Digital Hub Madrid © AECOM
Digital Hub Madrid © AECOM


The office of the future by Elvira Muñoz Beraza

Elvira Muñoz Beraza, Director of the Master in Strategic Design of Spaces at IE School of Architecture and Design, and Director of EMIA Interior Design Practice Leader at AECOM, shares her thoughts with AA on the transformation of the working space. What would be the future of the working space in a post-COVID world? Here are some answers to that question.


© Elvira Muñoz Beraza
© Elvira Muñoz Beraza

Is the office dead? Do we need to pay for physical space now we know that our employees can be as productive by working remotely?

These are some of the key questions that are being raised today and here I share my thoughts: Of course the office is not dead (…..if it were, I would be out of a job!); people still need physical spaces to gather and share a sense of belonging. We need to get together to share knowledge, coach, mentor and inspire employees. We also need it for cross pollination across different departments and business lines. Physical spaces display our values and our culture, hence, they are extremely relevant when working with clients. And we need them for those unplanned encounters that trigger innovation: serendipity and to generate the spark of magic of inspiration.

At the same time, we need to approach the office with a completely different attitude.

We should remember that 25 years of measuring the occupancy of workstations indicates that, on average they are occupied only 40% of the time, and are empty another 40%. For the remaining 20%, workstations are unoccupied, but the employee is somewhere around the office: hence, collaborating. And those percentages are similar throughout the world and in all sectors. That was before the pandemic. After a few months into lockdown, many surveys have been conducted across a wide range of organizations (see the Cushman & Wakefield global survey) and all indicate that now, most employees state that after the pandemic they foresee working from home two to three days a week.  If we continue designing offices as before …workstations are going to be mostly unoccupied, and this is very unsustainable, both environmentally and in terms of resources.

So, how can we start thinking outside the box?

At AECOM we organized an internal competition in April to ask all employees for their vision of the future of the office. After taking into account the many different opinions and suggestions, our team of Strategic Interior Designers realized that we needed to start thinking like entrepreneurs: we need to get as lean as possible.

The first thought is: How lean can you get? What is the absolute minimum space that any organization needs to function as such?

Let us approach the definition of the office space gradually, from the minimum requirements to the best optimal situation. This we call the ‘Matrioshka concept’.

An organization needs people and their knowledge, and they need to be connected. Hence, all an organization needs is a home office for its employees, with a connection. And as office space,  all that is required is a safe location for servers. But businesses would now be missing a sense of belonging and serendipity,  sharing, rapid, spontaneous collaboration, working together, F2F with their clients. For this to happen, and being less radical than the lean approach, businesses will need a virtual caffe: a Starbucks-type of environment, with great coffee, comfortable seating, working areas, along with audiovisual equipment and the right technology to enable employees working from the office to be connected with those working from home. Should this still be too lean, we can add highly versatile meeting/training/ brainstorming spaces that can be reconfigured for any type of occasion. Furniture and additional elements need to be on casters and walls should be folding.

Adding further elements to the list, seven models emerge, from the ME OFFICE (filled with workstations, which, as we know, are going to be mostly unoccupied) to the WE OFFICE (no traditional workstation, a high percentage of shared spaces and added value spaces with cutting-edge technology and fast connectivity). In the center is the ME/WE OFFICE with half of the surface dedicated to all types of bookable workstations and 50% of the space dedicated to shared/ added value spaces. Each company needs to decide whether they go for model one or two (ME OFFICE) or  five or six (WE OFFICE) acknowledging how they can go leaner in the event of another pandemic. This is flexibility and resiliency in the office space.

This is a strategy that would allow companies to reduce costs by letting employees work from home. If this sounds like rocket science, we created an office environment like this in 2016 for Accenture in Madrid: the Digital Hub.  It was a WE SPACE, completely reconfigurable in all areas, with many added-value spaces such as a Kitchen Lab and  a Reflection Room, along with particular environments. The investment was very high per square meter, due to the mobility of all furniture and walls and the high connectivity and audiovisuals and technology. The results: in one year, the company had recouped its investment, around 100 companies had visited the new space to explore potential joint ventures, (all the IBEX 35 companies did) as well as over 1,000 entrepreneurs and startups looking for new ideas. Long live the office, as long as it is a WE OFFICE based on the Matrioshka concept.

Digital Hub Madrid © AECOM
Digital Hub Madrid © AECOM


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