"Why does a person actually want to come into an office? Why do they need an office at all?"
These are the questions that Vered Gindi, lead architect of Microsoft’s new Herzliya campus in Israel, set out to answer four years ago when she started to design it. Her questions proved timely.
When the technology giant commissioned its new 46,000-square-meter state-of-the-art facility, it scarcely could have imagined the extent to which a global pandemic could throw into question the very idea of a physical office. Indeed, some tech firms have given employees the option of working from home forever.
As companies plan hybrid home-and-office futures, and some consider the estimated 30 percent that could be saved on real-estate costs by downsizing, the Herzliya campus shows one way that offices can reinvent themselves — and find new meaning.
Here are the three key design principles that have shaped the building.
1. A ‘flexible grid’
In 2020, employers across the world worked hard to reshape office buildings to create social distancing space between desks. By contrast, the new Herzliya campus starts with flexibility engineered in, using a system called a "flexible grid."
"Over your 100 square meters, you can have flexibility to organize and personalize your space," said Oren Yerushalmi Rosenbaum, senior portfolio manager for Microsoft Real Estate and Facilities in Israel and Serbia. “Put your desks face-to-face or back-to-back, far apart or whatever is right for you. This makes social distancing easier."
Microsoft aims to reboot the purpose of an office.
The importance of being able to create extra space easily is emphasized by COVID-19-secure office designs, such as the "6 Feet Office" by global real estate company Cushman and Wakefield.
In the case of the Herzliya campus, this means acoustic partitions and shelving systems that can be added or removed, enabling teams to combine or divide as needed. Desks can be rolled around on castors and have extra long cables, so they can be relocated easily, by anyone.
Meanwhile, the auditoriums — beloved of tech giants on product-launch days — are gone, replaced by multipurpose rooms that can be reorganized, split or merged, as required.
2. Long-term sustainability
Microsoft says lessening the campus’ long-term impact on the environment was a priority. The result is a building that is one of Israel’s most sustainable.
Around 237,000 liters of fresh water will be pulled from the air each year by atmospheric generators — vital in a region with almost no rain for seven months annually, which is likely to experience more frequent extreme weather events such as heatwaves. Meanwhile, an air filtration system both cleans internal air, including elevators, and reuses the water collected to irrigate and cool the building — projected to save more than 3 million liters a year.
The campus is also focused on energy generation and conservation: 800 square meters of photovoltaic cells power dining facilities and exterior lighting, while a double-skin wall and automatic blinds help prevent overheating.
3. Dynamically creative
Microsoft says it wanted Herzliya to "aspire to the dynamic creativity of urban environments over the traditional grids or open-floor plans of most office spaces." This reflects an increasing desire of companies in recent years to stimulate chance encounters and lessen silo-based working.
Certainly, for the duration of COVID-19, such dynamism may have to take a back seat while security takes priority. However, in the longer term, Microsoft aims to reboot the purpose of an office.
"A city is a place of intersection," Gindi said. "You are surrounded by people, activities and culture. You are part of something bigger than yourself. You are not just going to work; you are experiencing a lifestyle."
This "city" vision manifests itself in team-based "neighborhoods" and four hubs: Downtown, an industrial-style zone; Midtown, a playful area; The Garden, a green outdoor level; and Uptown, styled to feel like a boutique hotel. The areas are knitted together with boulevards.
The activities available reflect the approach: prayer rooms; a music room; a gym; a yoga room. There are also playrooms for children — likely to help attract families back to the office when home-working has shown how remote working can help with childcare. According to the Harvard Business Review, having family-friendly benefits has helped some companies weather the storm of the pandemic.
As organizations work to overcome the challenges to work caused by the pandemic, there's hope that returning to the office might not only be possible; it could even be fun.