A Conversation on Return-to-Office with Morten Meisner-Jensen, Co-Founder of ROOM
By: Emily Libresco, LH Senior Manager, Marketing and Communications
It’s been a long two years since the COVID pandemic started and we all scurried home to work from the safety of our living rooms. When it seemed the situation might resolve itself quickly, employers retrofitted conference rooms to contain hand sanitizer and block off every other chair.
But as remote work became a mainstay and the fabled return-to-office became more distant, employers and employees settled into a new normal, and started to think apprehensively about what the modern office might look like one day in the future.
COVID has changed work forever, and antiseptics alone aren’t going to cut it. Companies have to rethink every aspect of their offices in order to transition back to the office — they need to make their spaces welcoming and collaborative, but also safe and nimble. More than anything else, companies need to brace for wrinkles they’ve never considered.
(The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Emily Libresco: We are two years into Covid and though we’re emerging from a dire pandemic state, uncertainty remains. What’s top of mind for companies bringing their teams back to the office?
Morten Meisner-Jensen: The pandemic has highlighted an unfortunate truth about the modern workplace: it was never that great to begin with. The average office was undeserving of our workforce well before the pandemic hit. In fact, more than 50% of Americans have complained about noise to their bosses. The average square feet per employee has dropped by over 30% in the last decade. And, stress causes more than one million Americans to call in sick every single day.
The businesses that will succeed in their “return to office” strategies will be those that embrace uncertainty and understand the need to reinvent. The widespread corporate adoption of the open floor plan has been counterproductive to creating inviting, uplifting, and productive work environments. Additionally, businesses will continue to grapple with challenges posed by rigid floor plans that lack variety in space, coupled with long lease terms. Fixed construction comes with limitations, as reconfigurations to accommodate changing workforces are expensive and time consuming. Moving drywall and rearranging floor plans are so challenging that companies tend to stay in their spaces even when they no longer serve business goals or teams, even if they’re negatively affecting employee wellness, productivity and the company’s ability to attract and retain talent. Embracing flexibility will enable businesses and building owners to efficiently build and rebuild for an ever-changing future.
We also know that the workplace is no longer confined to just the four walls of an office, but to anywhere with WiFi, and the workforce has grown accustomed to the flexibility of remote and hybrid working. To better attract and retain talent, the new workspace needs to be designed for the people using it — not only to satisfy our functional needs, but to fuel innovation, productivity, and cultural bonds. Businesses need dedicated space for private work, communal space for collaboration and brainstorms and additional space that works to refuel, refresh and reset.
Emily: How can companies be smart about their real estate decisions (restructuring leases to accommodate business needs, adapting to a discerning hybrid workforce)?
Morten: Companies should be designing for adaptability rather than trying to predict the future. Being smart about everything that’s wrong about the modern office is easy, but coming up with concrete, cost-effective, and practical solutions is a different matter entirely. While tech giants can afford to continuously rebuild their spaces, the majority of businesses can’t take the same approach.
That’s where ROOM comes in. We’ve pioneered a new system of adaptive architecture — it’s modular, prefabricated, and pre-certified. Our architecture elements are affordable to buy, fast to deploy, and easy to change. Adaptive architecture provides a sustainable alternative to fixed construction that allows companies, landlords, flexible office providers, designers, and architects the ability to build space that works from day one, and continues to adapt with the evolving business needs well into the future.
The modern office should offer possibilities rather than prescribing how employees should work, and ROOM’s suite of adaptive architecture enables businesses to do just that by empowering autonomous design, which can be changed at a moment’s notice. We’re giving choice back to the people inhabiting the workspace — supporting individual needs, work styles, and personalities.
Emily: What are employees prioritizing in terms of return-to-office?
Morten: Employees are prioritizing choice. While employers would like people back in the office, employees value flexibility. A 2021 Ernst & Young survey found that more than 50% of employees globally would quit their jobs if not provided with post-pandemic flexibility. And JLL’s 2021 Future of Flex report shared that the #1 priority for the workforce, ahead of salary, is work-life balance. We’re definitely going to see a growing disconnect among employers and employees in terms of how they view flexibility, and businesses will lose talent if they can’t find a balance.
Prioritizing choice doesn’t just reflect a change in how individuals want to work, but also who they’re willing to work for. If “The Great Resignation” isn’t proof enough, it’s no secret that workers are selecting companies whose missions and cultures align with their values. Work will not just be about making a living, but about being part of a greater mission that fulfills personal obligations as well.
Emily: What are employers prioritizing?
Morten: Employers are solving for a few key aspects as they try to bring their teams back to the office.
- Culture and relationships: Companies are looking to build and retain talent and to create team culture. JLL’s Future of Flex report shared that 73% of global workers would prefer to work from places that offer a destination for human connection. Remote work has helped us get through a pandemic and strengthened our ability to be effective from afar, but team culture, relationships, and day-to-day interactions have taken a back seat and teams are feeling the pain. Employers who master a combination of maintaining flexibility and promoting connection will prevail.
- Flexibility: No one knows what the workspace will look like in six months or a year from now, yet alone the average 5–10 years of a commercial lease. For this reason, many of our clients, from the smallest startups to Fortune 500s, are looking for ways to build for adaptability. Our purpose-built, modular solutions are crucial in allowing companies to effortlessly shape and reshape their workplaces, by offering agility and flexibility, saving time and money on traditional construction, and making it easier to react to the changing world around us.
- Balance (or Work-Life Balance): Employers have started to focus on offering better work experiences focused on their people. A great workplace supports more than just work — now people expect health and wellness, as well as true time off, to be built into a company’s work strategy.
Emily: What can we expect for the future of work? Any best predictions?
Morten: Work as we know it is going to change. I believe we’re at the very beginning of a work-revolution — in terms of where, how, and how much we work. The days of clocking in from 9–5 are dead (and, quite honestly, should have been killed off years ago). The future of work has to adapt and it has to center around the human in a very different way. Companies need to design for autonomy and choice, for in-person and remote, for today and for the future. A few things to look out for:
- Demand for flexibility in commercial real estate will skyrocket. Desire for short-term leases is going to skyrocket in the next decade. We’re going to see lease terms change and a number of new flexible solutions from landlords converting part of their portfolio to spec suites, flexible office providers offering access to workspaces similar to fitness subscriptions, and many new startups trying to meet the demand.
- Architecture will be adaptable. In a world with short-term leases and flexible workspace offerings, traditional builds and construction will come up short. Simply put, it’s too slow, too expensive, and too inflexible to change. This challenge is at the center of why we started ROOM and decided to pioneer a new system of adaptive architecture: the idea that we can change the game on how you build, and more importantly, rebuild, great workspaces.
- Work is no longer only at the office. Companies will need more than just a return-to-office policy. The workplace of tomorrow is changing and has new boundaries. There is an opportunity to rethink the physical workplace to create spaces where employees not only want to be, but can do their best individual and collective work. Employees’ variety of work settings must now also include the home and third workplace. Workers will now expect the ability to work remotely, and the autonomy to match their work to the right setting.
- The future of work is green. As expectations mount for businesses to be environmentally responsible, companies continue to look for sustainable solutions to their needs. When it comes to the built environment, fixed construction is one of the biggest culprits of carbon emissions. In fact, every year 600 million tons of construction debris end up in landfill as a result of the old being replaced with the new. More than 90% of the time when an office changes, tenants’ walls are torn down only to build up new ones to fit an updated way of working or a new company’s needs. This is why prefabricated, modular architecture like we create at ROOM will be the best alternative for companies to create flexible, more sustainable workplaces that adapt with the constant change of business and enable a better way of working.
Interested in working with Morten and the team at ROOM? Check out their current job openings here.