Reprogramming the Office for the New Way of Working

Have you followed the return-to-office (RTO) conversations as closely as I have?

The TL:DR is that strategies have gone from pro-remote work, to providing incentives to return to the office, to mandating employees return or face negative consequences during performance reviews.

As an architect and workplace strategist watching from the sidelines, it’s been interesting to see how many mandates are being implemented without considering the spaces and operations of the offices employees are being ushered back to.

Prepandemic, I worked with many organizations that did not understand the importance of space programming to ensure their offices met the needs of how their employees work.

Poor programming lead to spending a lot of money on underutilized spaces:

  • Large conference rooms that two people frequently use at a time
  • Private office spaces for individuals whose responsibilities often took them out of the office
  • Multipurpose spaces that turned out to not be as multi-purpose as they were originally intended

Or alternatively over utilized spaces:

  • The ongoing battle for conference rooms

And it was always a wake-up call to leadership when we showed them their average office utilization rate, which in most instances hovered around 70% but varied from industry to industry, with technology companies having a 60% show-up rate (on a good week).

So while having too much space is an extra problem today, I would argue that most organizations didn’t realize they already occupied too much space before 2020.

black and gray flat screen computer monitor and dining room

The ultimate goal of a good space program is to support the balance between the highest number of people you can fit into a space (occupancy) that provides the right mix of spaces for those individuals to do their work effectively, based on how the company works.

Here’s an oversimplified version of reprogramming office spaces to fit the way individuals work:
If an office is roughly divided up with 50% desks and 50% conference rooms.

  • In a highly collaborative culture: You would run out of conference rooms, and desk space is underutilized.
  • In a deep-focus work culture: You would run out of desk space, with conference rooms underutilized.
  • To reprogram the office for a collaborative culture: You would take out desks for more conference rooms.
  • To reprogram the office for a deep-focus work culture: You would take out conference rooms for desks.
two women sitting in front of white table

Easy enough, right? BUT…

  • How many desks do you take out?
  • How many conference rooms do you need? And what size is the optimum size for conference rooms?
  • What about other spaces beyond desks and conference rooms, like spaces to relax and socialize, open collaborative spaces, project room spaces, library or quiet spaces, spaces that support mental health and wellbeing, etc…

Suddenly, programming the office becomes a lot more complicated and only made more difficult because most companies have not figured out what it means to work in a flexible work environment.

And while companies are settling into the idea of RTO mandates, in most cases, they have:

  1. not considered the best use of space given the way individuals want to work in a more flexible work environment
  2. if they have considered (1), have not made necessary adjustments to the physical workplace to accommodate new needs

If that’s not enough, most workplaces have made the RTO experience worse for their employees than before the pandemic because they are simultaneously working to shrink the overall size of the real estate footprint.

For example, employees used to having assigned desks are now returning to a workplace where hoteling or first-come, first-serve is required, making the call back to the office even less compelling.

But proper programming is foundational to the in-office employee experience and can quickly be prototyped by asking people what they need out of the office and switching out some furniture to test their response.

At the very least – having a corner where you prototype different ways to program a space around how people work individually or in teams is a very easy way to let your employees know that you are working to improve their in-office experience and are open to feedback. No matter where you are in the RTO process.

Learn more about our Author: Evelyn Lee, FAIA, is the first-ever Global Head of Workplace Strategy and Innovation at Slack Technologies, Founder of the Practice of Architecture, and CoHost of the Podcast, Practice Disrupted. Lee integrates her business and architecture background with a qualitative and quantitative focus to build better experiences for the organization’s employees, clients, and guests.
She is widely published, wrote a monthly column for Contract magazine for over three years, frequently contributed to Architect Magazine, and is working with Architizer awards, including the 2016 40 Under 40 award for Building Design + Construction and the 2014 AIA National Young Architects Award. She recently served as the first-ever female Treasurer to the AIA National Board in 2020-2021 and was recently elected to serve as the 101st President of AIA National in 2025.

*Disclaimer: This post was not generated by A.I. It is indeed written by a real life human. A pretty cool human in fact.