The End of the Great Compromise

Mobile Work Unit, VITAL, San Francisco, Seattle
Courtesy of VITAL

By Nash Hurley

The era of the great compromise of work space has come to an end. For the better part of the last century, work space has served two masters: the risk-averse commercial real estate industry that seeks a durable asset that can be bought, sold, or borrowed against; and the end-user who needs a productive place to work.

What the commercial real estate industry needs from work space and what the end-user needs from work space is not the same. That divergence is accelerating and will fuel long term change of our global spaces of work. The COVID pandemic is just the spark.

Work space has had, and will continue to have, value because people will be more productive when they come together in small groups in the same space where they can build strong social bonds and tackle more complex problems. These same people will still need to come together in larger spaces and larger groups from time to time to share a sense of community, belonging, and purpose. However, there is little evidence in today’s world that they need to come together in a high-rise commercial office building. In fact, that same commercial office building may just be a legacy of an age when paper was the dominant medium of communication and people needed to be stacked closely together to facilitate the exchange of that paper-based communication to do their work.

What if there was another path that didn’t rely on choosing between a commercial office building or a work-from-home solution – one that was based on the fundamental value of work space to the end-user? For our new path, I suggest we begin with three basic questions. Number one: what are the right qualities of work space?  Number two: what resources do workers need in that space?  And number three: what is a reasonable cost for delivering the right space with the right resources?

Right Qualities of Work Space

If you are involved with commercial real estate in any way, you probably know that work space, per person, has been shrinking for years and now approaches 150 square feet per person, down from a more generous 200 square feet per person that our parents knew. This consolidation is possible because only 50 to 75 square feet per person is actually required for a highly functional desk space, while the remaining 100 to 150 square-feet per person is taken up with largely discretionary features like meeting rooms, pantries, common areas, and hallways. While the size of a work space is not the driving indicator of its quality, it’s important to remember that there is a minimum size — 50 to 75 square feet per person — that is tied to the human body and needs to be respected.

Other attributes like daylight and access to views have proven to be much more significant drivers of quality. Factor in current and future pandemics and fresh air becomes even more important and less negotiable – with an ambitious target of CDC’s current recommendation of 100% outside air.

So, if we baseline the qualities of our future user-centered work space, we end up with a conceptual bubble that measures 50 to 75 square feet, is immersed in fresh air, daylight, views of nature, is highly adaptable to allow people to come together in small groups and our large groups. Simple.

Right Resources of Work Space

Work requires plugging things in, and power infrastructure is a fundamental component of all effective work space.  But in an attempt to make buildings look more attractive to tenants, some real estate brokers have been advocating for power load capacities many times greater (750W-1,500W) than required by a typical worker. This over-provisioning is well intentioned, but it is not well aligned to the needs of the end-user. It is about making the underlying commercial real estate asset more desirable. In fact, many people today need less than a 75W light bulb to run their laptop, tablet, phone and personal router.

Let these be our essential resources for any work space: sufficient, but not excessive, power, along with ample data and water. (Sitting too far away from your office water fountain can negatively affect your productivity and health.) Those resources effectively and efficiently feed our 50 – 75 square foot conceptual bubble of work space. While these qualities and resources are a clear basis of design for our future of work space, they don’t tell us what our user-centered future will be, just what it needs to do.

Courtesy of VITAL

The Mobile Work Unit – MWU

Our ah-ha moment came when I was trying to negotiate my own space for an important conference call in April. I stole away to my car parked on the cul de sac in front of my home. When I arrived at my car conference room, I noticed two other people on the cul de sac doing the exact same thing – all of us shouting into the air with our heads-free microphones without a hint of embarrassment – happy to be at work. At that moment, I felt like something had switched and we were now presented with a world where people might be ready to give up the life-long habit of their commercial office building for any productive work environment that actually addressed our work space needs.

Enter the Mobile Work Unit.

The MWU (pronounced M-wooh) is a version for what is possible if we let go of our market-driven assumptions of commercial office buildings and focus instead on user needs and experience of work space. Housed within a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter Van, the MWU contains the latest in mobile technology to untether the workspace from the grid. The photovoltaic solar array and battery, keep the Mobile Work Unit amply powered.

While the MWU is viable for an individual owner, it really begins to make sense in a COVID world for medium to large business when deployed at scale. MWUs can be set up and reconfigured in a fraction of the time required for conventional office space  – making it more adaptable than any other work space on the market. Furthermore, the MWUs allow employers to convert underused assets such as empty parking lots and parking garages into fully functional work spaces despite the current health crisis.

Courtesy of VITAL

Reasonable Cost of Work Space

Who can afford the MWU? At first glance, it appears to be a very costly and privileged solution produced by an architecture studio in Northern California. But before passing final judgement, it will be helpful to outline some of the economics of work space and commercial office buildings.

The MWU may cost around $100k ($50k for the Sprinter Van and $50k to equip it), with a monthly payment in the range of $1,500. Compare this to a WeWork space, which historically would hover in the range of $1,500/month for a San Francisco private office — and the MWU has more square footage than a typical WeWork space. As a more conservative metric, consider traditional commercial real estate. For commercial office space in San Francisco you would be looking at an average of something like $1,100 per person per month for rent alone – with many hitting exceed of $2,500 per person per month, and this is before accounting for furniture, free lunches, and fitness gyms.

The reality is that from a user or business owner perspective a fleet of MWUs may be similar to the cost of office space that many mid to larger companies are used to paying. So similar cost but the MWU can also ensure 100% outside air, provide reliable social distancing, is extremely adaptable and offers more daylight, views of nature and desk space than what you can expect from the most premium commercial office buildings in San Francisco. If you suspend disbelief and consider our three foundational questions, the MWU may actually be a work space for our time – another path forward that is not a high-rise commercial office building or a compromised work-from home solution.

Courtesy of VITAL

MWU Adoption and Implementation

So why won’t this happen? There are two reasons: one economic and the other emotional.

Economically, there are a lot of forces within the commercial real estate industry that are tied to delivering square footage of office space. Architects’ fees, builders’ costs, brokers’ commissions and furniture allocations are almost always tied to the amount of square footage delivered. If these professionals, including myself, want to keep making a similar amount of money to previous years, we need to deliver a similar amount of commercial square footage or come up with a whole new model for understanding the value of work space.

Emotionally, the shock of the events of 2020 requires collective processing. Depending on who you talk to in the commercial real estate industry, you are likely to encounter people moving through the stages of grief from this shock. If March was denial and May was anger, June feels like the bargaining stage of grief. Someone says, “I don’t feel like I should have to keep paying my rent anymore because my office is a health risk to my employees,” and the real estate expert response is “You have a responsibility as a citizen to keep paying your rent to keep society going.” This is a fair and reasonable response, but it is bargaining with the inevitable. Commercial real estate experts, including architects, are seeking to persuade end-users of the value of traditional work space where intuition and immediate experience of the end-user do not make that value readily apparent.

Unfortunately the next stage of grieving is a period of depression, a feeling of hopelessness.  Our work with the MWU is intended to look beyond hopelessness, to begin to move out of that stage of depression and into the last stage: acceptance. Acceptance can be liberating. The MWU is in no way intended to be an exhaustive expression of our future user-center work space. It’s just one example, a glimpse at one of many potential outcomes, of new possibilities for work and for space in the new, next normal once we let go of the expectations of the commercial real estate industry, and our grandparents’ space of work – the high-rise commercial office building.

Nash is an Architect and Principal with VITAL, a research-based studio in San Francisco.

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