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What’s an Office For?

The spread of the novel coronavirus of 2020 has many people debating the role of the office, and I’m wondering how this will play out for our industry. Will we build fewer walls because the modern office may be transitioning to the home? Or what?


On the surface, it seems that we may not build as many office towers in the years to come. FastCompany has chronicled signs of “reverse-urbanization”—the movement of workers from large cities to smaller cities and towns. And large employers like Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google are splitting their headquarters into multiple locations, says The New York Times. They’re experimenting with satellite offices.


The “second digital transformation” of the modern office—the cloud-based office—is underway, says The New Yorker. The first digital transformation came with the PC revolution, which digitized paperwork. Today, employers can connect desktops wherever their employees work.


So, has COVID-19 killed the office? No. Let me explain.

Redistributing Offices

It’s been one year since the novel coronavirus SARS-Co-V-2 began spreading in North America. Remote workers jumped from 3.4% of the workforce to 42% from February 2020 to April 2020, according to FastCompany. And, 65% of those newly remote workers, the magazine says, don’t want to go back to the office. They want to continue working in new ways and places. In fact, 20 million people have left major cities or plan to leave them soon, says The New Yorker.


This has put the office real estate market on notice that things are going to be different. Some office building owners are considering reconfiguring their properties from open layouts back to closed offices and cubicles, notes Construction Dive. But no one knows exactly what to do. So, office lessors are maintaining “an eye toward flexibility to accommodate potential temporary or permanent reductions in an on-site workforce,” the magazine adds.


For many people, the office workstation has become something to retreat from. People are tired of the dehumanizing interiors created by open-office layouts, the harshness of fluorescent lighting and the shrinking proximities between workstations. In 2010, the average North American employer gave each officer worker 200 square feet of space. By 2017, sources say, each worker had only 130 square feet of space.


To stay sane, office workers lately have taken to “building cubicles of sound with headphones,” The New Yorker says. They show up to work only to withdraw into private worlds. They still get things done—collaboratively using Zoom, Slack, Microsoft Teams and other applications, but they don’t need to occupy workstations physically alongside their peers anymore.


The business world is trying to figure this out. Office tenants are ordering up some improvements. They’re adding walls here and there to force social distancing and divide common corridors and bathrooms into spaces exclusive for each tenant.


The Times says eventually some offices will be “redistributed.” Buildings in traditional employment districts will be “repurposed into housing, e-commerce fulfillment centers, delivery-only kitchens, health care centers, meeting spaces, event spaces and other uses,” the newspaper says.


Office rents are so high in some markets that FastCompany sees “reverse-urbanization” taking place.


“Let’s build the most livable town we can, and people will bring their own jobs,” says the head of remote development for a software company that has run virtual offices for years. Small town development is more sustainable, he says, than is “lobbying for corporations to come build a skyscraper to bring jobs and tax dollars.”


Notice the word “build.” The transformation of the modern office—caused by the coronavirus of 2020 and by other forces—means we will “build.”


Some office buildings may be rebuilt as housing. Some housing may be retrofitted as work spaces. Benefits will accrue to people who can live close to where they work—benefits such as reduced commute times, less carbon in the atmosphere and greater work-life balance—and it all involves projects and services fulfilled by our industry.


It reminds me of a point in the foreword of the book, “Celebrating 100 Years of Industry Growth with the Association of the Wall and Ceiling Industry.” Why has AWCI lasted for 100 years? “Wall and ceiling construction is a basic service, and always has been.” We’re going to build walls, come what may out of this pandemic.


So, what’s an office for? It’s a tool that gives workers the ability to focus and collaborate. Today, thanks to technology, an office can be virtual and located anywhere. And wherever we are located physically—in a tower, a low- or mid-rise building, at home—we will need walls.


Let’s go to work.

Mark L. Johnson writes for the wall and ceiling industry. He can be reached via

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