As the effects of the Coronavirus pandemic stretch on, the future of work is feeling less and less certain. Our basic assumptions about the necessity of meeting in person seem to have evaporated, and a sudden shift to digitally enabled, remote productivity has meant nearly abandoned office parks, the rise of the serious home office setup, and perhaps even a wholesale reckoning with contemporary workplace trends. And perhaps no idea is under more scrutiny than the open-plan office.
For years, we’ve seen a pronounced shift toward the “one-big-room” workplace, as cubicles disappear and workers circulate and collaborate to suit their day’s tasks. But in an era of social distancing, the open office orchestrated explicitly to encourage chance run-ins and maximize commingling can start to feel like a liability. Idea-generating environments may also encourage other kinds of propagation, after all.
The movement away from central offices is about more than leaving conference rooms and commutes behind. It may also signal a monumental shift in how companies attract talent. Tech giants have long used remarkable work environments stocked with perks like on-site gyms, free food, and on-site dry cleaning to attract the best and the brightest. Those days may be ending. A number of tech stalwarts including Pinterest and Twitter have already freed up millions by terminating their costly Bay Area leases and sending their people off to work remotely.
Of course, it’s not just Silicon Valley that’s reconsidering their beloved physical headquarters. For one of the clearest pictures of how the workplace winds are changing, we only need to look a little further north.
Back in March, 1,4000 corporate employees of the Seattle area-based outdoor giant REI were looking forward to moving into their long-awaited new home. After four years of collaboration, development, and construction, REI was putting finishing touches on a 400,000 square-foot complex set on eight acres in Bellevue, Washington. Custom-built for the cooperatively run company, it was tailored specifically for its active, fleece-clad workforce. Compared in the press to a “summer camp for adults,” the sprawling environment boasts a “blueberry bog” and cozy fire pits both inside and out.
Guided by a design philosophy meant to maximize the integration of indoor and outdoor spaces, the campus is suffused with natural light thanks to massive windows, skylights, and myriad garage doors. An abundance of covered walkways ensures employees can work outside even in the midst of the Seattle drizzle. And to help employees reach their daily step goal, architecture firm NBBJ even included additional, non-essential stairs in the project’s design.
Like REI’s storefronts, the campus’s aesthetics are the pinnacle of post-industrial chic. Conference tables incorporate reclaimed dead trees and old bridge beams. Butcher block-style cubes of oak abound. However, the specifics of the complex were deliberately left unfinished, allowing the employees to dictate how and where they’d like to work. Ironically, this progressive and open-ended approach to space planning would make the complex easier to sell-off.
Coronavirus hit Seattle early. In March, REI employees received word that they’d be working remotely for safety reasons. And so, through the summer, their custom-built headquarters sat finished but unused, a pristine relic of a suddenly bygone era. Finally, in August, REI’s CEO Eric Artz made a stunning announcement: they’d never be moving in. REI put the state-of-the-art facility on the market in the midst of total market uncertainty. It would prove to be a profitable gamble.
It turns out that not everyone is ready to give up on commanding corporate spaces. In September, it was announced that Facebook would pay $368 million for REI’s brand-new campus—roughly double the cost of the project’s development. REI would instead shift to a scheme that spread its workforce across scattered satellite offices and home offices.
Despite the fact that Facebook has already announced its plans to work remotely until at least summer 2021, the potential value of the Bellevue Campus connected to light rail and convenient to Seattle’s airport—was clearly too rich to pass up. While the future of work may be uncertain, it’s clear that flagship real estate projects aren’t disappearing any time soon.
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