Agencies may need to alter their designs to lure back employees

Call booths, coffee shops, and gathering spaces are among the things industry leaders expect to see.
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Francis Scialabba

· 4 min read

As Covid case numbers drop and mask mandates lift in cities like New York, higher-ups seem eager to dust off the communal tables and cubicles. New York Governor, Kathy Hochul, recently told business leaders to “give [employees] a bonus to burn the Zoom app and come on back to work.”

Many remote workers say they are working more than they used to, in fact, and may be less eager to “burn Zoom” than politicians or executives. “I don‘t think there‘s ‘going back‘ to anything,” Robert Lambrechts, chief creative officer at ad agency Pereira O‘Dell, told us. “That world, whatever we did in January 2020, doesn‘t exist anymore.”

That leaves agencies holding the real-estate bag. In a fully hybrid or remote world, what will agencies do with all that office space?

Is there anybody out there?

Rather than forcing a return for the sake of aesthetics, Pereira O‘Dell has opened its New York and San Francisco offices for employees to use when they please. While Lambrechts commutes to the office almost every day, he said he‘s in the minority.

“Four days a week, pretty much no one is here. It‘s me and one other person, and we sit on opposite sides of the office. And I can have literally any call out in the open. It doesn‘t matter,” he told us.

A recent Pew Research study shows that a majority of the teleworkers surveyed are staying home by choice—only 38% are WFH because their office is closed or unavailable to them. Of the respondents who had the option to go in, but chose to stay home, a majority said that “a preference for working from home is a major reason” they’re doing so, while a minority cited concerns about Covid.

Barry Lowenthal, who ran Media Kitchen prior to its merger with MMI, said that in his experience, it‘s not just about employees getting their commute time back, but also that “in most organizations, people have experienced what it feels like to have somebody looking over your shoulder,” which can’t happen at home.

For people who do go into the office, Lambrechts said one point of frustration he’s seen is commuting just to sit on Zoom all day. And it’s hard to avoid: Pereira O’Dell has hired remote workers around the world over the last two years. Roughly 35%–40% of employees are now located outside of commuting distance from their offices in New York and San Francisco, making video calls often necessary.

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Even when teams are in the same city, he said he doesn’t think things will go back to how they were: “​​I do genuinely think that the idea of what an office is is going to change from somewhere where you’re forced to go and sit from eight to five, or eight to six, or whatever, to somewhere where you go and meet with a group of people for a few hours and then do what you want to do.”

The world office is a stage

Long-term, Lambrechts predicts agencies will scale down their office sizes (leases permitting). In the meantime, to address empty space and employees’ changing needs, he envisions adding things like more phone booths for private video calls and communal spaces for team meetings. He said he could see these spaces eventually taking the form of in-office coffee shops or libraries.

Lowenthal predicts some of the unoccupied office spaces will be repurposed into event spaces, for large-scale gatherings.

Lonn Shulkin, CEO of Canadian marketing agency BAM Strategy, envisions that previously conventional office spaces will start to look more like WeWork. Right now, he said, he’s one of the few people at the company who goes into the 15,000-square-foot office every day. “We‘re paying for it either way,” he said, “And so why would we risk employees not being happy?”

Yet he’s still concerned about company culture in the agency’s hybrid model. “We've made such an investment in our culture that that’s where we’re more worried—how do we actually build human bonds between people who aren‘t ever together?”

So far, the agency has done this by allowing employees to choose whenever they come in, while also setting up events like monthly birthday celebrations for employees. He said they’re also looking into planning an off-site gathering.

According to the New York Times, virtual retreats have emerged as a solution to building company culture, but, “​​Google Hangouts is no team trip to Hawaii,” and employees may be looking for more personal and exciting off-site interactions. Not just another virtual happy hour.

“I think people want to go out and have a drink with their team or have a dinner,” Shulkin said. “I think that's what people are really missing.”

And they might even want to work next to them, as well. Just not the way they used to.

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