A few weeks into the pandemic, Tim Carroll, general manager of the office design firm Working Spaces, got a call from a client. “We are getting rid of all of our offices,” the client said. “Can you help us find someone to buy our furniture?” Within two weeks, the client called back to explain the business had overreacted and would be keeping its physical office space.
According to The Balance Small Business, an entrepreneurial advice website, those who predict virtual work arrangements will last post-pandemic cite advantages such as increased productivity and downtime, more job opportunities and communication efficiency. But these forecasts sometimes fail to consider what is lost when the majority of a company’s employees operate solely from computer screens. Carroll boils the loss down to one key sentiment: “It’s very difficult to create and maintain culture in a virtual world.”
Breanne Dale, a graphics and interior design assistant for MU’s Architectural Studies Department, knows this. On weekdays, she wakes up at 8 a.m. and enjoys a slow morning until it’s time to get dressed for work. She then makes the seconds-long commute to her office. Formerly a spare bedroom, the space is sparse but well-lit.
Dale has kept this daily routine since the university’s campus shut down one year ago. She falls into the pool of 56% of Americans who still clock in virtually, according to a Feb. 12 Gallup report.
Although she doesn’t miss her 15-minute drive to work, Dale says she would prefer to be in the office. She longs for the routine of grabbing coffee, getting to her department’s office and seeing her meticulously organized desk, where she could physically and mentally leave her unfinished tasks at day’s end.
“I think that’s what I miss the most — and also just talking to people,” Dale says. “If you have a quick question, it’s like, ‘OK, I can just go knock on their door.’”
Not all of Dale’s colleagues have been working remotely, however.
Working Spaces and most of its clients apply a hybrid model with some working from home and others on location. Carroll says this flexible format will persist post-pandemic. He encourages an office design that balances safe collaboration and still allows bonds to form within the workplace.
“The more you let someone go without any kind of connection to the organization, the more they drift off to an island unto themselves, and you start to lose them,” Carroll says. He notes that businesses are increasingly leaning into the concept of “resimercial” spaces — spaces that combine residential and commercial elements — or “homing from work,” which entails bringing cozy, domestic elements into the workplace. As people return to physical offices, they might not have to forego the now-familiar act of completing tasks while curled up on a couch.
Ancillary spaces, what Carroll refers to as little neighborhoods throughout the buildings, allow staffers to unwind and converse comfortably. These enclaves are also likely to stay around in the long run largely because they are conducive to social interaction.
The employee cafeteria at Shelter Insurance is another social hub. But Jay MacLellan, the company’s public relations director, says the space has been closed since the onset of the pandemic. The cafeteria allowed workers to discuss projects in an informal setting and facilitated a family environment. Employees miss that community feeling, MacLellan says. Shelter Insurance employs between 1,100 and 1,200 people in Columbia. Since the pandemic, roughly 100 of them are in the main office on any given day. Looking ahead, MacLellan says he foresees the permanence of technology platforms like Microsoft Teams and Zoom for quick, convenient communication, as well as the option to work remotely now that the company knows it can be done efficiently.
Although these elements remove physical barriers to collaboration and communication, they can also compromise the learning experience for new employees. Bill Dampier, executive vice president of MBS Textbook Exchange, says it has been a struggle to train recent hires. “Our business isn’t extremely complicated, but we have a lot of things to teach them,” Dampier says. MBS employs more than 1,000 people in Columbia, with roughly 350 of them off-site.
But Dampier says employees who work from home have more flexibility to be with their kids during remote learning and prefer not having to commute during bad weather. Despite these conveniences, there’s still something to be said for the ability to go to a physical workplace, as well as the opportunity to retreat from one.
“Our employers think that we’re more accessible because we can just do a quick meeting at almost any time of the day,” Dale says. “And my mindset has changed, too, because I’m in my house still. Some days I love it, and some days I’m like, ‘Oh, I wish I were going somewhere.’”