There’s a lot to miss (spontaneous conversations, lunches with colleagues) and to not miss (awkward holiday parties in the conference room, dry cleaning bills) about being in an office. By making remote work a norm, the pandemic has not only upended office rituals; it has likely changed the workplace forever. As many as 23 million people, or roughly one-tenth of adults of working age, in the United States are planning to relocate, often in search of more affordable housing, according to one survey. “Office centricity is over,” tweeted the CEO of the tech company Shopify as early as last May. Designers who previously applied themselves to creating Insta-worthy spaces are now figuring out which environments can support a dispersed workforce.

To learn more about what the Great Work Migration portends, Alta Journal organized a virtual roundtable with the heads of three prominent California-based design firms: David Galullo, the CEO and chief creative officer of San Francisco–based Rapt Studio, which recently redesigned the Goop headquarters in Santa Monica; Karin Liljegren, the principal and founder of Los Angeles–based Omgivning, which specializes in adaptive reuse of historic buildings and has been involved with around 400 projects in L.A.; and Primo Orpilla, the principal and cofounder of S.F.-based Studio O+A, which counts an innovation center for McDonald’s in Chicago among its latest projects. Their prognosis: you’ll be more productive—and happier to see your colleagues—than ever before.

rapt studio, marina del rey
At the Rapt Studio–designed offices of a digital advertising firm in Marina del Rey, the lounge areas include one that opens to the outdoors through a glass garage door.

Alta Journal: There are clearly some major advantages to working remotely, but also some disadvantages. What have we gained and lost during the pandemic?

David Galullo: We have a much more balanced appreciation for where things are going now than we did even a couple of months ago. Immediately it was, “Wow, I could work from home forever, this is great, I don’t have my commute, I gained all this time, I can do yoga in the middle of the day!” Then it was like, “Oh my God, I can’t wait to get back to the office.” And now I think we’ve settled into “I can’t wait to get back to the office because there are very specific collaborative and social efforts that I am missing in a big way. But I don’t need to be in the office all the time to do my job because I am very productive at home.”

Karin Liljegren: We were already going in this direction before the pandemic, but it’s become really clear over the last year that we have to design around human needs—that need for gathering and collaboration, that need for privacy and focus, for flexibility. A lot of offices today are not thinking enough about us as humans.

Primo Orpilla: What’s important is meeting and seeing people and being part of a community, and that’s all been disrupted. We found out that we’re pretty good at working from home—in fact, we needed it. People are calling it “the great reset” because it is an opportunity for us to look at our lives and our values and how out of balance we were. Companies are taking that into consideration. At the end of the day, we’re going to have some form of a workplace that is distributed, highly sensitive to human needs, and ready to handle any type of work.

Galullo: The younger part of the workforce is used to technology, but they are really missing the social aspect of the workplace. On the positive side, forcing everyone to work at home for such a long period of time has also brought a refreshing honesty. You see people in their home environment, with their cats and kids and artwork and furniture. Bringing your honest, genuine self to work allows you to be a better employee.

mcdonald’s innovation center, chicago, studio oa
Future offices may emphasize private spaces for calls, like the “phone booths” at the McDonald’s Innovation Center in Chicago, created by Studio O+A.
Garrett Rowland

Alta: What will post-lockdown work look like?

Orpilla: Based on the surveys our clients have done, a lot of people will come in for two or three days and work remotely the other days. When you come in, you’ll get a desk that is available instead of having your own assigned desk.

Galullo: We finished the office for one of our tech clients at the end of 2019. They moved in the first of 2020. They were in the office for two months before they sheltered in place, and they’ve now decided to sublease their office because they are going 100 percent virtual. But they’re also building a virtual workplace and have upped their recruiting and retention policies—all the HR, all of that cultural stuff is moving online. And they will be looking for a space that’s more of a retreat center, where teams have a place to go.

If I don’t necessarily want to work at home, but I don’t want to commute an hour and a half to the office, is there a remote option available to me? It could be a shared work environment within an apartment complex or scattered coworking places in suburban neighborhoods.

Orpilla: When you have a commute, it will be shorter. Companies are already giving stipends to their employees so they can go into a [drop-in workspace like] LiquidSpace, but they may have a branded satellite office. We’re doing a drop-in office for 500 people for a big multinational company. And that space, in turn, will be a retreat for the company to use when they want to do events outside the mother ship. We’re going to see the complexion and size of the office be manipulated for a while.

rapt studio, google’s mountain view headquarters
Curtains and wheeled shelving units allow a leadership training center by Rapt Studio at Google’s Mountain View headquarters to be easily reconfigured for groups of different sizes.
Michael Lyon

Alta: What are some of the challenges ahead?

Orpilla: One of the biggest things that most companies are concerned with is what happens to culture and community as we become more virtual. Are there going to be inequities that result from being online instead of at the office? When the conference call ends, how do you make sure that you’re still included? If you’re not in the office day-to-day, will you get promoted?

Galullo: Zoom has been great because we’re all one face, on one computer, talking to each other. The equality there is set. But we’ve all been in that situation where because three of us are in a conference room, we’re connecting in a way that that one person who’s on Zoom can never connect, and now I don’t have equity anymore. How are we going to build new norms—does everyone show up with their own computer? How do you manage who is in the office at the right time to build connections? There are a lot of systems and rituals that need to be worked out.

The physical workplace had incredible power in bringing together a culture, telling a story, and making people feel like they belonged to something larger than themselves. When we’re all on Zoom, I worry the connection isn’t nearly as meaningful, which allows all the other distractions to be just as meaningful. How do I build a virtual workplace that has an equal impact to the physical workplace? That’s a whole realm to figure out.

Orpilla: My son, who’s just turning 18, can be downstairs playing a virtual role-playing game with six other guys, and it’s almost like they’re in the same room. We will be working that way, and we’ll also have a physical space. It’ll be about choice. Hipsters and young millennials are turning toward the analog, which is the office. You can only be in the virtual world for so long. You need the physical and digital to work hand in hand.

omgivning griffin, los angeles
A common area by Omgivning for the Griffin, a residential high-rise in downtown L.A., functions as an informal workspace for the occupants.
Jeremy Chou

Alta: How are physical workspaces going to change?

Liljegren: We were getting pretty tight in our spaces before: people were sitting closer and closer together. I feel really strongly that there will be more need for little, tiny offices, or pods, where people can have that focused private area but also that video call. I can’t go into an open office with 20 people and have a video call—there’s just no way. The coworking space Second Home Hollywood by [the architecture firm] SelgasCano has glass pods that are set within this amazing landscape—they give you privacy and connect you with the outside.

Galullo: The open office, while good for collaboration, is not good for people who have to get any kind of heads-down work done. Flexibility is going to be key. We designed a school for leaders for Google before the pandemic. They were doing three- to four-day training sessions, where they were holding them in conference rooms all day long, and wanted to rethink what kind of space might help people learn. It’s all about meeting and gathering and creating different scales of spaces depending on how big the group is.

Liljegren: One idea we were working on even before the pandemic is a workspace that is not a private office, and not a coworking space, but a hybrid of the two. You’d have shared common areas—all the conference rooms, all the amenities—and a private area where you have your workstations. But it’s not like a big coworking space; it would be in a 20,000-square-foot building with three or four other tenants. That way, I can have the bigger gathering spaces that I maybe couldn’t afford on my own.

There are so many restaurants going out of business and so much empty ground-floor retail right now. So one idea we have is to combine them: a restaurant adjacent to a small office; the office uses the restaurant space for their meetings. Small companies forming partnerships and combining forces is something I think we’re going to see more of in the future.

Galullo: The LinkedIn building in San Francisco, with its big public lobby where people hang out at tables and there’s a coffee spot, is an interesting move toward bringing together work life and street life. When you go into a Starbucks, 99 percent of the people sitting there are actually doing work. As retail starts to curl up and die at street level, the blending of retail and workspace sounds really exciting. We developed a concept for a client for a coworking space where the heart is a restaurant. If you’re talking about people and how they live and work, and the spaces that help them to do that, then workspace is everywhere.•

Lydia Lee writes frequently about design and architecture in the San Francisco Bay Area and is a local bicycle advocate.