A few people in a library.

Equity, Interrupted: How a Return to the Office Is Needed to Rebuild Equity

In March of this year, huge numbers of people in the U.S. left their offices to work from home. Thus ensued any number of home office hacks. Some were successful. Some still have much to be desired. Most people didn’t expect it to last long, so we endured coffee tables as desks, slow internet, and loud roommates and children.

Six months later, we’re still at home, and big questions have emerged around the role of the office and issues of equity in the workplace. Home offices are not created equal. If we continue to work from home, or even move into a hybrid model that is part virtual and part in-person, is it possible to create an equitable work environment wherein one person has glitchy WiFi and a couch for a desk chair and another person has gigabit Internet and a dedicated office in their house? We think the answer is no.

Several large brands have been in the news lately suggesting that they intend to move entirely to a work-from-home model. They point to the growing sophistication of virtual collaborative platforms like Zoom or Teams as proof that remote work can be effective. Some are offering stipends to their people to buy ergonomic chairs and office equipment. Companies may also be enticed by the thought that a distributed workforce could lower their capital expenses by downsizing their real estate portfolio.

To some degree, they aren’t wrong. But it’s worth asking what hidden expenses they would be taking on to dissolve the office as we know it. We believe the office is imperative to a company’s success because it’s the key to rebuilding equity in the workforce.

Office as Equalizer

According to the Gensler U.S. Work from Home Survey, 88% of 2,300+ anonymously surveyed workers said they want to return to the office in some capacity. Most want to go back because they want to interact with coworkers, but many also feel they can be more productive. That’s because there are enormous disparities in people’s home environments and work-from-home setups.

By contrast, the workplace offers the same access to the same high-speed internet, ergonomically appropriate task chairs, and ample desk space.

When we were back in the office, we all benefitted from access to spaces dedicated to focused work, and we didn’t have to cope with multitasking parental and home-schooling demands along with full workloads. Working from home, many of us are limited by physical constraints like the size of our dining table or distracted by the sound of our neighbor’s lawnmower. For many, we are simply “making it work” in the short-term in less than ideal working conditions.

As we navigate new global challenges, working from home has become the new normal, and it has offered the opportunity to enhance workflows, implement new technologies and virtual tools, and discover new ways of connecting with our colleagues. But the question remains, is our current experience working remotely threatening the workplace equity that our physical offices have long been able to provide?

Without the proper WFH set-up, how can we expect junior designers to be able to comfortably do their best work? Or, parents who have to take care of kids? Or, someone who can’t afford premiere WiFi access? At work, we’re all on common ground with equal access to tools we need to succeed.

As some companies announce plans to make at least partial working from home more of a long-term practice, it’s important that companies make employees feel supported by ensuring they are following best practices to create effective WFH set-ups. In the new era of the hybrid workplace, companies will need to think about how they can extend the principles of office equity to their people’s homes by investing in the tools and resources needed to optimize WFH set-ups, including providing monitors, improved WiFi, and office furniture.

Office as Connector

In addition to having all the necessary tools to work with, the office provides beneficial access to people. For example, there are abundant opportunities for employees across departments to attend events and meetings, from after-hour social networking to engagements with senior leaders.

Also, chance encounters are critical social and creative experiences. Overhearing an interesting conversation or attending an impromptu event or workshop with a colleague are moments of discovery that are harder to replicate via a planned Zoom meeting. Plus, the ability to make spontaneous connections with people of different backgrounds, ages, zip codes, and lifestyles can support equity. As awareness around issues of diversity and inclusion grows, we will naturally place greater emphasis on learning more about each other and respecting our unique backgrounds, cultures, and lifestyles, and the post-pandemic office can be an amazing platform for reconnecting us all in brand-new ways.

Our current experience of WFH has tended to group us into strategic, project-driven teams that make sense on paper but limit opportunities for cross-collaboration among diverse teams and don’t account for spur-of-the-moment exchanges.

Flexibility ≠ Equity

Of course, we have all been able to find ways to make work and life fit more seamlessly together, tweaking our WFH set-ups and personal routines along the way. Yet still, we are all literally having separate and unique experiences at home, limited by personal circumstances, and this is only exacerbating our differences.

Freedom and the flexibility to choose where and how to work in an office using the same shared tools and spaces differs greatly from the freedom to work in your living room or take a gym class in the middle of the day.

Our offices allow us to be flexible and collaborative in our approach to design in order to create environments that are resilient and adaptable. This is more important than ever as design tackles some of the world’s greatest challenges from social injustice to the health pandemic to environmental crises.

Now that we’ve adapted to a new norm, the chances are high that the days of everyone going to the same workplace five days per week are over. But this pendulum will swing back and it’s critical that we find a hybrid rhythm between the benefits of the flexibility of working at home and balanced work-home life and the equity, spontaneous opportunities and focused environments offered in our shared workplaces.

The future workplace, which will also embrace a hybrid reality, can continue to evolve and respond to people’s needs by increasingly focusing on equity and inclusion efforts to strengthen company culture, to form new virtual and physical connections, and to ensure everyone feels welcomed and set up for success both working from home and back in the office.

Lisa Cholmondeley
Lisa is a principal and design manager who has played a key role in the delivery of several large, complex, mixed-use developments in the Middle East. Lisa is co-director of Gensler’s Center for Research on Equity and the Built Environment and a member of Gensler’s Global Race and Diversity Committee. She is based in Washington D.C. Contact her at .
Hao Ko
Hao is a principal and managing director at Gensler’s San Francisco office and focuses on building a dynamic practice through an open and collaborative culture. His portfolio features diverse architecture and master planning work in the U.S. and Asia, including projects known for their high level of innovation and quality such as The Tower at PNC Plaza, NVIDIA Headquarters, and Mercedes-Benz USA Headquarters. Hao is based in San Francisco. Contact him at .