The 40% Office: How to Optimize Your Workplace for Today’s Behaviors and Business Needs
Hybrid work is here to stay, but some are forgoing the office entirely. We believe that is a mistake. Here, we introduce the 40% Office, an NBBJ concept created in partnership with Raj Choudhury, Harvard professor and expert on the future of work. A recommendation rather than a prescription, the 40% Office provides a framework for when and what work happens together—and what that means for the design of offices. To maximize the benefits of the 40% Office, first, consider how to get the most from your space. Second, remove more desks. Third, rethink geography. And last, be strategic about convening. This article originally appeared in Fast Company.
Hybrid work is here to stay—employees value the flexibility it offers, and the arrangement can be beneficial to companies, too. However, some organizations have responded to this development by forgoing the office entirely. We believe this to be a mistake.
There are clear benefits to working together in person, according to Harvard professor Prithwiraj (Raj) Choudhury, who researches the future of work. In a recent study conducted with the nonprofit BRAC, Choudhury found that communication, creativity, and job satisfaction were optimized when employees came into the office a few days a week. It made our team of designers and researchers wonder: Given the dueling benefits of remote and in-person work, how should companies strike a balance? And more pressingly, what should a physical office become?
Working with Choudhury, we came up with the notion of the 40% Office. Grounded in research from Choudhury that suggests that 23-40% is the ideal amount of time to spend together, the 40% Office addresses the needs of businesses, their performance, and mentorship, while also supporting the well-being and flexibility of employees. Despite its name, the 40% Office is a reference point, not a literal recommendation. The exact amount of time each company should spend remote versus in person will be as unique as their specific business.
With that in mind, here are four ideas on how the 40% Office can maximize the benefits of our current hybrid way of working.
Get the Most Out of Your Space
Office space in the US is roughly 47% occupied, with many companies using their full space a few times a week. This is a significant drag on business, as real estate is the second highest expenditure after payroll. No company would pay full-time salaries to employees working 47% of the time, but that’s the situation many find themselves locked into with their space. In this context, how can a 40% Office use space more efficiently? The answer may lie in rethinking how space is leased, shared, and used.
Given how quickly companies and their needs evolve, it is worth asking whether the 10-year lease is an anachronism. What’s needed is a more creative model that mirrors how a 40% Office is used. For instance, in childcare, there are care options to enroll a child from one to five days. Leases could be arranged in a similar fashion, with two or more companies using the same office on different days. If the space is designed to accommodate the full range of working modes—from focus, collaboration, and learning to socializing and rest—it could be broadly adaptable to different industries and companies. Not every office needs to be custom-built.
Underused space can also be an asset. Companies could seek out creative partnerships with allied organizations, sharing or leasing space to one another as their needs evolve. Some of our tech clients have explored such arrangements, as have we. This approach could even be formalized by launching an incubator-like space or leveraging existing or novel space-sharing apps.
In a 40% Office, flexibility is obviously critical. Spaces that can adapt and fulfill more than one role enable companies to use space more efficiently as their needs evolve and head counts fluctuate. For instance, we helped one media company create storage spaces that can readily convert into personal offices, and designed conference spaces for a tech company with demountable walls for added flexibility.
Remove More Desks
While the experience of our clients suggests that, due to remote work, younger generations in particular lack the social connection and mentorship they desire, surveys show that people’s expectations for better culture and collaboration are often unmet when they return to the office. That’s because even when people are in the office, they rarely interact with those outside their immediate proximity. Given this context, how can a 40% Office become a place where people can truly connect—where meaningful interaction doesn’t just happen by accident at the watercooler?
In the pursuit of greater connection and culture, companies may want to consider removing some or even all of their desks in favor of a diversity of spaces. Choudhury’s research demonstrates that heads down work can be done effectively at home, which means office real estate might best be deployed in service of collaboration, culture, and learning. LinkedIn’s new headquarters, for example, consists primarily of social and team space, with 50% fewer desks than what was originally specified prior to the pandemic.
Companies should also think about designing the 40% Office for 100% of the people—by aiming to create a more inclusive space where everyone feels at ease. It’s critical to acknowledge that POC, women, people with disabilities, and even introverts are often less comfortable in the office to begin with. Design has a role to play in addressing this. LinkedIn’s headquarters, for example, considered a range of physical and mental disabilities in its design, such as furniture, which accommodated 60 different postures and work modes.
A 40% Office might not even be recognizable as such—rather than an expansive workplace in a central business district, it might be highly diffuse, temporary, or unconventional. With hybrid work, companies are rethinking not only where work can happen, but how the location of talent informs their approach to creating teams.
Choudhury’s patent office study observed that employees working remotely in the same city often convened organically to discuss work, best practices, and socialize, underscoring the value of time together for remote workers. To reinforce this natural tendency, companies may consider a loose office model with clusters of satellite locations that could be storefronts, coworking spaces, or any number of informal meeting places like cafes or parks that change according to need.
Alternatively, a 40% Office could be a cultural hub in a highly visible location, which builds a real connection to the community. As a semipublic space, the office could be the cultural heart of a business, sharing its origin story while providing public amenities like parks, gardens, or museums.
Companies might also consider whether a 40% Office even needs to be in the city at all. Our work with clients like Zillow has explored remote sites as settings for culture building activities. These types of locations can be used for retreats, onboarding, and town halls, and may be especially useful for large companies where teams meet infrequently in person. A unique setting and experience can create memorable moments that strengthen relationships, communication, and team accountability.
Be Strategic about Convening
Our workplace design clients—which range from tech to finance to creative—often tell us about the challenges they encounter as employees spend more time alone. A lack of accountability, a decrease in mentorship and networking, and a frayed sense of connection and culture are at the forefront. However, just bringing people back into the office more frequently doesn’t improve organizational culture by itself. Choudhury’s research suggests companies need to be more purposeful about where work overlaps and touch points happen.
For some companies, the 40% Office may mean teams are in the office two or three days a week each week. But in other organizations, teams may only need to meet monthly or quarterly for lengths of time that add up to 40%. Teams who come in a few days a week, for instance, might rely heavily on personal interaction and include younger employees who need mentoring. These teams may perform better in shared work neighborhoods, with space for focus and collaboration, and places where they can socialize and learn in overlapping amenity spaces.
Monthly teams, by contrast, may be more established and leverage in-person time for planning and problem-solving. Ideal spaces for these teams may resemble those at Amazon’s Seattle headquarters: work spaces that ditch desks in favor of a range of amenities and informal collaboration spaces like the Spheres. And quarterly teams, which might be dispersed in different offices and meet only to create or launch new products, may do better in an unconventional retreat setting, where team space, amenities, and lodging are commingled.
Regardless of whether companies do their work in-person, remote, or in a hybrid fashion, they are stewards of their business objectives, culture, and talent. The 40% Office is a reference point in a somewhat ambiguous moment, a loose guideline rather than a literal target. The workplace will continue to evolve, just as it has over the past century. More research will come to light, offering insights as to how much time together is ideal based on the type of work being done. But the direct relationship between the office and the work it supports will remain constant. Optimizing the interaction and environment for this interface is critical for a workplace to thrive in a hybrid era.