It’s official: The office has migrated online. The tools that we use for working and communing are now a network of apps and clouds. While it was once an abstract notion for most, working from home is the new normal. During the pandemic, WFH has proved successful as an infrastructural exercise, with technology as the platform for all social connections, from staff meetings to happy hours. The pandemic has also brought the various meanings of work into sharp relief and reset our understanding of essential and nonessential work, of salaried and gig positions. In the process, it has catapulted new heroes — medical professionals, grocery store cashiers, takeout couriers, mail clerks — into a vastly altered public sphere. In the private sphere, our sudden autonomy is countered by the struggle to carve out spaces of work in our own homes.
Mandatory WFH compels us to examine our relationship to technology and to our peers. Is a shared server connection more vital than physical proximity to a co-worker? Can the physical office as a communal infrastructure for work be replaced by virtual space? On one hand, distributed work gives us more flexibility and autonomy. Away from the distraction and red tape of the office, focus and productivity have increased. At the same time, we are working longer and harder than ever before. The concept of work–life balance is obliterated with the one-to-one overlap of the work and domestic spheres.
WFH gives our office mates a sneak peek into our domestic lives, replete with cameos from kids and biographical interior-design flourishes. It recontextualizes us as individuals, not just co-workers. Outside of the neutral zone of the office, unequal access to space, light and air creates even more inconsistent ground for work. The pandemic — during which every individual is recast as a disease vector and a bridging node between communities — has shone a starker light on our contribution as integral parts of a societal whole.
Post-pandemic life will call for a much more empathetic approach: We must rethink what constitutes care for employees and co-workers, broadening our idea of what constitutes a good workplace for physical and community health. The corporate conversation around work has shifted away from touting “collaboration and innovation” and toward “safety, wellness and mindfulness,” away from amenities and toward equity: Where companies like Google once ushered in new employees with the charm of gyms, adult play spaces and screening rooms, there seems to be a growing emphasis on how employees are treated instead of what they are being treated to.
Will we return to the office en masse? Are there limits to our ability to work online? We can’t predict the future, but we can see that WFH places an undue burden on domestic space, as our homes do double and even triple duty as work, school and leisure space. Plus, subtle yet important cues are lost through virtual communication, and the highly choreographed and scheduled nature of virtual calls leaves most of us wanting serendipitous conversation. We crave connection and action. In the midst of a turbulent restructuring of the cultural sphere, we are surging back into public space in search of real connection, communication and activism. But one wonders if the sterile design proposition of seamless surfaces, masks and sneeze guards, which may keep us safer, replicates rather than resolves the distance of virtual connection.
So how does the designer build in this context, where virtuality has become the dominant mode of experience and pandemic instills a deep suspicion of touch and connection?
Our design studio, Soft-Firm, pushes back against the inevitability of total virtualization as the new paradigm of collaboration and space-making. We seek to confront the discrepancy between the physical and virtual worlds, balancing our reliance on the digital with the needs of our physical bodies in space and our needs as social creatures. Recently, we were commissioned by the immersive design studio Scatter to envision the physical space in which virtual reality is produced and presented. Organizing the office along an assembly line, we established three zones for the stages of production: the capture space where physical bodies are recorded digitally, the workshop where virtual space is produced and the “veil” in which that virtual space is presented through VR systems.
The seamless interplay between the physical and virtual object in this project heralds a future in which virtual space is interchangeable with real space. Could we all be avatars? Everyone gets a corner office, a three-piece suit, working anytime from anywhere? Not so fast. There’s a physical limit where the body rejects technology in the “veil.” We are susceptible to VR sickness, which results from the disjunction between the digital environment fed into our senses and our actual physical grounding. To counteract this at Scatter, we designed non-visual cues such as soft details and textured floor coverings — material treatments that become progressively softer and more pliable as the body experiences the virtual reality space. Wherever these boundaries are blurred, we crave an architecture that amplifies our haptic awareness and, as designers, we can see this interplay between the virtual and the physical as an opportunity for sensory activation.
Technology can be the operative metaphor for the design process itself, exemplified by office start-ups that quickly roll out ready-to-work spaces. In this business model, space planning is substituted with a kind of software logic: Spatial products are not floor plans or structures, but rather a multipliable code of ones and zeroes. The most irreducible units of space are the charging station and the mission statement, which together form scalable and culture-coded office environments anywhere. In a post-pandemic world, this would incorporate a deep shift in how we consider co-working and sharing. Here, design is necessary when this approach conflicts with real-world human needs, such as acoustical privacy, a sense of place and — now more than ever — safety and security.
Soft-Firm addressed this challenge for a co-working start-up by designing modular prototypes (privacy booths, partition systems and desks) that were generic enough for any space yet brandable to any company. These “physical software patches” were templates for customization in the company’s aggressive program of expansion, providing packaged functions such as privacy or informal meetings. We designed a privacy booth that could be nested radially or on a diagrid — a sheared cube hard-shelled in plywood but with furry insides, like a hug. The contrast in texture and enigmatic form are a more humanistic format for work — and a challenge to the modernist cube as a unit of space.
As we migrate from platform to platform, it’s tempting to fantasize that the virtual office will leave the physical one behind. And the idea of returning to our old office desks post-pandemic, if we ever do, feels like returning to an archaeological frieze of our old lives. Yet as designers and as workers, we still crave something familiar that’s not quite nostalgia.
Is there a way to create an open-ended, less precious approach to workplace design? In an exhibition entitled “Out Of Office” at A/D/O by Mini’s creative space in Brooklyn (which recently succumbed to the pandemic and shut its doors permanently), Soft-Firm collaged tropes of work into an active co-working space: two imagined vignettes in the public atrium. In doing so, we asked: What are the office’s symbolic nodes of interaction? How is it anchored with tactile, concrete signifiers? In the Water Cooler Talk feature therein, we reimagined the social hub as one giant totem for itinerant freelancers, fully integrated with a running Slack channel, power outlets and water. (We might add a hand sanitizer dispenser to that now.) Here, the physical realm meets the digital stream. In Wellness Room 2050, synthetic projections of the 1995 Windows desktop (with its signature “Startup” chime slowed down by 200 per cent) and wall-to-wall acoustic felt allowed the worker to unplug in the digital pastoral. In this case, familiarity met idealized futurism.
The relationship between technology, design and work is predicated not just on our ever-increasing access to more — and newer — tools and devices. The paradigm shift of the last decade makes office design as much about “software” (or programming) as it is about “hardware” (the architectural or physical infrastructure itself). And both demand performance and flexibility.
When our work sphere maps directly onto the virtual sphere, work is not what we make, but how we do it. Technology allows the loci of production to be increasingly distributed, yet the cultural significance of the workplace — the centrality of work in our lives for community and a structured routine — remains strong. Where the office used to be a potent headquartering of people, brands and company objectives, businesses are realizing they can save a pretty penny by renting space for meetings and happy hours, letting the corporate environment diffuse into the public and private realms. The office as we knew it no longer exists. If its essential components are reconsidered post-pandemic, does the office of the future look like a guild, a kindergarten, a garage? Do we DIY our own home-office kit?
Work is a paradigm to design alongside, but also to resist against. Post-pandemic, we see an opportunity for designers to map back onto the physical world in a radically new way, to rethink some of the fundamental building blocks of design, such as adjacency, connection and touch. The design of offices should be a textural tether between our messaging platforms and our common physical spaces. We all seek a connectedness that is more essential than network connectivity, reaching beyond floor plans and timesheets to foster a symbiotic and mindful relationship to the digital realm and to each other.
Going forward, office designs should be textural tethers between our messaging platforms and our common spaces — and that includes the workplace equivalent of a hug – write the founders of experimental New York studio Soft-Firm.