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Post-pandemic offices: the end of business as usual

Plexiglass desk dividers and hand sanitising stations have become common office features amid the Covid-19 crisis. But as the working world settles into a post-pandemic future, what will define the offices of the future? Chris Lo profiles some of the architectural projects helping to point the way.

Shenzhen Wave, China

Chinese telecommunications giant ZTE last year received planning approval for its new headquarters, located at the entry point of the city’s masterplanned Shenzhen Bay Super HQ business district. Architecture firm Büro Ole Scheeren has designed the building as both a reassertion of “the importance of physical space and collaboration as incubators of new ideas”, and as a facilitator of new ways of working after the lessons of Covid-19.

The design has been dubbed ‘Shenzhen Wave’ after its central void space, which rises diagonally from the bottom of the building to a glass bubble on the roof. This core is the connective space between the HQ’s working areas, which are designed with total configurability in mind.“

Radical flexibility is at the core of the project,” the studio said. “A series of vast, open floor plates, each larger than the size of a football field, are piled up, shifted and calibrated to create the ‘work stack’. Hovering above the ground plane, each floor is able to be freely sub-divided, programmed and occupied, offering an unprecedented spectrum of possibilities for spaces of new and as-yet-unforeseen forms of working.”

Shenzhen Wave will be the new headquarters of Chinese telecommunications giant ZTE. Credit: Büro Ole Scheeren

Microsoft Herzliya campus, Israel

Microsoft’s new 46,000m² campus in Herzliya, Israel, which opened in late 2020, was designed long before the pandemic struck. But for Gindi Studio and GSArch, the architects behind the project, the flexibility built into the campus has stood it in good stead amid Covid-19.

“We started with fundamental questions like, ‘Why does a person actually want to come into an office?’ and ‘Why do they need an office at all?’,” said Gindi Studio owner VeredGindi. “We aimed to create a space that would continue to be relevant for decades, no matter what comes next.”

As well as incorporating energy and water-conserving technologies that contribute to the project’s LEED Gold certification, the campus is designed like a city, with four hub areas (one of which is outdoors) linked by boulevards and providing a range of working spaces to fit the campus’s many different roles.

All desks are on wheels, allowing workers to easily reconfigure their team layout, while amenities include a family playroom with work desks flanking children’s activity areas.

Microsoft’s new campus in Herzliya, Israel, was designed before Covid-19 struck, but its built-in flexibility has proven itslef during the pandemic. Credit: Microsoft | Amit Geron

O2, Rosslyn Business Improvement District, US

The business advantages of having access to open-air working areas – particularly in warmer climates – have been brought into focus by the need for social distancing, and a growing number of post-Covid office designs are incorporating outdoor meeting areas and extended balconies to reflect this.

In October, Rosslyn Business Improvement District, a mixed-use urban centre on the outskirts of Washington, DC that hosts more than 25,000 employees, announced the launch of O2, an outdoor office within the development’s Gateway Park.

The space, which is equipped with separated workstations and meeting areas, on-site bathrooms and sun shades to ward off screen glare, was designed by the Design Foundry as a reservable, safely distanced work area for local employees looking for a change of scenery.

A growing trend for outdoor co-working spaces is likely to take root as businesses look to adopt more flexible working practices and reduce their physical footprints.

A growing trend for outdoor co-working spaces such as the O2 outdoor office is likely to take root in the wake of the pandemic. Credit: Design Foundry

EQ, Bristol, UK

In the UK, where Covid-19 deaths hit record highs in January 2021, construction work has started on southern England’s largest speculative office development.

Owned by property firm CEG and designed by UK architecture studio AukettSwanke, the EQ project will offer around 200,000ft² of office space, spread across a glass-clad seven-storey building close to Temple Meads railway station in the city of Bristol.

As a speculative development, CEG and its team will have to persuade prospective occupants that EQ, which is set to launch in 2023, represents the right office move in a post-pandemic future where physical locations will have to be carefully considered. The development will incorporate a dedicated bicycle entrance an

d storage area, giving access priority to those looking to avoid public transport. Other Covid-savvy features include air quality sensors, increased air changes and fewer touchpoints, while the developer is looking to lure clients with a flexible leasing model that will allow occupants to more easily expand or contract their presence in the building.

“This will help to manage company growth and additional projects, as well as seasonal demand and the effects that social distancing will have on their office requirements,” said Ian Wills of Jones Lang LaSalle, which was brought on by CEG to help launch the new office to market.

The EQ features a dedicated cycle entrance for those wishing to avoid commuting by public transport. Credit: CEG  

Where Do We Work From Here

Australia-headquartered design practice Woods Bagot has attempted to lay out new models to inform future office designs with its 'Where Do We Work From Here' initiative. Led by the studio’s global leader for workplace interiors Amanda Stanaway, the project presents four models offering distinct visions for office spaces that cater to new working practices.

The ‘In and Out’ model imagines an office with a rotating headcount as employees choose whether to work from home or collaborate at the office. The ‘Culture Club’ model has a similar theme, but forgoes desks entirely and envisions the office as a comfortable space designed entirely around meetings and interactions, with desk-based work to be done remotely.

The ‘Collectives’ modeladapts the traditional open-plan office layout for a post-pandemic future by dividing working areas into smaller teams, while ‘Community Nodes’ envisions a network of satellite offices allowing workers to remain closer to their local communities, with a HQ hub office co-ordinating and acting as a central meeting point.

“Simply reducing density and cleaning more is not giving companies a good reason to bring people back to the workplace,” said Stanaway. “After this forced period of working remotely we will hunger for spaces with deeper immersive experiences for working with one another.”

Woods Bagot's concept includes four models for office spaces that cater to new ways of workingg. The 'In and Out' model is pictured here.  Credit: Woods Bagot

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