The office is dead. Long live the office.
How HelloOffice CEO Justin Bedecarre sees commercial tenants crafting spaces post-COVID
As teams and companies spend months acclimating to the new reality of working remotely amid a pandemic until 2021, more whitespace is opening to re-imagine what the purpose and function of an office will be once it’s possible to meet in person again.
Justin Bedecarre, who has spent more than 10 years in commercial real estate as a broker and then a founder of HelloOffice, has helped dozens of companies — including Initialized Capital, Patreon, and Y Combinator — find their new homes. He’s helped companies think through and budget for build outs and negotiate rent reductions amid the pandemic.
His company is currently advising founders on how they should re-imagine the office when they come back and has carefully studied the plans of the Bay Area’s highest profile growth-stage companies for the future of work.
The office — as we know it — is facing tectonic shifts with a new, higher equilibrium level for remote work. But the signals are not super clear yet. For every mid-size company like Pinterest (which is paying almost $90 million to break a lease in San Francisco), there are big tech companies like Google that are unveiling large new commitments to in-person campuses, like the mixed-use proposal with 1 million square feet of office space in their hometown Mountain View that they released this week.
Read The Fine Print on Remote Work Announcements
Bedecarre stresses that it’s important to read the fine print on high-profile remote-work announcements from publicly-traded tech companies. Facebook grabbed national headlines announcements for foreshadowing that as much as 50 percent of their workforce could become remote in future cohorts of employees.
However, the details spell a different story. Remote work is primarily being offered to senior engineers, not junior employees or managers, and even remote employees will need to be within four hours of an office. On top of that, Facebook sighed a 730,000 square foot lease in Midtown Manhattan earlier this month.
“Working from home is not for everyone — just think of the monotony and stress of it,” Bedecarre says. “A lot of it people miss each other, and miss the energy of having everyone together.”
Likewise, Initialized portfolio company Coinbase still has a fairly office-centric vision, even if the company ends up being far more distributed than previous generations of tech companies.
“The vision is to have one floor of office space in ten cities, rather than ten floors of office space in one city,” wrote Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong in May, adding that, “Some people can’t or won’t want to work remotely, so we plan to continue having physical offices in major hub cities.”
The Office Becomes Experiential
Instead of going 100 percent remote, workers and employees might slide to a more hybrid situation where solo or deep work stays at home while the office becomes a place for building collaboration and trust. In a sense, the offsite becomes the onsite.
According to Bedecarre, clients are now saying that the office needs to do something really special for the team.
“The office has to give people more meaning to their work. It’s not going to be about how many bodies you can fit into an office,” Bedecarre said. “It has to be thoughtful and impactful for the people who come in.”
Bedecarre says companies might choose to have fewer rows of personal desks and more collaborative space for spontaneous interactions.
Identity provider Okta says that future offices might be like an Apple Store or a Warby Parker shop. They are dynamic, collaborative spaces where employees, customers and partners get to connect and experience the company’s brand and culture.
Okta is super particular about the language it uses. The terms “remote” and “distributed” are too rigid. “Distributed” might mean having a number of small office spaces spread across the world while “remote” might refer to doing work at home or in spaces that aren’t purposefully designed as office spaces. Instead, Okta is promoting the term “dynamic work,” which is about having “an agile and flexible global workforce” and “making office spaces needs-based rather than required.”
Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield, who built one of the products that most enables a future of spread out teams, seems to agree. If companies switch to expecting employees to be in the office from 9-to-5 Monday through Friday to coming in one to three days a week, the entire purpose and use of the space can be totally rethought.
“If you unbundle the office, one of the big applications alongside having a creative space, a place to host customers and a place for events, is almost like factory-farm housing. These are desks where people sit by themselves not talking to anyone, and just use their computers. Well they might as well do that somewhere else, in the most pleasant environment,” said Butterfield. Then there will be a really interesting and kind of creative opportunity to think about what we do with the remainder of the office.”
Think Through Defaults If You Go Hybrid
As companies go remote, we’ve advised founders to increase documentation in order to make sure information and decisions spread through the company equitably and transparently. This touches on a key point of debate within the remote management discourse — can hybridized remote and in-office cultures ever truly be fair?
Gitlab famously refuses the office or hybrid culture, as it creates inequities between in-person and remote employees. The company fosters a culture of over-documentation with an emphasis on writing and recording internal knowledge down with public sharing of information over a need-to-know access basis.
“As a CEO, you’ve got to think about how to make it super easy for people to be tapped in,” Bedecarre said. “Employees may not know what they’re missing when decisions are made. When information is disseminated, they may ask — was I not in the room? Did I not have the ability to be in the room because I was in Dallas?”
Bedecarre says conference rooms might have to be re-thought or re-imagined to create more of a sense of parity between remote and in-person team members.
Some companies that have gone remote amid the pandemic are weighing how to return to a hybridized approach. Coinbase aims to have no explicit or implicit disadvantages to working from any location in the world.
Box CEO Aaron Levie sees the need for flexibility on the one hand for remote work, while offering office hubs that can increase opportunities for in-person interaction, mentorship, networking and creativity.
“Our future is a hybrid one, capturing the best of both worlds, with a digital workplace stitching the physical office and virtual office all together,” Levie wrote in May of this year.
In summary, while some companies may go 100 percent remote, look for a world where the office is still a cultural center for the company, but instead becomes more of a collaborative space for team, camaraderie and culture-building for part of the week.