Future of work

To meet new worker demands, bosses need to think like Airbnb hosts

These radical designs could make for greener workspaces and happier employees.

Imagine a room where fractal patterns are painted onto the floor and sunshine floods in from the floor-to-ceiling windows. The walls are curved and plants line the baseboards. This isn’t a greenhouse from the future. It’s the office of right now.

Or it might be soon, as HR departments and bosses ponder how to entice office workers to come back to work after more than a year of working from their kitchens and living rooms. While a remote workforce is a hacker’s dream, it’s also an incredibly likely future, according to recent survey data.

To meet this new demand for increased sustainability of the workplace and conditions that foster better mental health, office designers need to start thinking like Airbnb hosts — natural light, green design, interesting shapes — not just cubicle renters who pay for a Bevi machine.

Remote workers are accustomed to their houseplants and afternoon walks. They aren’t exactly rushing back to offices in droves now that vaccination rates make it possible. According to a June poll of 1,000 U.S. adults, 39 percent would rather quit their jobs than return to offices full-time. Meanwhile, a May poll of 2,055 U.S. adults found 35 percent would prefer to continue to work from home. “No commutes” and “flexible hours” make life at home preferable for some.

But the advantages of being at an office could go beyond avoiding home distractions and fostering relationships with colleagues. Work, experts argue, can be a better place — not because of free beer, snacks, or other stereotypical startup perks, but by going green.

In this case, “green” is both in the literal sense and as a nod to eco-friendly development.

This moment is an opportunity to improve our connection with the outdoors and redesign offices with an eye to cultivating green spaces and nature. Such a reimagining could promote other forms of sustainability, change the relationship between office buildings and city centers, and benefit workers’ well-being. This isn’t magical thinking — studies suggest simply being near nature is associated with living a longer, healthier life.

Inverse spoke with five experts, including architects and climate-change consultants, about the future of office life post-Covid-19, eco-cities, and green design as a pathway to a healthier future. They are:

Here they describe in their own words a vision of the future — and what’s being done now to make that possible. These interviews have been lightly edited for brevity.

As an environmental strategist, Browning applies to design research the concept of biophilia, which posits that humans have an innate connection with and seek out nature.

The Core Terminal at Port of Portland Airport PDX, designed by ZGF Architects. The designs for the future airport terminal incorporate many features of nature-centric or ‘biophilic’ design.’Courtesy of Port of Portland Oregon

Biophilic design is design that connects people to experiences of nature and the built environment. Its intention is to help support people's health and well-being. So [it’s a] branch of evidence-based design that looks at physiological and psychological responses to nature.

There are different experiences that you can have, and they tend to sort of fall into three broad categories. The first we call “nature in space,” which are direct experiences in nature, views to nature, illustrations of nature, water, plants [and] animals in space. Sunlight [and] breeze moving through space.

The second category is what we call “natural analogs” or representations of nature. This can be the use of biomorphic forms or natural materials or, in particular, the use of fractal patterns which are mathematical patterns that occur frequently within nature. Think of the dappled light under trees or waves on a beach or flames in a fireplace.

An example of a building that does that is the new headquarters of Interface — the carpet company — in Midtown Atlanta. It’s floor-to-ceiling glass that is then covered with a plastic film that is a photograph that wraps the entire outside of the building in a simpler reverse photograph of the local forest.

We know that some of the patterns help support stress reduction. We know that some of the other patterns help with cognitive performance. There’s a whole branch of research called attention restoration theory — how those experiences shift cognitive performance.

The third category is what we call the “nature of space.” These are three-dimensional experiences or actual spatial experiences themselves.

One of the things that we are seeing in some of our post-occupancy work in offices for tech firms and others — something that people become much more aware of after not being in the office — is the experience of refuge. That space where I can get away even for just a few minutes and reset and refresh.

[An example] that's about to begin construction is the redesign of the core terminal for the airport in Portland, Oregon. If you go on to their website, you’ll see some really crazy illustrations and also their discussion of why biophilic design is important for the passenger experience.

Biophilic design is not necessarily creating the illusion that I’m in nature. I'm not making the inside look like a meadow. But there may be some characteristics that occur within the meadow that I want to replicate. It's looking at the aspects of those experiences in nature and then translating them into human design.

“Employers will have to create office environments that excite people and draw them in.”

As the leader of McKinsey’s work on climate change risk with experience in real estate, Boland talks about how companies are preparing their offices for a post-Covid-19 future.

The inside of the Hearst Tower, the first green LEED-certified building in New York City. Boland discusses how companies are seeking to lease in green-friendly office spaces. Getty

It is highly likely that in the future, there will be a significant shift toward more hybrid remote work. Many people had a positive experience of the freedom of working from home. Many employers have seen some of the benefits of that — although there are downsides as well.

Employers will have to create office environments that excite people and draw them in — that makes the workplace magical and enjoyable and healthy.

One element of that could be the integration of nature and kind of natural features into the office environment.

There’s also a couple of other trends that are converging — [like] the awareness of wellness that has happened over the course of the last year for all kinds of reasons. People have become more aware of the ways in which the spaces they're in could affect their health and wellness.

A third trend is the awareness of sustainability and climate. Many organizations have made commitments to decarbonizing or to improving the sustainability of their footprint.

Meeting those commitments will be all of the normal stuff you would do around decarbonizing — you know, energy efficiency — but there’s [also] going to be an increased focus on just the sustainability in office models.

A company occupies or rents office space. A big piece of it is just incorporating some of those sustainability considerations into the choices of where they decide to lease space. “Is this a green building that I'm leasing space in?”

There are other things around investments they’re making in energy efficiency. Things like the lights are off when you're not in the room or the window shades are automatically closing when it’s a hot day to reduce the amount of sun coming in. Electrifying buildings so that, instead of having on-site gas, you're using electricity and renewable sources.

Then there’s some more kind of far-out things like potentially looking at hydrogen sources of liquid fuel battery storage on site. Those are a little bit further in the future.

“Every day when I pass it, I am amazed how wild cities can be ...”

A landscape planner by training, Kleinschroth discusses “urban greenspaces” and eco-cities, how Covid-19 has changed how we perceive the outdoors, and whether office life can replicate nature.

Kleinschroth discusses the importance of urban greenspaces and how we might prioritize them post-Covid-19.Getty

Urban green spaces are an umbrella term for everything that’s green in the city. Parks are the most obvious part, but there are many more green places such as woodlands along roads and railways or abandoned brownfields that become overgrown over time.

This is also a concept called “urban forest” because it can really look like a forest from above and it can get surprisingly wild, despite all the people living in between. Take, for example, Berlin in Germany. It is amazing to see that derelict railways and even airports have developed into the most biodiverse areas in the city and many people use them for recreation on a daily basis.

It is well-known that the greener a city, the more livable it is considered. Many studies have shown the health benefits of regular movements in green areas, both physically and psychologically.

Even just looking out of the window into the green makes people feel better. This was of course already the case before Covid-19, but the long time of confinement and travel restrictions have highlighted the importance of green spaces nearby where people live.

I am a landscape planner. From that perspective, I do not think that green decoration [in offices] can replace the benefits of greenspaces outside. Yes, ornamental plants can be pretty, but there is so much more to experiencing urban nature than just the color green. Most importantly, it is the movement and the fresh air that actually bring health benefits.

Further, I think there is value in being exposed to some “untamed” ecosystems, where certain natural dynamics can be experienced. Not far from my house here in Zürich, a beaver family has felled all the trees and built a dam on a small stream, thus converting it into a small lake. Every day when I pass it, I am amazed how wild cities can be — if we only let them.

I am hopeful that, forced by the Covid-19 crisis, more people have found this kind of inspiration from urban nature and will help shape more livable and sustainable cities.

“The environment we evolved in was full of seasonality and curves and color.”

Silva talks about the inspiration for his green co-working space in Los Angeles and what traditional offices can learn from this sustainable model.

The inside of an office coworking space in Second Home Hollywood. Iwan Baan

This is our sixth [coworking] location, and all of them are based on biophilic principles.

The architects we worked with are at MIT. Over there, they think a lot about evolutionary psychology and the places that we, humans, and our ancestors evolved in over billions of years.

Those environments don't look anything like a kind of gray cubicle or concrete office block. The environment we evolved in was full of seasonality and curves and color. Fractal complexity.

That’s what our spaces are all about. The design objective was to take the office out into nature.

It’s a two-acre campus. Sixty percent of it is outdoors. When you’re outdoors, you're walking amongst the 6,500 trees and plants — 700 tons of vegetation — we brought to that space. And we're walking through a really dense kind of forest through walkways, and there's hummingbirds, butterflies, bees, and squirrels.

We have 112 different species of plants and trees. So we think a lot about biodiversity, mostly drought-resistant varieties, and we also capture rainwater and also irrigated water as well.

You get to one of 70 office pods with bright yellow roofs. Each of them is like a curved oval-shaped, egg-shaped standalone building.

What’s really interesting — in a post Covid era — is that there’s no recirculated air. When you’re in [the] offices, the fresh air is pumped straight in from outside. We also have hospital-grade air filtration for all our indoor spaces.

The reason for that is not that we thought a pandemic was coming. If you approach [offices] from a biophilic perspective and are thinking about how the built environment — the office environment — impacts our health and our productivity, you think about the air we breathe as much as you think about the curves and the color and all other aspects of natural light.

“I ultimately seek to make buildings that give back more than they take.”

As a LEED-certified architect, Hertz explains how his background shapes his green designs and ways to bring offices closer to nature.

David Hertz Architects is re-designing the NRDC building in Santa Monica, California to incorporate a “solar forest” and rooftop garden.David Hertz Architects

As an architect focusing for the last 37 years on how we can lessen the impacts made by the built environment on the natural [world], I ultimately seek to make buildings that give back more than they take in terms of resources.

Ideally, buildings are energy positive and carbon negative while providing for a space that the building occupants find harmonious to work or live in.

I focus on biophilic design that places an emphasis on natural materials, natural light, and natural ventilation. These types of spaces that connect occupants to nature are inherently beneficial.

Incorporation of healthy natural and non-toxic materials that are resource-efficient is one way [to make offices green].

Adding natural light and ventilation as well as the incorporation of nature, not only inside the building but [also] with overt views to the borrowed landscape is a way to bring occupants closer to nature and therefore feel more comfortable inside buildings.

For the Natural Resources Defense Council building in Santa Monica, we [David Hertz Architects] are reimagining the 15-year-old office building — the first LEED Platinum office building in the country — into a net-zero energy building that updates all the systems.

We are also utilizing the roof — formerly just used for solar and mechanical [energy] — into a translucent “solar forest” and providing a rooftop outdoor garden, complete with native gardens for habitat restoration and refuge.

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