Top 5 office design trends in 2021

Picture of Meara Hamidiani

Added on by 5 min read

Modern office with plant laptop large windows

In previous years, when we've written about office design trends, we've honed in on trends that boosted employees’ wellbeing and productivity. 

Inspired by the new world of work movement, we stressed the fact that companies can’t afford to leave either of these up to chance if they want to foster a culture of happiness. And that’s been backed by science.

Now in 2021, in alignment with pandemic-era workplace trends, employee well-being and productivity still remain important. But our predicted office design trends for this year have changed immensely.

In the COVID-19 era, keeping employees safe from health risks is the top priority when it comes to office design.

“What all companies will be sure to have in common post-COVID-19 is a renewed focus on creating spaces that are safe, healthy, and embrace wellness principles and practices.” - HOK design firm, March 2020 

The changing office layout

The pandemic has changed the way that both employees and companies approach their office layouts. While many offices had temporary measures in place to ensure health and safety, there are also significant long-term changes that will last even when fears over the pandemic fade.

The past year has made more people aware of how essential health and safety measures are to protecting our wellbeing. A year of mask wearing, frequent handwashing, and social distancing changed the ways that we view office safety and sanitation. 

Some ways offices are adapting in their office layouts include:

  • Desk pods. While plastic shields provide a sanitary environment, they can be detrimental to collaboration and teamwork. Desk pods, which allow three to four workers to collaborate while still providing distance, is an alternative many companies use to encourage both safety and teamwork.

  • Desk distancing. Leaders may talk to employees about the importance of social distancing, but an office layout that encourages distancing is more effective. Many offices are alternating desks and workspaces and having them face away from each other to make it easier for employees to maintain their distance.

  • Outdoor offices. Research shows that outdoor activities with plenty of ventilation carries a lower risk of contracting COVID-19 than indoors. While not possible for all companies in all climates, many offices are setting up outdoor offices to help improve safety. 

  • Smaller conference areas. Smaller conference rooms encourage small groups to utilize them. Instead of two or three people chatting in a small cubicle, which can be risky, they can maintain a healthy distance without taking up a large conference room. 

Office layouts can help encourage healthy behaviors and make workers feel more comfortable coming back from remote work. They can also help encourage a collaborative environment while still maintain safety measures for their workers.

What are the top office design trends in 2021?

We wanted to better understand how the layout of the workplace - and technologies within it - are transforming due to the pandemic.

While the overarching theme of today's office design trends is safety, many  also strive to simultaneously boost employee wellbeing and happiness.

So we looked to Kay Sargent, Senior Principal - Director of Workplace HOK and leading workplace strategy expert, and her team for advice and inspiration.

(And for more, check out this conversation featuring Kay and other office design experts during Proxyclick's Return Ready Virtual Summit in 2020).

Here are the top office design trends we’re expecting to emerge in the months to come.

1. Remote work is here to stay...but so is the office.

Remote working undoubtedly became essential to business continuity during the COVID-19 health crisis. Now that many businesses have opened back up, having the flexibility to work from home (or from anywhere) seems to be a continued preference.

Indeed, remote working can boost productivity and recruitment while cutting company costs. But as some organizations realize they need to better adapt to remote working, Sargent and the HOK team stress that “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.”

remote worker with Apple laptop sitting on gray couch

Just because your organization may have full-time remote working capabilities at your fingertips, doesn’t mean you’re ready to completely say goodbye to office life. You’ll need to evaluate whether it makes sense when it comes to factors like corporate culture, demographics, employee work styles, and more. 

It will become important to allow workers to find the right balance: some may prefer to come into the office only a few days a week.

The winning solution seems to be having that flexibility to skip the commute, as well as the opportunity to work face-to-face with colleagues. This helps with work-life balance and overall employee happiness.

Regardless of how this balance is determined, work environment sociologist Tracy Brower recently wrote in Forbes that “the office is here to stay”: working in an office strengthens humanity and innovation, purpose, energy, wellbeing, talent, culture, and beyond.


2. Strict sanitation procedures embedded in office design.

Organizations will need to make it easier for employees to keep up with proper hygiene in the COVID-19 era. According to HOK, that may mean adding sinks in kitchens and break rooms, or putting multiple hand sanitizer dispensers in key places around the office.

It will also be key to make other adjustments to help with office sanitation, such as assigning lockers, file drawers, or cabinets to individuals. Trash cans should be placed in communal areas (versus at individual desks) to consolidate sanitation.


3. Unassigned seats with shielding and boundaries in the modern office.

The need to collaborate effectively within teams and across departments inspires new forms of meeting spaces in offices.

That led to the pre-COVID-19 trend called ‘hot desking,’ which does away with the traditional personal working space, and instead makes employees choose where to sit every day on a first-come-first-served basis. Hot desking disrupts old-fashioned office designs by including different co-working zones such as think spaces.

brainstorming chalk board in modern office LinkedIn

Brainstorming at LinkedIn Offices in New York. Photo: Eric Laignel.


The good news: the ability for workers to sit wherever they want (and therefore, better collaborate) isn't going anywhere.

While assigned seating and keeping to one's own space would seem to be a sanitary option, HOK indicates that offices with assigned seats usually have desks "proven to be dirtier than many toilets." That's because cleaners are often told not to touch objects on people’s desks. In offices with unassigned seats, desks can be deep cleaned each night and are therefore more sanitary. 

Modern office design will also need to include more boundaries or barriers like curtains, walls, or shields so that employees can choose seats that allow them to distance themselves from others. Seats will also need to be placed so that colleagues don’t need to directly face one another. 

As for communal tables or conference rooms: HOK’s team says that seats may be removed to allow for more space, or furniture can be removed altogether to “give people more space and eliminate touchpoints.”


4. Hands-free or “touchless” technology-inspired office design.

Workplace design and technology go hand in hand.

Office design needs to accommodate a company’s infrastructure. Think: beacon technology and wireless systems for presentations or video conferencing in shared work environments.

A big office design trend in 2021 will be the implementation of hands-free technology to limit surface touching, and thus the spread of a virus in the workplace.

Hands-free technology includes touchless check-in solutions for visitors, who simply scan a QR code at front desk kiosks or access control points like doorways, turnstiles, or elevators in a building.

(Learn more about Proxyclick's touchless check-in technology here).

Touchless Check In Proxyclick mobile phone QR code scan tablet

We will also see more voice activation or VOIP communication tools, artificial intelligence, and other hands-free controls used in throughout the office.

“Artificial intelligence and ambient technology offer solutions for making workspaces healthier and people more productive.” - Kay Sargent, Senior Principal - Director of Workplace, HOK

5. Smart materials and nature-focused office design to boost air quality and circulation.

“We must prioritize [smart] materials that are easy to maintain, resist mold, and promote good indoor air quality,” writes HOK’s Brad Liebman. Materials that are antimicrobial, like copper, can also be used.

In addition, says Liebman, offices will need to ventilate better with outdoor air “dilute airborne contaminants and lower transmission opportunities.” HVAC systems should also be updated to improve air circulation and filtration. 

Offices are also going green as nature-inspired workplace designers are bringing elements of the outdoors inside. Biophilic design aims for visual connectivity between humans and nature.

modern nature inspired office with plants and wood floors
Hortonworks Offices in Budapest. Photo: Bálint Jaksa Photography.


As employees spend most of their working time indoors (especially during the global pandemic), these connections are often lost. Office plants such as Living Walls also help to improve air quality and lead to a healthier quality of life for employees.

Living plant wall nature inspired office

And more...

For more on office design trends of the future, check out our conversation with experts from JLL, EY, and NTT, below.

The future of office design is safer (and technology-filled)

Even among an increasingly remote workforce, companies are welcoming new office design developments and technologies to boost workplace safety, productivity, and overall well-being.

And as we continue to combat a global pandemic and its aftermath, we can look toward a brighter future filled with disruptive office design innovations that help employees better meet health and work-life balance requirements. 

Or, as HOK puts it, we’ll be “designing spaces that bring us together while keeping us apart.”


To learn how Proxyclick's hands-free check-in features help your organization improve workplace safety, book a demo with our specialists below.

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