Armen Vartanian is head of global workplace services at Okta. Like many of us pre-COVID, the San Francisco software company’s offices reflected a contemporary trend rooted in a few core principles – mainly, comfort, professional focus, and team energy. 

 

Now, as the country slowly reopens, many companies are setting fire to everything previously understood about workspace design. Years of org health and psychology rendered useless, just like that. 

 

Let’s use Google as the North Star for the optimized pre-corona office. After all, the everything company did sort of write the book on success in the modern workplace.

 

The open floor plan (or some version) is a pain point for many people. BUT the fact remains, open offices encourage collaboration such that productivity increases by 15%. Open concept, as Google sees it, is less about an extensive, chaotic collection of worker bees knocking around from 9-5 like pinballs. It is not the newsroom on the verge of a big break image. Instead, it is about the strategic placement of people and teams. For instance, seniority does not merit separation (aka there is no C-suite), and managers work among even the most entry-level employees. 

 

That sort of egalitarianism promotes the idea that every person in an organization is capable of learning from everyone else. 

 

Another key feature of Google’s various offices across the US is “third spaces” or alternative workplaces that aren’t individual desks or traditional conference rooms. Third spaces are casual while maintaining purpose, and often companies designate third-spaces for collaborations of specific sizes. In other words, there are third spaces that work best for 2-3 person brainstorms and others for larger groups of 10-20 employees. 

 

Then there is the 150 feet from food rule, which states that no working space in the office shall ever be more than 150 feet from refreshment access, a policy borne from the Googly notion of “collision.” As Google sees it, segments of the day and locations should not be earmarked for work, lunch, meetings, breaks, etc. Instead, all that should sort of collide and meld together as one fluid workday experience. 

 

All of this is wonderful and idealistic. It is almost unbelievable that Google has built such a universal, thriving culture founded on research into what are very distinct facets of organizational behavior.

 

And as admirable as that is, we cannot help but cringe behind our remote workstations. In the COVID era, the former best practices for workspaces mentioned above are diametrically opposed to how we have lived and worked for almost four months. Moreover, these practices run counter to our instincts as humans living through a pandemic to protect ourselves and our loved ones.

 

Then again, as industrious people with our ear to the business news beat, we at Fosdick know how important it is for companies to make real and concerted efforts to return to as close to pre-COVID operations as possible. 

 

In his article, Senior Editor at LinkedIn, George Anders poses a few pertinent questions in the spirit of this exact internal conflict: What does the social-distancing workplace even look like? What will it cost, and how quickly can it take shape? 

 

Is there any way to embrace a pandemic-fighting mentality and still create a setting where humans would want to work?

 


Luckily, workplace experts like Vartanian at Okta are taking on the challenge, creating models and renderings of “airier” workspaces. Part of this means reconfiguring the layouts companies previously thought they’d optimized for team productivity to put more space in between employees. You can see how this might take shape in this Okta rendering of a company common area.

 

Visualization via Okta Inc.

 

The walkways are wider. Chairs are further apart. There are still a few tables that seem primed for small groups to have informal, work-related conversations. However, the particular set-up pictured looks more like living room seating than the high school lunch table proximity we are used to seeing in collaborative spaces.

 

 

But physical offices are finite, and there are limits on what office architects can do to address population density. It seems imminent, then, that a return to work that is both scaled and COVID conscious means more purposeful management of the in-person versus remote workforce. 

 

In a recent company blog post, Vartanian and Kristina Johnson, Okta’s chief people officer, observed that even before Covid-19 struck, more than 30% of Okta’s workforce was working remotely. With new office configurations in place, the company estimates the in-person workforce would be just 25% of the pre-COVID daily headcount. 

 

Vartanian says he has become a champion of “dynamic work.” Technological advancements and our ability to adapt certain roles to remote work have been pretty meaningful silver linings amid the pandemic. As Vartanian puts it, “the old reasons for coming into the office are no longer the case.”

 

Otka is not the only company that feels this way. On May 21st, Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg announced that the company would eventually begin allowing most of its employees to request a permanent change in their jobs to let them work remotely. The company has made most of its US job openings eligible for remote hire and will begin taking applications for permanent remote work among its workforce later this year.

 

But the fact of the matter is, not all companies are technology companies (regardless of what the S1 says). Indeed, many industries have innovated around jobs we’d have never previously thought could be done off-site. At Fosdick, even our customer service teams are fielding customer calls remotely. That said, someone has to pick, pack, and ship in the warehouse. 

 

So what happens going forward for other supply chain pros, manufacturers, and the retail product brands with whom we work closely? Perhaps the preventative measures are enough – the PPE, increased sterilization practices, divided work stations where possible, etc. 

 

But we also have to imagine that given a choice between remote jobs and those that require employees to stand behind clear plastic all day, the next generation of workers will know exactly what to do. There will be no existential dilemmas for young people as they carve out a path for their lives and careers.

 

Perhaps scaled, accessible testing and a potential vaccine fix all these problems before the workforce has to. In the meantime, we’re hopeful that the same technological leaders that have kept so many Americans working safely with remote applications will continue to problem-solve around the reopening of the economy. After all, we have come a long way in just a few short months. Perhaps in choosing to relish in the few positive impacts of COVID – the innovation, increased awareness of workplace health and safety, etc. – we are simultaneously allowing ourselves to once again become vulnerable to inspiration. At Fosdick, our money is and always has been on American ingenuity.