Tue. Jan 31st, 2023

It’s 6 a.m., Monday, somewhere in America, and Jane Q. Office Worker’s alarm goes off. She’s tempted to hit the snooze button. But she knows if she does, she might miss out on a desk with a view.

A hypothetical everyperson in most respects, Jane is exceptional in that she’s from the future—a few months ahead of us. The changes that will soon impact our commuting and office life, changes that are both cultural and technological, are already her daily reality.

Many of these tools, including workspace management apps and digital whiteboards, have been around for years. But, like the video-calling tech that got America’s homebound workers through the pandemic, they are only now becoming widespread. This list also includes newer and more experimental tech, like 360-degree conference-room cameras and contactless employee check-in systems.

Cumulatively, these many small changes will represent, for some of us anyway, a profound break from the past.

The seating scramble

6:02 a.m.: After scrolling past Slack alerts that came in overnight from colleagues across the globe, Jane opens an app that will help her determine where she’ll be working today…and with whom…and on what.

In a recent survey of executives by consulting firm West Monroe, 67% said that by this summer they would roll out plans for a hybrid work arrangement, essentially the ability to work in an office some days, and at home on others. But this simple binary—home or office—belies the complexity now facing many employees.

Some companies are renting co-working spaces on the outskirts of the cities in which they once maintained, or might still maintain a headquarters, says Jamie Hodari, chief executive of Industrious, a startup that partners with landlords to offer office space and competes with WeWork. These employers recognize that workers have varying needs to gather some days of the week, month or quarter, depending on their team and job function. Some may have moved to a more distant suburb—or were never fond of their commute in the first place.

An app from Envoy allows employees returning to offices to reserve desks.



“Now every company is forced to ask, what do employees want?” says Mr. Hodari.

One key to workspace flexibility is an app, the sort made by software companies such as Robin, Salesforce, Envoy and Proximity, to allow people to reserve work stations and other resources, and allow their employers to track where they’ll be on any given day. Some have long been used to allocate desks to employees on a first-come, first-served basis—a policy known as hot desking or hoteling—to save money.

The collaboration conundrum

6:10 a.m.: Jane, who leads a small team of designers, claims a set of desks by the windows for her crew, before the squares in accounting get them. Not only is there good light, but it’s far from the kitchenette, where Greg from data science sometimes microwaves fish.

Of course, many managers are trying to get people back into the office five days a week, including Netflix CEO

Reed Hastings,

who called remote work a “pure negative,” and

Jamie Dimon,

CEO of JPMorgan, who expects “nearly all” the bank’s employees to return full time. Hybrid work’s skeptics also include those who think companies should choose to have everyone either fully in the office, or fully remote.

“If you have a meeting and there are five remote workers dialing in and as many present, it means a two-class system, where what’s said in the room matters more,” says Chris Herd, CEO of Firstbase, a startup that outfits remote employees with the furniture and computing equipment they need.

On the other hand, Apple CEO

Tim Cook

has said some things actually work better “virtually,” and Google has announced that nearly its entire staff will only be required to come to the office three days a week.

Now, many companies recognize not only that their offices will rarely be fully occupied, but that those offices need to be reconfigured to accommodate the things people will want to come to offices for—mostly collaboration. And the apps and cloud services they’ve turned to for help have themselves begun to adapt to this new world, adding features that go beyond just claiming a desk for the day.

This is what office life used to look like. Employees sit side by side at a San Francisco technology company months before the Covid-19 pandemic radically changed the workplace.


Kelsey McClellan for The Wall Street Journal

For example, employees will soon be able to use the Envoy app to invite co-workers to join them on particular days, says the company’s head of product Alex Haefner. Already, employers can use the app to block out areas of the office as “neighborhoods” claimed by particular teams on particular days.

This newfound worker flexibility has its costs, adds Mr. Haefner. Disputes over who gets what part of the office on what day will have to be resolved, and leaders will have to make sure employees don’t game the system—by, for example, reserving office space then not using it. Companies that reduce office space or redesign it for more collaboration might have to engage in data-driven capacity planning, managing available desks and conference rooms like any other scarce resource in their budget.

Conquering the commute

8:20 a.m.: Having grabbed a coffee from


using the app and picking it up at a nearby takeout-only store, Jane is ready for her commute. Like millions of other Americans, she hops on a shared electric scooter.

Mass transit systems saw historic drops in ridership during the pandemic. For many who don’t really miss cramming themselves into a subway with hundreds of strangers, the micromobility option is increasingly compelling, particularly in big cities.

“For cities, the political perception of micromobility pre-pandemic was ‘What a nuisance—how do we deter it?’” says Horace Dediu, an industry analyst who coined the term that refers to app-rented bikes, scooters and mopeds. But during the pandemic, he adds, this view shifted along with increased adoption, especially as shared transit slumped. “It was the only way to get around in many cities, and the visibility was incredible.”

Sharing the air

9 a.m.: Jane arrives at her office, flashing a QR code on her phone in front of a scanner. The same service that allows her to choose a desk is also linked to building access.

A 30-year-old technology, the lowly QR code is suddenly everywhere, and seeing broad adoption in the wake of the pandemic. It’s become a way to access menus and order in restaurants, a way to pay with


at more than 600,000 retail locations, a staple of outdoor advertising, and a way to check in at hotels.

When checking into a flexible workspace in the morning, employees might not realize that the space wasn’t just filled by different workers the day before, but by people from a totally different company. Some businesses are exploring “work as a service,” which means they only pay for the desks and offices they use on a given day.

New York-based underwear company Thinx, for example, offers employees a monthly stipend that can be used to cover home-office expenses or a co-working space, says a company spokeswoman.

Working for a Living (From Home)

As of April in North America, no industry surveyed had workers back in the office more than two days per week, on average.

Average days a week in the office for select industries

Transportation and logistics

Media and telecommunications

Transportation and logistics

Media and telecommunications

Transportation and logistics

Media and telecommunications

While such shared spaces might have seemed horrifying just a few months ago, we now know much more than we did early in the pandemic about whether or not a shared indoor space is a potential vector for airborne diseases like Covid-19. One critical element is enough air flow for four to six exchanges of the air in a room or building per hour. This can be accomplished with tech that has long been available, but only adopted by buildings such as those that meet the “Well building standard.”

Sanjay Rishi, head of corporate solutions for the Americas at real estate giant JLL, says that across his company’s broad base of clients, which includes many of the largest companies in the world, there isn’t a wholesale trend of corporations moving their headquarters either to other cities or from city centers to their outskirts. For many corporate leaders, maintaining a main office in a city center is essential to maintaining a cohesive culture.

“It is really about talent, and if you’re going to attract and retain talent you have to have a sense of belonging,” he adds.

Calling all colleagues

9:30 a.m.: Jane’s first meeting is in a conference room she reserved through her app. One end of the room is dominated by an 85-inch 4K TV. As a handful of her colleagues file in, the screen fills up with faces of colleagues, some connecting from the other side of the world.

Thanks to Microsoft Teams Rooms—or its equivalents from Zoom, Google and others—people will be connecting from home and other remote satellite offices going forward. Using one of these systems, everyone can see and hear one another.

Just because they work doesn’t mean they won’t cause headaches. Pre-pandemic, people hated meetings in person. Then they hated Zoom calls during lockdown. Meetings between people who are both in person and remote represent a third kind of drag, says Mr. Herd.

Making sure that those who are remote—some of whom are still in an office, just not this one—can participate on equal footing with those physically present has been an area of special concern for many companies. Google calls this “collaboration equity.”

10:30 a.m.: Jane is back at her desk. Or at least, a desk. The rest of her day is more of the same: new ways of collaborating, communicating and working which have started to feel normal despite being totally alien a few short years ago. For her, and for millions of other Americans, work has become less of a place we go, and more of a thing we do.

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Write to Christopher Mims at [email protected]

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