Cassie Werber: Picture an office. What’s it got in it? Maybe some neat rows of desks, a chair in front of each one. It’s probably brightly lit and dominated by screens. Maybe there are a few plants to lighten the mood. Of course, pre-covid, there were variations—plusher seating, nicer snacks. But mostly, we knew what an office was. And crucially, we knew if we had to be there or not.
But maybe we’re not in that world anymore. Once millions of office workers shifted overnight to working from home, many of them realized that life without an office—without dressing smartly, without commuting—might be so much better. And when companies asked workers to come back, they didn’t obediently troop in. Some simply refused. Others wanted the option to work from an office, but only sometimes. Improved technology meant that for years, offices were getting less crucial. But the sudden shift to home working finally exploded the fiction that we had to go to an office to prove we were working. Right now the office is in limbo. Companies are trying to lure workers back to their desks. But most employees say they want a mix of working from home, the office and maybe somewhere else. Is the office doomed? And if not, what’s going to save it.
This is Work Reconsidered, a podcast from Quartz. I’m Cassie Werber. And today we’re talking about the office: the place which always stayed the same, and why it changed.
I’m joined by design and architecture reporter Anne Quito. Hi, Anne.
Anne Quito: Hi, Cassie.
Cassie Werber: So I would say I have this new appreciation for offices now that I never actually have to go to one, I kind of miss having a place that’s dedicated to work. I’m missing my colleagues and going out for lunch with them and deciding what to have for lunch. Do you have a favorite thing about going into the office? Or is that just a silly question? Do you even like offices at all?
Anne Quito: I do like some things about the office. But I can’t say I have an office habit or a regular schedule. I think of my desk primarily as a mooring spot between appointments. But I have to say, my favorite thing about offices is: I do enjoy peering into my colleagues’ spaces.
Cassie Werber: Seeing how they’re set up.
Anne Quito: Yes! Are they neat? Are they messy? Does that match with my notion of them?
Cassie Werber: When you see that colleague who has got like a huge pile of stuff and papers and things on their desk, what does it mean about their mind?
Anne Quito: Seriously. Right now I’m like staring at a stack of books with I think a Garfield lamp on top of it. Golly, what does that say? I think before hot- desking and co-working, a desk was essentially a semiotic wonderland, teeming with clues about your colleagues or bosses personality. Aside from that, the other part about going to the office. I do love observing everyone’s resting office face, you know that like face of focus? The theater of toil, I enjoy that.
Cassie Werber: When I picture an office, it has some quite standard features. There’s furniture, which isn’t like the furniture in a home. And there’s this kind of industrial carpet and maybe carpet tiles or ceiling tiles or something. And the air is kind of dry. It smells a certain way. It’s kind of a clean, hopefully clean smell, but very indoors-y and maybe official sort of smell. Well, what exactly is the standard office like and how did that standard get set?
Anne Quito: So this standard office kit, if you will, really consists of a mishmash of objects that reflect our evolving understanding of work. In a way you can think about all these sort of like office furniture as fossils about the changing nature of productivity, and the technology involved in that. There’s actually a super interesting essay by a professor of interior design, Nicole Kay Peterson, who researched the evolution of the office. She saying, for instance, the writing desk can actually be traced back to the fifth century when monks were transcribing manuscripts. They needed a writing desk. And these monks were provided the sort of like a desk, a table with a cloth to protect the books. These monks didn’t have chairs so they stood while they wrote so in a way standing desks were the first writing desks. We think about them as a new innovation, but: the fifth century. And then in the Renaissance, the chair and table combo, she says began with Uffizi, she traces it in the in to the time of Cosimo de Medici in 1560 where he commissioned the Uffizi as an administrative office. And then in 18th century, that’s when we kind of really see the fossils, or the beginnings of the modern office, as we know now. You’re in London, you can visit the first official offices, I guess it’s now called the Ripley building, but it used to be called the Admiralty office; a building for the Royal Navy. And there was also another building for the East India Company, and the growth of the British Empire required office administration. So they handled paperwork. And then after this, like, chair and table combo, we get to the open layout, which we think is a Silicon Valley innovation. But really, one of the more famous ones in history was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1903. It was the Larkin office building in Buffalo, and there, you could see sort of like rows and rows of secretaries and workers doing things. And it was sort of like, informed by the model of the factory. There, our notion of work is productivity, efficiency, and in a way supervision. Silicon Valley had a twist to that. So open layout became about collaboration, transparency, parity among colleagues and bosses. Right. So they’ve sort of like, tore down the walls.
Cassie Werber: So then the pandemic came along, right? And so, before this, most people in white collar jobs anyway, they were commuting into offices, and those offices were probably in the centers of cities, and they were going in every day. And then the pandemic happens, suddenly, almost no one is going to the office ever. And these places sit empty for months, and some companies give up their very expensive leases. And then things reopen. But a lot of people refuse to go to them. What’s going to happen now? Is the office dead?
Anne Quito: First, it’s important to mention that, in parts of Asia, for instance, or even in the developing world, workers simply don’t have the choice not to go into the office. Maybe there’s poor Wi-Fi access, maybe they don’t really have good connectivity in their homes. Also, in some places, it’s just plain mandatory. And maybe employees feel like they have less agency to push back.
Cassie Werber: Yeah. And that was true even during the pandemic?
Anne Quito: Yes, for sure. But no, to answer your question, the office is not dead. It might seem dormant, like a I don’t know, transforming caterpillar. But it’s not it’s not dead. In fact, office architects have never been busier. These days, they’re being called to revive offices, to rethink them. And if you will, maybe they’re applying electric paddles and what seemed like dead spaces. resuscitating them, so they’re being called to redesign these spaces, so workers might want to come in. I loved speaking to one veteran office architect who’s been designing offices for 20 years. This man has seen it all right, many of them illusions, urban layout, cubicles, and whatnot. And he told me that this is the most exciting time of his career. I know, right?
Cassie Werber: Why? Things are changing so much?
Anne Quito: Yeah, like, what if you’re an office architect, you go into a project and there’s usually already kind of a template of course, you can pick text, pick textures, finishes, you know, do variations, but this kind of like kit, or this kit of parts is in a way defined. But today, he’s saying everything has kind of been blown to smithereens. There’s now this mandate to rethink everything. Now that obviously is want to lure people back in.
John Campbell: So my name is John Campbell. I’m an architect. I was also trained as an urban designer. And also I am a certified interior designer as well. So I cover quite a wide range in that design aspect. The pandemic exploded, every old paradigm we had about the office. And you know, before it was always about maximizing the efficiency of real estate. While a number of clients over the last 20 years had really started to focus on a people-centric real estate decision in office, all of a sudden, the pandemic made it all about that. And we add the fact that we’re in a race for talent. And so we have to create the right types of environments to attract and retain the best talent to help all companies meet their mission and goals. You know, I think we’re in exciting times within the industry, we’re going to be in a period of experimentation, I think, for several years.
Cassie Werber: Okay, so one company that really seems to have embraced the challenge to totally rethink the office is the toymaker LEGO. They redid their Denmark headquarters during the pandemic. And how did that go?
Anne Quito: It went splendidly. Their new corporate offices in Billund, Denmark, they’ve been there for 90 years. But over the past five years, they’ve been planning and constructing this new campus, and I was so pleased to speak to their global head of workplace experience. We often think of working as LEGO as kind of a dream job. And it’s his team’s mandate to basically fulfill that.
Timothy Ahrensbach: Yeah, so my name is Timothy Ahrensbach. I’m the Global Head of workplace experience at the LEGO Group. I guess in a nutshell, if you were to ask yourself, I wonder what it’s like to go to work at the LEGO Group, like, what is my experience? Once I opened those doors? I guess it would be me and my team’s kind of job to answer that question.
Anne Quito: Their design was really shaped by talking to employees, the first step to designing a corporate office wasn’t hiring a “starchitect,” or a famous architect, but really polling their employees.
Timothy Ahrensbach: Obviously, the pandemic, we’ve learned a lot from that it’s a completely new world that we’ve come back into. And one of the things that we asked our colleagues about was, okay, what is it that you’ve been missing from the office? We understand that, you know, people like working from home, or some people do, but what does the office need to do for you to feel like it adds value, what are you missing? And so what they told us was, they were missing the sense of play, they were missing the kind of collaborating and being creative with colleagues, they were missing having these kind of shared and meaningful experiences. And they were missing kind of feeling connected with our unique company brand and, and values.
Anne Quito: It’s more than a corporate office, it’s more than a group of factories. He described it as a mini city, with streets, villages, courtyards. It’s for the company’s 2000 workers in Denmark and visitors from their global workforce. So he was kind of like, very astute about thinking of an office, not just [as] corporate headquarters, or not just a desk or whatever. But really as a system of things that’s involved in making workers experience really great.
Cassie Werber: Okay. So some of this sounds kind of dreamy, and beautiful. Some of it sounds a little bit creepy. Like, maybe you have to go to this LEGO City and never leave and kind of go to the LEGO cafe for your LEGO lunch. Like, is it a bit similar to some of the things we saw in Silicon Valley campuses where they just tried to put everything in one place. And that meant that the workers never left and didn’t see anybody else, and ate their way through all kinds of corporate menus day and night?
Anne Quito: This is a question I asked him, too. And the one facet of their campus that really defies that notion, is what’s called the People’s House. So the People’s House was basically an ask from the employees to create a third place, not their home, not the office, not their desks, but basically like a rec center.
Timothy Ahrensbach: It has facilities like a sports and play arena, a creative studio, a training kitchen, we have a cinema and one of my personal favorites, a karaoke room. There is a fireplace lounge where you can play board games and grab a cup of coffee, a music room, there’s a health and well being center. And of course, there’s a LEGO lab that’s just filled and filled with LEGO bricks.
So one of the things that’s really unique about this space is it’s obviously open for our colleagues to use both during and outside of work hours, but also actually for their families as well, as well as retired LEGO employees. And one of my favorite, most magical moments of the day, is 4pm. So what you’ll see when you’re at LEGO campus, especially if you’re sat in People’s House at 4pm, you’re seeing two streams. You’re seeing all the people who have been at work that day, who are picking up their stuff packing all together and leaving, and they all kind of go out of the building, while at the same time you then have all the kids and the families coming in, after a day of school. And so the space really starts to fill up with the sound of kids, the sound of laughter. It just really reminds you a) of the company that we are and how much we focus, and really treasure kind of kids and family, but also how it’s a place where you can also as an employee, say my day is over, I’m now going to leave. So it’s not blurring those boundaries. It’s actually keeping those boundaries really clear. And I really love that.
Cassie Werber: Aw, so nice.
Anne Quito: Yeah, so it’s not about it’s not about keeping them at work. But it’s kind of providing a LEGO-provided third place for them.
Cassie Werber: Interesting. So it seems like LEGO is trying to create something that’s kind of beyond the bounds of the traditional office, which makes me wonder what is an office for, today? I mean, if we can do all of our work on screens, in our bedrooms, basically or wherever, is an office really necessary?
Anne Quito: So, what a giant question, right? There’s not one answer to that question. Which is, I think thrilling, because not having a question leaves room for experimentation, for iteration, which is what’s happening now. The office is really being examined with a close eye right now. So it’s a social space, a collaboration area, a focus space, or an escape from domestic chaos of your own home.
Cassie Werber: Sounds great.
Anne Quito: Right? But the answers differ per company. John Campbell, he said the beauty is that old ideas have been blown apart. And our job now is to work with clients to help them understand who they are.
John Campbell: And at the end of the day, an office workspace needs to reflect that company’s culture. And so the interesting part when we’re working with clients is really trying to help them understand what’s their culture? How is it being tweaked in this hopefully post-pandemic manner of where we stand at the moment? And whether people are coming in is, how do they want to use space? But I think it must reflect the company in its values and its culture.
Anne Quito: If you think about architects, they’re specing, you know, chairs, tables, designing the layout, but it sounds super existential right? Helping clients know who they are, and their culture. This sort of like existential search, it made me think of another article we wrote, I guess earlier in the pandemic, there’s an organizational behavior professor, Gianpiero Petriglieri, who wrote a love letter to offices when we were all cooped up in our kitchens. It’s in the Harvard Business Review. He said, something that really struck me, he said, ‘The office has never been about productivity. It’s about coming together and learning about yourself and others.’
Cassie Werber: I love that as well.
Anne Quito: It’s kind of like a radical statement. If you think about offices as like, places of toil, he’s saying it’s really a place to know oneself.
Cassie Werber: How does that actually help people do their work better?
Anne Quito: So this question about knowing thyself is really a rage against template thinking it’s really a raging against the cookie cutter approach. It’s really about this sort of like pause button to ask, what do you need, actually? And then maybe you can do the most effective job.
Cassie Werber: We’ll be right back.
Cassie Werber: Anne, how does the design of these new spaces suit their new functions?
Anne Quito: So architects are exploring new ideas. One, they’re designing for remote work and hybrid teams. For instance, John Campbell, he’s like now casting a leery eye on conference tables. And he argues that sort of this room with seats and a big screen—it’s almost like a mini theater—creates parity between remote workers and those in the office.
John Campbell: I’m a strong believer in that we’re going to see a lot more conference rooms where the table doesn’t exist. You know, and because we’re going to have a much more informal room. When you’re negotiating, the table is the boundary between one side negotiating with the other side. But when we’re comparing data, it could be a D-shaped table, or we could be informally as a group sitting in different settings. Spaces are going to be much more dynamic in that approach.
Cassie Werber: Yeah, I can totally see that.
Anne Quito: Designers are also thinking about designing for flexibility. Or maybe the better word is uncertainty. They’re opting for furniture on wheels. For example, one of the more popular products is Vitra’s dancing wall. I love that name. It’s just really a mobile partition that transforms into a bookshelf, a coat rack, a rolling coffee station or a plant stand. And John told me that when they’re doing a full build out, they’re doing raised floorboards. It’s basically a construction model that leaves a gap between the slab and flooring to conceal power and data cables. So this allows offices to move furniture or entire departments without having to drill holes on the floor, or disturb a lot of people.
Cassie Werber: Wow. So they’re just planning for things to change and keep changing?
Anne Quito: Yes, for the office to keep dancing. The other thing that’s huge right now is they’re not only designing the physical nature of the office, they’re also thinking about invisible elements. So architects are thinking about air quality. Now, they’ve always thought about this, but now they need to convey to the occupants that they are. So clearly, they want to convey that they’re designing for health. So Steelcase in 2021 held basically just a pulse survey of how people are faring in their home offices, and if they’re willing to go back to the office, and air quality was one of the top concerns.
Cassie Werber: So this sounds great. I’m somewhat skeptical just because I feel like a lot of times people have said, ‘We’re going to make the office much more like home,’ or ‘We’re going to make it much better,’ and it’s stayed quite similar. At the same time there is this part of me that misses the office that feels like, okay, yeah, I would go back to her to a beautifully furnished flexible space with windows that open, one day a week, that sounds great. Is it enough to save the office?
Anne Quito: The fate of the office isn’t really dependent on just one office, unfortunately. As Tim at LEGO says, an office is never a standalone building. It really part of an urban network, if you will.
Timothy Ahrensbach: I worked and set up my first coworking space together with a bunch of people back in 2011. And that’s when I really just fell in love with workplace because I realized, you know, this is where historically we’ve been spending most of the time of our lives outside of the home. So how do we really create a place that really makes the best out of that time? And that’s how I fell in love with workplaces. But what I can do is I can take that step back and look at the city or the neighborhood from kind of a holistic point of view. So, you know, looking at how does education and clean water and rows and all of those things come together to create an environment that people thrive in.
Anne Quito: You mentioned earlier that we have to commute to the office, for instance, that experience needs to be safe, pleasant, and all that for us to troop back to the office. In other words, the future of the office goes beyond its doors, it’s dependent on infrastructure around it, the transportation systems, allied services. I really cherish the idea that both John and Tim have this sort of background in urban planning. Because what do urban planners do, really? Think about systems beyond one thing, and like how they’re interconnected.
Cassie Werber: All these changes, they sound great for people who have control over their office space. Like if you have the money to go and pay a designer to overhaul your office, that would be lovely. We’d all like that. If you work for a famous toy company, and they build you a special gym that you can bring your kids to, great. If people listening are working with their home office, which from my own experience is just a desk shoved up against a wall in the corner of some room. Or if they’re going into an office and they don’t have very much control over that space and it isn’t inspiring their work to be better, it’s not helping them to have better interactions with their colleagues, what can they do?
Anne Quito: Simple: Think like a designer. Think about all your senses. Think about all the uses of space. So lighting, acoustics, temperature, surfaces, furniture, air ventilation, scent, even energy or feng shui of a space if you subscribe to that. For instance, lighting alone can make a world of difference. Reorienting your desk can vastly improve at least the visuals of your Zoom calls. Scents, for instance—there’s some research that says since like rosemary lemon, peppermint can boost productivity. Sound, think about adding soft elements to muffle noise. Maybe you have a dog who loves to bark or I don’t know, chatty housemates.
Cassie Werber: Construction going on next door.
Anne Quito: Exactly, jackhammering, so think about acoustics of your space. The other acoustical note earlier in the pandemic, I spoke to Marie Kondo about her own home office. And she has a different sound ritual, which I cherish. She says, she begins each day with a tuning fork and a piece of quartz crystal, and she uses the tuning fork to partition time. It signals that it’s the beginning of the day. It’s also a chance for her to collect herself. And she says and in her words, clear the air for work. And at the end of the day, she hits it back and it’s the end of the day. So really, the short answer to your question is, think about the whole space and the habits of your housemates and your neighbors.
Cassie Werber: We’re not talking maybe about home office for some people, they are going in somewhere. Can they do some of this?
Anne Quito: I think they can in some way. The best designers think big picture and consider multiple audiences. Frank Lloyd Wright, for instance, inWhat makes for a happy and productive work environment?several home offices always began a project by observing, he says, the rhythms and patterns of life. I think, thinking about the setup but also what you have in the day. It’s not one thing but many things depending on what you’re doing for the day.
Cassie Werber: Thank you so much, Anne. It’s been really fun.
Anne Quito: My pleasure.
Cassie Werber: Work Reconsidered is a podcast from Quartz. I’m your host, Cassie Werber. And I was joined today by Quartz reporter Anne Quito. This episode was produced by Anne Quito and Alex Ossola, who is also our executive producer. Our sound engineer is George Drake. Our theme music is by Taka Yasuzawa and Alex Suguira. Special thanks to John Campbell and Tim Ahrensbach.
If you like what you heard, please tell your friends to listen, too. You can also leave a review on Apple podcasts or wherever you’re listening.