Ideas for a post-COVID-19 workplace

As a workplace strategist, I am constantly asked, “What is the workplace of the future?”

It’s a question I dread, because a subtext typically lingers underneath, e.g., “I hate the open office,” “All this talk about collaboration is an excuse to take away my office,” and even, “I hope you feel good about taking away my private office” (for the record, I don’t). In the COVID-19 era, the question remains but the expectations and predictions are shifting. Fortunately, Frank Lloyd Wright already designed the solution.

When asked about a post-COVID-19 workplace, I simply whip out my smartphone and show the offices Wright created for S.C. Johnson’s headquarters, completed in 1939.

The interior of the Johnson Wax Headquarters in Racine, Wisconsin, circa 1940. The building was designed by American architect Frank Lloyd Wright and built between 1936 and 1939. Image Credits: FPG/Getty Images

It. Is. Perfect. Six feet of distancing? Check. Need wide circulation paths to prevent those now-precarious spontaneous collisions between employees? Check. Natural light? Check. Want some biophilia? Problem solved.

The above image is the largest expanse of the Johnson Wax building and features no internal walls. It was originally intended for the ”secretaries,” while a mezzanine was reserved for management.

Unfortunately, I can only maintain the irony and half-earnest smile for so long while showing this image. The reality is that Wright’s building would never be built today: it’s arduously inefficient (from a headcount versus space ratio) and would be unlikely to survive a modern-day budget review (referred to in the industry as “value engineering”). A budget-conscious value engineering analysis would quickly replace Wright’s custom-built furniture with “equally functional” corporate furniture systems or a benching solution to maximize efficiency — oh, and, yes, collaboration.

The reality is that the COVID-19 crisis is not asking us to predict the “workplace of the future” but rather to evaluate cost against the unknown.

The term “New Normal” is about managing a real estate portfolio and its enormous costs against new workforce patterns that may undermine the very existence of an office. When colleagues or clients (or family members) ask me “What is the workplace of the future?”, the subtext is now, “Do we even need a workplace in the future?”

The new approach to the old question