The ReOpened Office

May 21, 2020
Lisa Odor Interior Designer

With questions and speculations galore, there is no doubt that the open office is facing a pivotal shift. In the interest of positive change, we are taking a look at the return to the open office and how this pandemic can actually create a healthy shift in how to design and modify the offices of today for the benefit of tomorrow.

Long before the emergence of COVID-19, companies, and organizations across the globe had been pursuing ways to redefine and advance the idea of the open office:

  • improving acoustics with neighborhood separation via collaboration niches and creative materials
  • providing the best ratios for open to semi-open to enclosed rooms
  • balancing assigned and unassigned work seats
  • promoting modularity and flexibility in layouts and furniture pieces
  • dispersing collaboration zones for team efficiency
  • implementing common amenities that promote both productivity and employee satisfaction

In response to these recommended or sometimes experimental solutions, many companies have embraced lower partitions between desks, benching workstations and sit-to-stand surfaces to allow for movement within the office, and the overarching theme of choice in the workplace.

Now that we are making our way back into the office, slowly and strategically, we are faced with the following question in a new light: what does the future of the open office look like? Not only that, but how can the office environment support the health, safety, and welfare of the workforce? Design professionals have always had these objectives at the forefront of any space design, primarily focusing on the people who utilize the spaces they create. In the recent past, we have been solving for design problems that ultimately were evolving somewhat effortlessly and without great disruption. However, while it is impossible to foresee a widespread global pandemic, we now have a unique opportunity to create a better future for our places of work.

Our reactions and responses to these uncontrollable events can propel us forward in a way that commonplace events truly could not, and we are prepared with the design solutions and strategies to navigate the workplace together. Below are the three main categories we see as the drivers that can influence your existing or new open office:

1. The office of the future simply needs to be reassessed, not reverted.
  • Reconfigure, not raise: Workstation panels should not just be replaced with four walls and a door because of fear. Take advantage of modular workstations where glass stackers, screens, or acoustic shrouds can be added to help with separation and sound. Keep your culture and business goals in mind, and don’t sacrifice unnecessarily.


  • Office touchpoints: In terms of employee workflow in the office, consider implementing touchless technology to support workers as they schedule time for heads down focused work or heads together collaboration. This could also inform how collaboration touchpoints happen on a daily and weekly basis. Test new technologies with teams who can act as change ambassadors for new ways of working.


  • Don’t reinvent the wheel, rediscover the intent: There are numerous relevant benefits of the open office environment that still stand true: daylighting improves mood and wellbeing, visual connection between teams fosters efficiency and creativity, lower real estate costs improve the bottom line, flexibility and modularity support the ebbs and flows of workstyle and workforce, and many other benefits. For example, Big Lots Corporate HQ maintains lower workstation panel heights to let daylight filter through the office and collaborate quickly with teams. Remember the original goals and use them to your advantage when dispersing your workforce and modifying what you have today.


  • Investing in the digital office community: The widespread experiment with work from home has served as an opportunity to explore ways for employees to engage through digital community boards from the office or social platforms from home. Experience design will take on new forms to support your culture and goals as a business, so make sure to honestly evaluate your culture and values in order to create new experiences for engaging. This will prove to be a crucial connection point in this dual nature of both working in the office and working from home.

2. The value of choice, and now the even more prominent value of control.

  • The choice to choose and be in control: Inside the office, one demonstration of choice and control looks like providing a variety of opportunities for privacy, focus and temporary ownership of space. The traditional concept of all owned private office spaces does not create ideal adjacencies, transparency or moments of spontaneous innovation like the open office environment does. By maintaining the principles and practices of the open office, you can create many more opportunities for truly individual choice and control, while still giving room for ownership of particular spaces when they are needed. For example, White Castle is all open workstations, but they maintained a high level of focus rooms and meeting rooms to ensure the most productive and choice-based workstyle. This allows for a more organic method of efficient, flexible, controllable workflow.


  • If you clean it, they should see: Control extends across the office with a direct response to the pandemic including the ability to readily clean surfaces, paired with the additional implementation and visual reassurance of office cleanliness. This visual confirmation eliminates newly developed fears associated with public spaces in the built environment, lending itself to a higher developed level of trust and comfort, and ultimately a higher likelihood that employees will want to come to the office.


  • A grace-filled reentry: The spectrum of response to reentry is wide, and the values of the three C’s – choice, comfort and control – satisfies the needs of both the most fearful and the least, all through the new definition of flexibility. What works for you may or may not work for someone else, even within your company.

3. Working when and where you need.

  • Identify what works: Choice and control are also derived from the discovered capacity to work from anywhere, and we will inevitably start to see what lessons and practices employees bring back from their home offices. One result that will have to be addressed is a clear definition of “needs” over “wants” when it comes to best practices for the workplace. Leadership has a key role in listening, guiding and providing the right solutions.


  • Workplace hubs: While the work from anywhere mentality creates a broader reach for many companies, having central hubs to foster good company culture that remains rooted in history with consistent touchpoints can keep motivation high and morale higher. ODW Logistics Headquarters in Columbus, Ohio, promotes their mission of “trust fueled by transparency” throughout their physical office, bringing groups together and attracting the best talent. In finding the balance between bringing people together and working remotely, these workplace hubs can serve employees with consistent messaging and offerings at a variety of scales.

  • The power of experience: In the same sense that personality shines in personal workspaces, at home or at the office, the true way to see the character of a company is to be immersed in their office. Through a common thread of experiential design, Burgess and Niple’s office illustrates its true personality with key elements highlighting their culture, history and day-to-day functions. A company’s story can be told through sensory experiences without contact by utilizing motion-activated features, lighting and materials, music or background sounds, subtle smells and many other elements of design.

  • Redefine asset use and time: As more employees continue to work remotely after the pandemic has ended, the design of “time” will become just as important as the design of “space” in the office. Design predictions lead us to believe the office environment will include a higher ratio of amenities to work seats to promote greater flexibility and work/life balance. These amenities would support a more 24/7 work cycle, which ultimately will result in redefining and restructuring the boundaries of “office hours.”

Thriving, Not Just Surviving.

As we enter into a new era of awareness post-pandemic, we are confident in the resilience of all people to both overcome obstacles and work together toward a healthier and more positive future. Evidenced by the rallying mentality of people from all corners of the globe to help fight a common enemy, we will find new and exciting ways to improve our environment, our economy, our processes and even our offices. We are stronger when we work together, find balance and keep an open mind to the open office as it reopens its doors.

For more insight and forecasts on the future of the workplace and practical ways to prepare for the days ahead, visit our website for tools and resources.