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Prominent architect predicts what the office of the future will look like


Has the pandemic killed the office? Some people think so. Others argue that office life is here to stay. But what offices look like and what they mean to workers will be radically different.

NPR's Bobby Allyn talked to an architect who has designed some pretty radical workplaces.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Clive Wilkinson gets defensive when asked whether COVID has killed the office.

CLIVE WILKINSON: It's ridiculous to say, you know, the office is dead. The office is the fomenting ground for people growing into, you know, successful adults. How would that ever be dead?

ALLYN: One thing is certain; the office is going to look a whole lot different. For instance, employers are telling him they don't want rows of cubicles anymore. Wilkinson has long disliked cube farms, so he's just fine with this.

WILKINSON: Cubicles are like human chicken farming. They have always been bad for anything other than kind of factory farming kind of approach to the office. Oh, put people into their tiny little footprint because it takes less money than an enclosed office, and we can kind of keep an eye on them.

ALLYN: I'm talking to Wilkinson at his glass-enclosed hillside home in West Los Angeles that's been described as a spaceship on stilts. As we sipped tea in his living room, he discusses more than 30 years of designing creative offices around the world. But there's one subject that gets him especially animated - Google. He recalls how the tech company's co-founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, approached him about their headquarters in Mountain View.

WILKINSON: Yeah, Larry and Sergey said that at the time, we don't really have any reference point but, you know, the Stanford campus model.

ALLYN: And that translated into the Googleplex, a maze of nooks, bleachers and clubhouse rooms to encourage collaboration - also, perks - lots of perks - catered food, organic gardens, massage rooms, private parks, volleyball courts. Incredible amenities became common across Silicon Valley. But now Wilkinson says it was a bad idea.

WILKINSON: I think it's dangerous to have an overt dependency between the worker and the company.

ALLYN: He says blurring the line between work and non-work keeps employees tethered to the office. And he argues it's actually bad for creativity.

WILKINSON: You don't want an overly comfortable workplace. You shouldn't have sleep pods everywhere. Creative work does not happen in these, like, super overprovided circumstances. Creative work doesn't happen in a condition of luxury.

ALLYN: Which he argues can lead to burnout because workers never leave, and it isolates them. They never go to cafes or laundromats or the grocery store because everything is handed to them. He said the situation is...

WILKINSON: Fundamentally unhealthy and a difficult one to pull apart because once you've made all those offers to your employees, how do you pull back from that situation?

ALLYN: OK, so if cubicle farms are out and Wilkinson cautions against endless swanky amenities, what does the future workplace look like? He says big, open spaces with couches and standing tables - an environment where it's easy to hang out and chat.

WILKINSON: You might think you're walking into the lounge of a boutique hotel, maybe. It's an amazingly effective work environment, even though there's no conventional office kind of furnishing or anything like that.

ALLYN: He's noticed something else about pandemic-era office plans he's working on. Companies are now investing in outdoor spaces. Go ahead. Answer your emails today from the shade.

WILKINSON: Because now it's seen as being healthy in a way that (laughter) health itself has suddenly become one of the top criteria about where you work.

ALLYN: He says the future office will be a balancing act. It needs to be more attractive than working from home, but not so attractive that workers don't want to leave. Plus, there's a huge unknown - how many workers want to return to the office, and how often will they? Not even the most seasoned office architect has those answers.

Bobby Allyn, NPR News, Los Angeles.


Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.