas of strict segregation and zoning of activities in monolithic single-use buildings and areas.
- More flexible and dynamic ways of procuring, obtaining, and using space facilitated by information technology – ways that challenge the traditional supply and demand economy of office real estate.
- Continued evolution of mobile patterns of working and using technology.
The idea of an urban scale to the workplace was driven by the recognition that work was no longer contained within the confines of the ‘office’ prescribed by the iron rules of the old ‘clockwork’ city of centralized commuting. Single-use office buildings were being replaced by fluid and diverse modes of accommodating how and where work takes place.
The ‘clockwork’ city of centralized commuting and single-use office buildings was being replaced by fluid and diverse modes of accommodating how and where work takes place.
Yet, even as work has become dispersed, certain kinds of dense urban areas will continue to be the key places where people want to work and live, attracted to the volume, vibrancy, diversity, and range of activities, talent, and amenities available only in cities.
Even large-scale workplaces created outside of the city (Google at Mountain View, California, or the Apple Park headquarters building at Cupertino, California, for example) have been designed to replicate dense urban environments, full of places to meet and mingle.
I argued in 2014 that dense, networked, complicated urban areas would remain attractors for living and working, even in an increasingly virtualized world.
Challenges to dense urban ‘work-scapes’
How has the pandemic challenged these former directions of change?
- Public health requirements of social distancing encourage lower density patterns of space use supported by unprecedented levels of working from home (remote working).
- The experience of remote working has improved with advances in information technology.
- The traditional office model of full-time daily occupancy for most employees will no longer be required.
- Re-designing offices for ‘safe’ working conditions during the pandemic, at least until most of the population is vaccinated, is likely to entail low density and isolated working conditions within office buildings, thus contradicting the advantages of proximity that office work is intended to provide.
On the other hand:
- Many people report that working from home in pandemic conditions has been unpleasant. They long for a more social and interactive work life in workplaces away from the home, at least for part of the time. [ii]
- The efficacy of information technology to emulate face-to-face collaboration is not yet good enough; it remains a second-best experience especially for ad hoc, serendipitous, and informal styles of working.
Re-considering scales of work in urban ‘work-scapes’
One way to get beyond the overly simple dichotomy of home versus office workplaces, is to look again at scales of working, and to reconsider the advantages of the concept of the urban ‘work-scape’ in the transition to a post COVID-19 workplace.
As background for the 2014 article, I had researched technology firms in New York that were making the kinds of Apps designed to improve how we live and work, Apps that, in a sense, made urban living redundant when everything you need can be provided through online services. Yet, the irony was that the tech firms and their workers seemed to particularly value working (and living) in dense urban areas, taking advantage of the benefits of serendipity, access to talent, and the multiple forms of collaboration made possible by working in the Flatiron district or Chelsea in New York.
And it seems that they still do: in Manhattan at least, large tech firms have been buying up office space even during the pandemic[iii]. Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google all added jobs in New York City, with Facebook adding enough space to triple its current local work force. Apple was adding another building and Google and Amazon are continuing to expand their urban campuses.
These firms presume that their famous culture of ‘meetups’ will flourish in a post-pandemic world, it won’t have been replaced by virtual equivalents.
Yet it is unlikely that the old forms of office occupancy and office work will remain unchanged. Let’s examine some of the key changes and how they may play out across the scales of working – from the home to the city:
- the shift to home working;
- changes to the office workplace;
- changes to building types; and
- evolution of the urban ‘work-scape’
THE SHIFT TO HOME WORKING
The debate about the benefits and dis-benefits of working from home has been accelerated by the pandemic as it forced so many more people to work from home, many in less-than-ideal circumstances. Only ten percent of office workers were reporting to work in their New York offices in late October 2020 [iv]. The grand experiment has proved that many people can certainly work from home with reasonable productivity and effectiveness but often do so under stress and in household situations that are often not suitable [v] [vi].
Simon Jenkins reported [vii] that after the first UK lockdown, most workers said they wanted to split time between work at home and at the office; they found that their creativity and teamwork were diluted when working from home. Yet, the benefits of working from home for many people (if not all) are evident in the commuting avoided, in reduced environmental impact, in the gain of time for family life, and in greater work/life satisfaction. Yet many homeworkers miss the sociability and wellbeing benefits of face-to-face interactions. Businesses miss the advantages of increased creativity, innovation, and culture building associated with physically interactive working.
Businesses miss the advantages of increased creativity, innovation, and culture building associated with physically interactive working.
The best solutions for many people will be some combination of working from home as well as working outside the home for part of their work life [viii]. A spectrum of degrees of remote working and working in offices or other kinds of workplaces is likely to suit the varying needs of businesses and individuals.
CHANGES TO THE OFFICE WORKPLACE
People are unlikely to want to go back to the office as it was, assuming the gradual rollout of COVID-19 vaccinations is successfully completed. Having experienced working from home, office workers will expect much more flexibility. Petersen [ix] argues that the spectrum of office solutions will vary from companies that have a fully distributed workforce with no headquarters to other more conventional organizations who expect face time from employees in the office, and most will be in between, making use of:
- hub and spoke models;
- smaller footprints in large expensive cities;
- smaller spaces close to where employees can afford and want to live;
- hoteling or hot-desking; and
- neighbourhood-oriented workspaces
But the changes to the spectrum of workplace solutions must be consciously designed and planned for, considering the new expectations that remote work is normal, that technology is continuing to make hybrid in-person and remote meetings more effective, and that people must be managed differently in these new conditions [x].
One obvious direction of change for the office in the post-pandemic world is that it will more often be designed to support collaborative interactions that cannot happen successfully remotely [xi]. Such re-designs should further collapse the boundaries between the physical and the virtual, so that collaboration can be seamless with those working remotely.
These kinds of changes will result in both smaller office space footprints and qualitative changes to office design and patterns of use, reinforcing the need for less full-time, day-long occupancy of workspaces in conventional office buildings, a trend that was already occurring before the pandemic.
For example, in Midtown Manhattan, fourteen percent of office space is currently vacant and more will become so. Many retail stores have closed. The New York real estate industry is considering converting one million square feet of older, less desirable office space into housing [xii]. Such office conversions could provide more affordable housing and transform monolithic office-only neighbourhoods into more vibrant, mixed-use residential areas.
CHANGES TO BUILDING TYPES
Change in the design of types of workplace buildings is driven by expectations and preferences for workplace experience, in particular the shift towards concerns for wellness, that were already in place before the pandemic, but which will now be reinforced and accelerated. Given what we know about COVID-19, what are some of the longer-term changes we might expect?
It is perhaps easiest to consider what kinds of workplaces, building types, and work neighbourhoods will be less desirable, at least in the short to medium term. Central core skyscrapers with uniform single-use office occupancy in stacked floors that can only be accessed via packed elevators will be less desirable than lower, horizontal or mid-rise buildings (‘ground-scrapers’) that provide higher levels of walkable connectivity through staircases and atriums with plenty of access to natural light and air. The trends towards more hybrid mixed-use buildings identified in 2014 will be accentuated.
Building types that are spatially generous, with good floor-to-floor heights with access to natural light and air, that can easily accommodate changing patterns of use, shifting over time from commercial to residential or other uses, will be increasingly valuable.
In all building types, new attention will be paid to ventilation, air change and turnover, and filtration and cleaning. Access to buildings will be re-designed to be no-touch and biometric. Staircases and escalators will be preferable to elevators. Buildings that are well connected to outdoor work areas will be more attractive.
Even when vaccination becomes widely available there will be a long half-life of unease and discomfort in crowded spaces and shared workplaces.
CHANGES IN BUILDING TYPOLOGY AND PATTERNS OF USE
|Skyscrapers||Ground-scrapers, low / mid-rise, atriums|
|Central core||Distributed core|
|Elevator access||Stairs, ramps, escalators|
|Exclusive stacked floors||Connected spaces flow together|
|Single use offices||Mixed use|
|Only possible use is office||Adaptable to alternative uses|
|Disconnected from neighbourhood||Connected to diverse neighbourhood and outside|
|Air conditioned only||Mixed mode and natural ventilation|
The key change in preferences will be for environments in which users feel safer with greater degrees of control, with less crowdedness, and with evident hygiene protocols [xiii].
But beyond the changes to the office building type as such, the trend towards more hybrid patterns of using workspace will continue in the form of mixing up the functions and activities that make workplaces vital and interesting, or which augment conventional office and home workplaces with ‘third places’, such as cafes, clubs, libraries, parks, play and exercise areas and other semi-public spaces.
The trend towards more hybrid patterns of using workspace will continue in the form of mixing up of functions and activities that make workplaces vital and interesting, or which augment conventional office and home workplaces with ‘third places’
Examples of the shift to more mixed-use activities in buildings, with work and meeting spaces being added to residential projects, include new kinds of live-work communities, and hospitality brands such as Starbucks, CitizenM and Mandarin Oriental converting parts of their spaces into workspace to be booked by the hour or the day [xiv].
In 2014, I highlighted the shift from individual work in homogeneous workplaces to collaborative work in heterogenous ‘work-scapes,’ a trajectory towards increasingly shared workspaces in multi-use, multi-scaled places. These shifts will remain active alongside the broad increase in individuals working from home and the corresponding decline in fully occupied conventional offices.
EVOLUTION OF THE URBAN ‘WORK-SCAPE’
At first glance, it seems likely that the pandemic might lead to a permanent withdrawal from cities, and a long-term decline in their value as central places of networking and creativity, which they had continued to be, despite the rise of information technology. As Farhad Manjoo asks: ‘will people want to live and work close together in the future? [xv]
It seems likely that cities will remain drivers for economic growth, catalysts for technological and cultural innovation, and the most highly sustainable way to accommodate many people [xvi]. But they will need to be re-thought. Manjoo identified the following urban design impacts already evident [xvii]:
- more car-free streets, better protection for pedestrians;
- expanded open air dining;
- conversion of empty office buildings into apartments;
- reductions in car traffic and more efficient vehicles;
- more cycling with expanded bike lanes;
- cleaner air; and
- expanded electric bus networks.
But not all cities and urban areas are the same or will benefit equally from the continued interest in urban living and working. As Jenkins asked, ‘if the office block has had its day, what will replace it? [xviii].
Successful urban ‘work-scapes’ will be those areas (and the buildings and places within them) that provide attractive alternatives to the old-fashioned, monolithic single-use officer tower.
Successful urban ‘work-scapes’ will be those areas (and the buildings and places within them) that provide attractive alternatives to the old-fashioned, monolithic single-use officer tower.
The buildings in such areas are more likely to be mid- and lower-rise, heterogeneous in function and activity, forming dense, hybrid work and living spaces in walkable neighbourhoods: The resilience of Soho versus the brittleness of Canary Wharf, as analysed in Frank Duffy’s prescient study of work and the city [xix].
Jenkins [xx] asks what the impact on cities will be of a decline in office space of 30-40%? He notes that rents in the City of London have fallen but they have risen in Soho and Shoreditch. He notes that smaller offices will be desirable in ‘places of character’. And there may be a silver lining in that falling rents attract creative and leisure activities back into central cities, humanizing them and downscaling them. He even alludes to the possibility of cities becoming more like they were in a pre-industrial age, when people lived closer to their work or worked in their houses, enabled to do so now by information technology.
Jenkins’ argument is close to that of Ratti and Claudel [xxi] writing before the epidemic, when they refer to a third industrial revolution reshaping cities, in which production can be realigned with daily life as manufacturing exits the factory, as making things and working take place in domestic scaled live-work buildings as ‘the workplace and home collapse into a hybrid unit and as a more social, community-based model blurs formerly distinct urban districts. The city may come to life in new ways.’
Such neighbourhoods will provide multi-layered, diverse activities that optimize overlapping social and business networks, augmented by the power of information technology to connect people, places and activities. These attributes have not essentially changed since 2014. They are associated with longer term shifts:
- away from fixed daily working days;
- towards more intermittent, casual and focused events and activities, likely to take place across a wider range of venues and types of places – supporting nomadic ways of working; and
- more solo work in home workplaces.
Technology has not trumped the city; neither will COVID-19
While it is evident that much individual work and routine meetings can take place effectively virtually and remotely, the city ‘work-scape’ will continue to provide energizing places of encounter and collaboration. In the short term, until vaccination has become widespread, urban workplaces will have to be designed and managed carefully to avoid the risks of proximity. But in the longer term, as I argued in 2014, the domain of work will continue to shift from ‘the office’ to a wider, technologically enabled, urban environment or ‘work-scape.’ The pandemic has reinforced this direction of change towards a more blended experience of living and working in cities. W&P
About the Author
Andrew Laing, PhD
Andrew is a workplace consultant and visiting lecturer at the School of Architecture, Princeton University. He was formerly head of workplace strategy and design at Bridgewater Associates, and a global practice leader of the Strategy+ practice at AECOM (formerly DEGW). He received his doctorate in urban studies and planning from MIT. He co-authored the books The Responsible Workplace (1994) and New Environments for Working (1998) with Frank Duffy and wrote ‘Directions for Change in Technology and Wellbeing in the City’ in Designing Future Cities for Wellbeing, edited by Christopher T. Boyko, Rachel Cooper, Nick Dunn, Routledge, 2020. He has written many articles.
[i] Work&Place Journal, Edition 3 – June 2014 Pages 11-14 – https://workandplace.com/the-emerging-workplace-is-urban
[ii] Simon Jenkins, ‘The Office Block has had its Day. But What Will Replace it?’ The Guardian, November 13th, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/nov/13/office-block-cities-coronavirus-cultural-activities-countryside?
[iii] Matthew Haag, ‘Manhattan Emptied Out During the Pandemic. But Big Tech is Moving In,’ New York Times, October 13th, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/13/nyregion/big-tech-nyc-office-space.html
[iv] Matthew Haag and Dana Rubinstein, ‘Midtown is Reeling. Should its Offices Become Apartments? New York Times, December 11th, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/11/nyregion/nyc-commercial-real-estate.html
[v] Tracey Bower, ‘Why the Office Simply Cannot Go Away: The Compelling Case for Workplace,’ Forbes, June 7th, 2020. https://www.forbes.com/sites/tracybrower/2020/06/07/why-the-office-simply-cannot-go-away-the-compelling-case-for-the-workplace/#5eb853f55baf
[vi] Simon Usburne, ‘The End of the Office: The Quiet Grinding Loneliness of Working from Home,’ The Guardian, 14th July, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/money/2020/jul/14/end-of-the-office-the-quiet-grinding-loneliness-of-working-from-home?
[vii] Simon Jenkins, The Guardian, November 13th, 2020. See previous citation.
[viii] Anne Helen Petersen, ‘Are You Sure You Want To Go Back to the Office? The Future of Work is Flexibility,’ New York Times, December 23rd, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/23/opinion/covid-offices-remote-work.html
[ix] Anne Helen Petersen, New York Times, December 23rd, 2020. See previous citation.
[x] Anne Helen Petersen, New York Times, December 23rd, 2020. See previous citation.
[xi] Brodie Boland, Aaron de Smet, Rob Palter, Aditya Sangvi, ‘Reimagining the Office and Work Life After Covid-19, McKinsey & Company, June 8th, 2020. https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/reimagining-the-office-and-work-life-after-covid-19#
[xii] Matthew Haag and Dana Rubinstein, New York Times, 2020. See previous citation.
[xiii] Simon Jenkins, The Guardian, November 13th, 2020. See previous citation.
[xiv] Dror Poleg, ‘The Future of Office When Workers Have Choice’, New York Times, January 3rd, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/04/upshot/future-offices-worker-choice.html
[xv] Farhad Manjoo, ‘Why Should We Ever Return to Living and Working so Close Together?’ New York Times, December 22, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/22/opinion/cities-coronavirus.html
[xvi] David Owen, Green Metropolis, Riverhead Books, New York, 2009; Vishaan Chakrabarti, A Country of Cities, A Manifesto for an Urban America, Metropolis Books, 2012.
[xvii] Farhad Manjoo, New York Times, December 22, 2020. See previous citation.
[xviii] Simon Jenkins, The Guardian, November 13th, 2020. See previous citation.
[xix] Frank Duffy, Work and the City, Black Dog Press, London, 1998.
[xx] Simon Jenkins, The Guardian, November 13th, 2020. See previous citation.
[xxi] Carlo Ratti and Matthew Claudel, The City of Tomorrow: Sensors, Networks, Hackers and the Future of Urban Life, Yale University Press, 2016.
Images: Author’s own