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3 ways the pandemic changed what the office will look like

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Last spring, CNBC Make It asked workplace experts how the pandemic could change the future of work.

Brent Capron, the interior design director at architecture firm Perkins and Will's New York studio, predicted workers would come back to the office on a hybrid schedule. They'd continue to do individual focused work from home and convene in office spaces redesigned as "elaborate conference centers" for large gatherings.

Companies based in emptied-out and expensive cities would downsize their headquarters and open up regional hubs wherever their employees relocated. Meanwhile, touchless fixtures and sanitation stations would be installed to keep up with increased cleaning efforts.

Today, roughly 21% of all employed adults are still working remotely due to the pandemic, and as major companies hit their summer 2021 intended reopening dates, questions about what kind of office they'll return to loom large.

Here, Capron revisits his predictions from a year ago and gives new insights into what kind of offices workers will return to in 2021.

Health and wellness, reimagined

A year ago, employers' ideas of keeping onsite workers safe usually meant requiring masks and PPE, limiting physical contact and doing lots and lots of cleaning.

As a designer, Capron believed employers would use health-care facilities to guide their reimagined workspaces, such as by installing more touchless fixtures (door sensors, automatic sinks and soap dispensers, voice-activated elevator banks) and building with more durable materials that could stand up to frequent deep-cleaning.

But as we learned more about Covid-19's airborne transmission, Capron says building developers have become more focused on creating better ventilation systems for indoor spaces. He adds that he's seen greater demand for buildings with ample natural lighting, as well as access to the outdoors, such as private gardens or balconies where workers can spread out.

It's a bigger challenge for offices in dense cities like New York, Capron adds, though he hopes greater attention on air quality could also boost consumer appetite for environmentally friendly innovations in general, like electric vehicles.

Employers will continue to encourage wellness in shared spaces, like a cafeteria that serves healthful food options and opens to an outdoor dining area.

And Capron is also hopeful the office stockpile of Clorox wipes will stick around long after the virus subsides: "While working from home, we've all gotten used to our own clean spaces, so it would be nice to have an office that's cleaned more often once we're back."

Workers still want private spaces in 'elaborate conference center' office

These days, "there's a sense of optimism that ultimately we will overcome the viral challenge of Covid-19, at least to a level where we feel comfortable convening again," Capron says.

Though many workers will split their time between home and office, employers will invite workers back to areas that are spread out but still spark interactions, similar to a coffee shop or co-working space. Meeting rooms will be outfitted with videoconferencing or VR meeting technology to accommodate for workers who remain remote, Capron adds.

Last spring, however, he expected that all focused work would be done remotely. But the longer people worked from home, it became clearer that some, especially parents and apartment-dwellers, yearned to get back to the office as soon as possible. For these workers, Capron expects companies will still need to invest in areas for individual focused work, such as building privacy booths or small offices that can be booked by the hour. Larger corporate campuses might also create quiet areas that resemble a library, where individuals or small groups of people can go to a closed-off but still communal location to work.

In general, Capron still expects the open office floor plan to stick around, and that cubicles are not coming back.

The office as a status symbol

Moving forward, Capron expects employers will use their offices to show off their company culture like never before. The ability to work at a nice building in an expensive real estate market could become a status symbol of sorts. Unlike he predicted last year, he hasn't seen companies move to open regional hubs for remote workers, though employers who gave up their real estate during the pandemic could turn to co-working spaces to test new working models.

He also expects workplace design will follow a pattern of drawing from the hospitality industry by creating inviting, comfortable spaces through strategic lighting; furniture arrangements; art and decor; background music; and even down to scent technology meant to evoke certain associations with a space.

"What hospitality means is making sure your comfort in that space is optimized, and that you're focusing on that person's experience," Capron says. He says employers are increasingly using well-designed spaces as a recruiting tool, too: "If I'm looking for a job and go in to look at the space, I might think, 'Wow, this company is really thinking about how I interact with colleagues, how I can be most comfortable and how I can have a great experience in the office. That's a club I want to be a part of.'"

In the months and years ahead, Capron says there's no one-size-fits-all formula about how to entice workers back to the office. However, he encourages employers to invest in understanding how their workers' needs have changed, and what about the flexible-work experience they can bring into their physical office to help people work at their best.

Workplace flexibility goes beyond furniture arrangements, too. It could mean incorporating technology that allows people to take walking meetings throughout their campus or around the neighborhood. It also means investing in the right technology to ensure onsite and remote colleagues can continue to work collaboratively, wherever they are. And finally, that also means finding the right balance of how much leaders expect workers to be onsite, and how much leeway they give with working from home.

"This is an exciting opportunity," Capron says, "if companies really take the moment and invest in research to understand where their employees have been more productive or satisfied and have found meaning in what they do. They can tailor-make these options moving forward to strengthen their business and culture. Instead of trying to pay attention to the trends everyone else is doing, look for opportunities to make a custom solution and have more of an impact for your organization."

Check out:

13 ways the coronavirus pandemic could forever change the way we work

‘Kickass’ headquarters and amenities: How employers will win back office workers in 2021

3 in 4 workers want to return to an office in the future—here’s how they expect the workplace to change

Don't miss: Use this calculator to see exactly how much your third coronavirus stimulus check could be worth

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