This article originally appeared on Forbes.com.
Office vacancies remain well above prepandemic levels, hitting 15% globally according to real estate and investment manager JLL. In some cities the numbers are far higher. San Francisco, for example, has topped 25% vacancy.
Is this the ringing of the death knell for the office, or can a case be made for its future?
If offices are to return to relevance, they will have to be designed to reflect the new ways of working, and that calls for creative thinking. In Bain & Company’s new Tokyo office, the work of Japanese plaster artist Naoki Kusumi decorates the reception area as a symbol of respect for tradition but also innovation. A traditional craft technique known as “sakan,” the plasterwork is meant to represent the elements of wind and water, inspired by Kusumi’s hometown of Awaji Island. His innovative approach combines that tradition with contemporary themes and incorporates natural, sustainable design elements.
The result is stunning and, at the same time, emblematic of the evolving purpose of the corporate office.
Covid has accelerated preexisting trends. Hierarchy, face time that’s simply for show, and open seating are all out. Teamwork, wellness, and inclusion are in. Understanding of the variety of motivations that bring people to work in the first place is deepening as well. The notion of a one-size-fits-all model of work—or workplaces—seems increasingly absurd.
With long commute times and easy-to-use technology that enables remote work, why should employees go into the office? One senior executive of a global HR consultancy describes the answer as “the three Cs.” People come to the office to connect, to collaborate, and to celebrate. It is the job of executives and HR professionals to reset workplace expectations to match the shifting purpose of the office and give people a compelling reason to come in.
The degree of reset depends in part on what creates value in your particular industry, business, and function. Experience shows that if employees understand this and are given a compelling and inviting reason to come into the office, they will. In the professional services world where Bain operates, for example, value comes from teamwork, creativity, relationships, and accelerated learning—all of which, it can be argued, are more effectively accomplished in person.
The designers of Bain’s Tokyo office did their work with an eye to nurturing those four critical aspects. The office has three zones, each with its own purpose, that together offer ample space for connection, collaboration, and celebration.
The first, called “Tech,” is meant to support a productive and efficient working environment, with state-of-the-art technology and ergonomic spaces. The second, “Urban,” is designed to facilitate collaboration and connection between workers, with rooms that are often used for training. The third is “Zen,” which includes areas for larger social gatherings, celebrations, or relaxation. All are flexible, reconfigurable, and flush with natural light and greenery. This zone features inviting spaces for guests and small teams to congregate. They usually boast the best views, and some even have mini Japanese rock gardens tucked into a nook or cranny. Since the new office opened, employee attendance, engagement, and use of the office have all significantly increased.
Kusumi-san’s entranceway plasterwork captures the changing business environment as well as the role an office can play in helping a company meet it. The plasterwork slopes steeply from ceiling to floor, extending from the initial entryway out to the exterior window overlooking the Tokyo cityscape and, on a clear day, Mount Fuji. Near the ceiling, the sakan is choppy, representing the turbulence of rough seas and winds, reminding us how quickly everything can change. Closer to the floor, it grows smoother, invoking the serenity of calm waters, and the power and harmony of aligned and inspired teams.
It’s an apt metaphor for our changing working world and environment—and how the office of the future must go beyond housing desks and computers to act as a builder of culture and community.