Future Tense

The COVID-Era Office Will Be More Collaborative, Not Less

Workers need compelling reasons to come in.

Office workers wearing masks gathered around a whiteboard with charts on it
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by pondsaksit/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

I’m sure you’ve heard someone say that COVID-19 could be the end of the city. This is not the first time that people have made that prediction. Every technology, from the telephone to the automobile to the internet, has threatened to pull cities apart. But even if the pandemic is unlikely to kill off the city for good, clearly American cities are not going to be the same. Even in neighborhoods that don’t feel like they’re full of offices, nothing’s getting back to normal until offices open again—if offices open again.

Since March, Manhattan’s trademark 9-to-5 pulse, when the population doubles during the day and halves at night, has gone silent, as white-collar work has dissolved into homes across the country. Who in their right mind would want to go back to an office right now? On Friday’s episode of What Next: TBD, I talked to someone who would: John Capobianco, a principal at Interior Architects, which develops offices for blue-chip clients like Uber and LinkedIn. John’s designs are open, full of shared spaces and surfaces. I asked him how he and his firm are working around the coronavirus. This transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Henry Grabar: I’ve looked at a bunch of your designs, and I feel like bumping into each other is actually kind of the whole thing.

John Capobianco: It’s the whole idea.

Do you feel like you’re now working against your own philosophy of what an office is supposed to look like?

A bit … in our office, we’re eliminating our china temporarily, and if you want a glass, you bring it in yourself and use your own and you take it home at night.

You’ve mentioned that you guys feel like you’re actually working really well from home. I’m wondering if you feel some pressure, as someone who is working on behalf of clients to make their offices COVID-proof, to go back into your own office and say, “Well, look, we’re doing it, so can you.”

There is a bit of pressure there. We’re doing this for a living, so we need to be on the forefront of the return.

I’m wondering what, then, your office is going to look like when you come back. What will be the changes that you’ll see as people come back into the office?

The big change is that, of an office of about 85 desks and about 75 employees in our New York office, there’s only going to be 28 to 30 people in at any one time. Typically what we’re suggesting is that you go to the office for a few purposes. One is team collaboration, socialization. The second would be to do things in the office that you couldn’t do at home, such as use our resource library, et cetera.

So how are you all going to coordinate to make sure that you don’t go over that 30-person capacity limit you’ve set for yourselves? Is there going to be some sort of sign-up sheet when it’s full? “Sorry, no more people in the office today.”

That’s exactly it. It really is the first 30 people that hit the sign-up sheets get into the office. We have a population of around 75 people we’re dividing into two shifts, so we have a Team A and Team B. Team A will be in on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and then alternating B will be in Tuesday and Thursday and Friday the following week.

So if Team A and Team B want to meet, they better do it in the park.

Yes. Well, we are specifically assigning Team A’s to actual functional teams, so everybody in Team A will be related to each other.

This isn’t just an easy way to keep the office from getting crowded. It also helps with contact tracing. You can keep half your team safe from the other half. Hygiene stations are in. Closely spaced chairs, they’re out. Fresh air, that’s in. Special machines, out.

I know you guys work in this older building down on Broadway. Do you have windows? Can you open windows? I assume that’s not something that many of your clients have the privilege of doing.

No, unfortunately not, especially not in the New York market. I think that’s much more familiar to the folks on the West Coast and some more modern office buildings. Our windows do not open. But what we are doing is essentially adjusting our balance of recycled air versus outdoor air. Our mechanical systems will be running with 90 percent outdoor air, which may affect temperature a bit within the office and the humidity levels, but actually a higher humidity level is better.

You’re also dealing with a larger question: If people are doing just fine working from home, why go in at all, even when the pandemic subsides? In other words, it’s about how to adapt offices not just to the coronavirus but to remote work, which might be here to stay.

How do we attract workers to come in when it’s optional to come in? How do we create a center of community or the hive that everybody returns back to? I could imagine a landscape based on activity, with the central core being community areas and places for people to get together and do their work and collaborate.

It sounds like you’re saying that actually the office going forward will put even more of an emphasis on the communal group meeting spaces that seem to be the most threatened by COVID-19. If anything, it’s the individual workstation that has proven itself obsolete and the group space that seems more essential than ever.

One hundred percent.

Listen to the full episode using the player below, or subscribe to What Next: TBD on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.