Monuments and monumentality: Where next for the post-pandemic office

The power of the skyline has long concerned corporate strategists. Both aspirational and destructive, the placement of a brand on the skyline tells us more about the brand than their own advertising ever can. Central business districts, such as Canary Wharf, London and Midtown, New York are both important and given importance by the brands they memorialise. To that effect, buildings, brand, and power have long gone hand in hand. As one former client used to say: “everything communicates”, and he is not wrong. From location, colour palette, furniture, neighbours, architectural style – everything communicates and what it can tell us can be quite eye-opening,

In truth, offices have long been corporate showrooms for their clients, prospective employees, and competitors. The office has become a way that companies manifest their corporate personalities on the world stage. Even the tech disruptors, who are oft cited as champions and instigators of new working practices, knew the importance of this, hence the wide sprawling campuses of the west coast and vertical communities elsewhere. Like the buildings of their more traditional counterparts, these offices became monuments to and of their growing power; each new acquisition and office floor becoming symbols of their monumentality. Salesforce’s global attempts to secure naming rights, and therefore acquire physical nameplates on their buildings, are no small co-incidence. It is a testimony to how offices are monuments, as Sacre muses, “evoking size and durability on the one hand, and commemoration or memorial on the other.”

Our rapid shift to work from home and the missives that companies are looking to shrink their footprint, gives pause for thought as to how important offices remain as monuments. Many tech companies have already drawn lines in the sand, stating – as Jack Dorsey did, perhaps prematurely in the earliest season of the pandemic – that employees will be free to work from home indefinitely. Others have remained more conservative. Facebook – ever the rebel – has taken steps to allegedly purchase the magnificent, new – and unused – 400,000 square foot corporate campus headquarters from the outdoor lifestyle REI, signalling, albeit tentatively, that the office as a monument and symbol of monumentality is, for some, here to stay.

Yet, tech companies have always been an anomaly. They are advocates of both the sprawling campus and the work-from-home model; they offer their employees the best of all worlds – space in an office, free food and drink, amenities galore and flexible working policies are all part and parcel of the perks they offer. For corporate real estate however, bottom lines are king, and the cost savings associated with a hybrid model dominate the discourse. This is not to say that we will see an erosion of the traditional HQ, in fact many traditional HQ projects continue in gusto across the globe but we suggest they will look and feel considerably different than before. Here, if employees are to enjoy the perk of a hybrid model, something must give and that will likely be their real estate footprint. This raises a profound enquiry as to what the digital, or less tangible, monuments of companies are. Perhaps they are manifested in uniform email signatures, branded zoom backgrounds, video-first polices, a voracious desire to acquire the most forward thinking and innovative technology or a claim to reputational mantels and awards.

Yet the reality varies. Each organisation – however large, small, traditional, or eccentric, has a living breathing personality. It is conveyed in its image to the world and the way they interact with society. There us a reason that we consistently choose certain retailers over others, or bank with the banks that we do. We crave organisations that align to our ethos’ and lifestyles. Where personality is intangible, offices and physical spaces become monuments to those personalities. Either by enhancing this in the spaces that are left, or by creating new virtual monuments, a big challenge for corporates will be how to re-imagine monumentality in hybrid working.

All indications show that the office will not become a relic of a bygone era in totality, but the purpose and mission of it may transform; this may include position, location, and monumentality. This is not a slow protracted goodbye to the office, rather it is a prime opportunity for some corporate introspection. ‘Work-from-home’ may be the face of the movement but the opportunity for innovation goes much deeper. When one is in the midst of crisis, it become difficult to see what transformation can look like. It is therefore so integral for corporates and others to build a vision bespoke to their personalities and define a roadmap of how to fulfil that vision. Whether it is looking at what your office communicates, building digital monuments or creating a hybrid workplace, where there is a vision, there is a way.

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Originally posted at WorkTimes