Most Influential Projects 2021

02 The Great Work From Home Experiment

Family working from home, sitting in front of separate laptops in their living room

For fast-tracking the long-simmering shift to more flexible work arrangements

What began as a necessary adaptation to keep employees safe during the height of the pandemic fast became an incubator for fresh thinking around office work. Or what used to be office work. After more than a year of hunkering down at home, a big chunk of employees is simultaneously settled into their routines … and craving time together. Employers are listening—and adapting, whether it’s by going completely virtual, welcoming workers back to the office or some combo of the two. McKinsey estimates 20 percent of the global workforce could effectively do their jobs from home several days a week and suggests there could be four times as many doing so than pre-pandemic.

That leaves project leaders translating lessons learned from the great WFH experiment into spaces and systems that can flex to employees'—and employers'—needs. Doing so requires even bolder actions: closing some of those high-profile HQ locations, redesigning offices for fewer people, improved well-being and more collaboration, and fundamentally rethinking what being “at work” even means. Here’s how some companies are making it work:

Out of Office

U.S. retailer REI planned to move into its brand-new Seattle-area headquarters in mid-2020. Instead, it quickly transitioned to a remote-working model and sold the 400,000-square-foot (37,161-square-meter) campus in September 2020, just four years after the new HQ project was first announced. The company will rely on several satellite offices in the area, while leaning into remote work. “We believe the future of work is much more fluid,” says Chris Putur, REI’s EVP of technology and operations. “We’re building the future around the work that needs to get done, and creating flexible, agile and inclusive ways to deliver innovation for our customers—and we no longer believe we need a traditional office model to do so.”

Facebook hired Annie Dean as its first “director of remote” to oversee the company’s move to long-term distributed work. Among her project priorities: retool onboarding procedures, devise a glossary of remote work terminology to get everyone on the same page and create avenues for the “remote-curious” to transition to permanent remote work. 

In May 2020, Shopify CEO Tobi Lütke declared “office centricity is over” and proclaimed the Canadian e-commerce company would be going “digital by default.” But when employees work from home, a company’s carbon footprint steps right through their front doors. So the company launched a project to incorporate its workers’ home energy use into its corporate emissions calculations. 

Flex Time

Microsoft developed its Hybrid Workplace Dial to quickly respond to public health changes around its various office locations. Using local health data and government guidance to determine the safety of on-site work, the company will designate a stage for a given office at a given time. In stages 1 and 2, employees will be required to work from home, while in stages 3-5 they’ll be encouraged to work remotely. Stage 6 means the all-clear for in-office work.

U.K. insurer Aviva found that opinions about the optimal balance of remote and in-office work varies greatly from employee to employee, often correlating with age and gender. Rather than instituting a one-size-fits-all return-to-work plan, the team created five worker 'profiles' to help managers determine what proportion of time is best spent in the office for their team members.

Dropbox discovered a little structure can help flexibility work better. Since the online file-sharing company became virtual-first, it has instituted 'core collaboration hours'—dedicated time windows during the day set aside for meetings. That way everyone knows when meetings might happen and can build their personal schedules around them. 

New Frontiers of Space

With a majority of Googlers—as CEO Sundar Pichai calls them—working in the office just three days a week, Google is reimagining its workspaces for the hybrid era. The company known for providing employees ping-pong tables and endless snacks is now focused on creating modular spaces that can be reconfigured for group or solo work, and conference rooms in-the-round decked out with large monitors so everyone in the meeting feels equal, whether they’re on site or off. 

As Vivo envisions its new headquarters in Shenzhen, China, the smartphone maker is working with architectural studio NBBJ to create a next-gen workplace integrating nature, health and equal access to amenities. The 32-floor tower will be scored with a spiral of exterior gardens and feature alternate work environments. In another nod to biophilia, there will be greenery on every floor and green hubs that connect to each level’s kitchen space, letting employees connect with nature while enjoying breaks and meals. 

To learn how people use their facilities, coworking company Spaces put tiny sensors under tables and chairs at its location in the iconic Red Elephant building in the Hague. By sensing body temperature, the devices shed light on how areas were being used—or not used—so the company could redesign based on real-world data. One example: Swapping hard wooden seats for cushy office chairs bumped use of a large shared table by 30 percent. 

When Hootsuite redesigned its Vancouver office for more flexible working, it made sure the waste from the downsizing project—desks, chairs, computers, decor and more—was handled sustainably. Working with specialists from partner Green Standards, the social media company diverted 19 tons of furniture waste from landfills (equivalent to a reduction of 65 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions) and donated it to local nonprofits.