Offices are products, but they haven’t always been thought of in that way. Unlike almost every other product, offices are not improved over time. Companies traditionally build out their offices when a lease starts and leave them unchanged until the lease term ends. This contrasts with the way almost every other product is designed. Everything from electronics to gardening tools is constantly being retooled and retested in order to make them more useful, efficient, and attractive.
This outdated perspective on office spaces has resulted in landlords facing expensive repairs with each new tenant, companies owning underused offices, and landfills being overwhelmed with demolition waste. But now there is a revolution happening in the way that offices are designed and built. Instead of creating an office space with permanent walls and fixtures, office designers are experimenting with modular construction techniques that allow them to easily adapt the layout depending on what works best for the end users.
A key to this modular, flexible office design technique is prefabricated rooms that can be built, disassembled, and reassembled to meet the needs of the office. “After COVID, companies realized that trying to guess what their space needs will be in the future is a futile task,” said Morten Meisner-Jensen, Co-founder of ROOM. His company has delivered modular office solutions to more than 7,000 clients, playing a key role in transforming attitudes toward office design. “Architecture is no longer a sunk cost,” he said, “If you build out with modular methods, you can pack up your investment and take it with you.” Landlords benefit from the reduced downtime between tenants. Occupiers benefit from the flexibility it provides them when modifying an office to meet the needs of organizational changes.
The first modular concept that really took off was phone booths. As the world adopted video meetings during COVID, it became important to reduce background distractions, something that open-concept offices struggled with. But the idea of modular rooms has expanded to include much more than one-person booths. Now landlords and occupiers can buy entire conference rooms or private offices that come flat packed and can be assembled in hours. This not only reduces the time and money needed to build out a new office but also allows offices to be products that are continuously evolving. “This is the first time in history when we can look at building a physical space like an office as an iterative product,” Meisner-Jensen said. “Office managers can experiment with new ideas and configurations and see how they perform in a real-world setting.”
Tailoring an office to an organization’s requirements may seem straightforward, but discerning the true needs of an organization from its office is a complex challenge. Data provided by access control systems and occupancy sensors can give office managers an idea of when spaces are utilized and by whom. This data can then be combined with information collected from space booking and scheduling software to learn about how many virtual attendees were at each meeting. Context about why certain areas are or are not being used can come from satisfaction surveys that can be conducted after each meeting. Together, this quantitative and qualitative information can provide enough feedback to help managers make decisions about the next changes they want to experiment with.
Modular construction provides flexibility not only through the mobility of rooms but also due to their inherent adaptability. Modular rooms can be expanded or contracted to accommodate different size requirements as business needs change. Plus, the variety in modular architecture enables businesses to cater to diverse workstyles where team requirements can run the gamut from large collaborative sessions for meetings and brainstorms to private spaces for focus work or private conversations. Additionally, the use of movable furniture and adjustable partitions enables companies to easily organize large on-site events, an increasingly common practice in the contemporary hybrid work environment.
Modular architecture is also far more sustainable than traditional construction. Every time businesses need to add or remove space, it creates a huge amount of waste. Ripping and replacing drywall and wiring, as well as repairing flooring and ceiling tiles, has a large carbon impact, something that more and more occupiers are tracking thanks to new sustainability regulations and a growing number of corporate mandates.
Making offices into iterative products requires more than just modular construction techniques. The entire way that we design offices has to change. Oftentimes, this requires some forward thinking by developers and property owners. “We worked with developer TF Cornerstone on a project in D.C. where we submitted eight different layouts to the city during the permitting process,” Meisner-Jensen said. With these different options already filed with the city, occupiers will not even need to get a new permit if they decide to change the layout. Some landlords buy their own “fleet” of modular rooms, highlighting the quick and flexible setup of office spaces as a unique selling point to attract clients in the current unpredictable office market.
Just like any product, offices can also benefit from an iterative process, continuously evolving and enhancing in response to daily user feedback. This approach will render offices more efficient, adaptable, and comfortable, shifting away from the perception of offices as static and unchanging. This dynamic nature may boost office attendance as workers become more eager to experience new features they haven’t encountered before. Furthermore, knowing that their feedback could lead to tangible changes, employees will likely be more engaged and willing to contribute suggestions, anticipating that these might be implemented in future modifications.