The pandemic has changed just about everything, and many of those changes will remain with us for the long term. With working from home being the norm from coast to coast, the next question must be, how will office environments change when things got back to normal? That is why we called John Stephens, vice president of marketing, Shaw Contract Group, to get his take on what the office of the future will look like.

The following are excerpts from the resulting conversation, which you can listen to in its entirety here.

TF: How much of the new work-at-home trend do you think is going to be permanent?

Stephens: It has been a difficult period for people personally and professionally, but there have been pluses. One of which will come out of this is it has driven a lot of innovation both in how we communicate and in what the workplace will look like over the next decade. Some of those changes have been compressed and people are really thinking differently about healthcare, about schools, the way they are designed and their function. The work we are doing is going to influence the workplace and the way we work in terms of efficiency, human connection and frankly diversity, it will bring in more people, more ideas, and more thoughts into a conversation. I think that will bring lasting change.

TF: With people working from home, I suspect much of the beneficial accidental communication that results from an office environment may diminish. Is that the way you see it?

Stephens: Zoom and Google Hangouts and two-dimensional meetings do have value. We recently had a meeting that we would normally have done live with maybe 10 people from various regions around the world. In the fall we were able to hold a digital meeting with 30 people, which was more diverse with a much broader perspective and increased points of view, allowing us to take advantage of some of the constraints that COVID and the reduction of travel have given us. Our workspace at the Create Center here in Georgia was designed to create those moments, those almost accidental moments of people bumping into each other, exchanging ideas, or overhearing a conversation, and being able to add something. The role of the office to socialize, connect and create opportunities for people to communicate from a social standpoint. Its role is also to feel connected to a culture and be part of an organization. From a sharing standpoint those ideas make it possible to be able to share the magic of creativity and human engagement. The physical spaces to enable that will be just as important moving forward as they have in the past, but it will just be designed to be done in different ways.

TF: Do you see employers looking at office space in a different way than they did before the pandemic?

Stephens: I think this is going to be one of the most interesting innovation cycles we have seen in the workplace. I will give you an example: many companies we work with have offices for call centers. They have said they no longer need real estate dedicated for this purpose because it works well on a remote basis. So, maybe less workspaces, more training areas, more collaborative areas, more areas where creating is taking place, where digital and physical interact more effectively together. I do think there are going to be some exciting innovations in what a workplace is, what the office does, and I think it will be radically different than what it was even a year ago.

TF: Does radically different mean smaller?

Stephens: I do not think the amount of real estate will necessarily be smaller. Some of the conversations we have had with our design clients are that the footprint will not necessarily be smaller, but different, serving a different purpose. The people who will be occupying these new spaces may be there two days a week instead of five. But when they are there, what they will be doing is going to be different, the purposes will be different.

TF: Do you think employers see work-at-home as an asset in terms of exposing them to a wider pool of potential employees, ones that would not want to work in the office?

Stephens: I do not think there is any question about that. One of the key things we are focused on at Shaw is diversity, equity, and inclusion. I think it now presents us with a chance to hire people literally around the globe to get the best, most diverse talent and know that they can work effectively on a remote basis. They can plug into our teams and our culture. We still have questions. We still must get better at that, but certainly I’m excited about how we can use this as a way to become a more diverse company and bring in world-class talent. I think our clients are doing the same thing.

TF: Would you say the whole idea of locating offices in city center is outdated?

Stephens: I think you are going to get some really interesting discussions about that because there have been certainly some migration patterns over the last year that I think you can tie into to both the pandemic and the rising cost of living in anchor cities New York, San Francisco, London and Tokyo. I believe there is still a gravitation of people wanting to live in urban spaces. It may be that while you are living in that urban space, your trips to the office will be less frequent or different. But I think that is something that we are all going to continue to study in terms of population migration patterns. I am personally still a believer in the power of urban space in cities where people want to live, and I think that it is going to be attractive to companies that have locations in those spaces.