Time for a New Approach to Workplace Design

New amenities alone won’t bring people back to the office. Designers must forge new partnerships to develop workplaces that support how employees want to work and live.

When we talk to clients these days, we hear the same question over and over again: “How can we get our people to come back to the office?”

As the pandemic eases, it’s clear that more coffee bars, touchless appliances and better furniture will not be enough. I look at a lot of the employee surveys, and what some people say, especially when they’re anonymous, can be quite alarming. They want to see a change. Everyone gives clear, rational reasons why they want to work from home. They are happier and more productive. They can take care of their kids and walk their dogs. They feel it’s quieter at home and they can focus better.

How do we combat that? How do we get what we need from the office environment and still allow people to have that freedom?

To make that happen, we need to fundamentally change our approach to workplace design. As designers, we need to become much more aggressive in our approach to working with brokers, developers and owners to develop strategies that address their goals and the way their staff want to work and live. We need to be better partners and take a broader view of our work to create the types of workplaces that are bridges to the home environment rather than separate from the home.

Since the 1950s, we have been trying to solve the problems of the workplace through design only. In the wake of a two-year pandemic, we are looking at something very different. In the past, we rarely met with operations people; now, I think such conversations are crucial. We can’t rely on design to move the needle. As designers, we can enhance the experience. We can improve it. But we can’t make a real difference in the future of the workplace unless there is a strong partnership between operations and the design team.

Bringing people back to the office — and enticing them to stay for a while — will require a combination of several factors. To start, the workplace must be a great space that’s going to empower people to be better at what they do. That is key: People inherently want to do the best job they can. We need to give them the tools to do their job.

This can take many forms. In many of our new designs, we are segregating spaces more to provide opportunities for head-down spaces next to open spaces, teaming rooms. Not everybody works the same. We are designing around activity-based planning, looking deeper into how the staff works. And, again, that’s all based on operations.

As part of the design process for the new headquarters for RiverRock, a real estate company taking over a 40-year-old, free-standing, single-story building, we spent an extraordinary amount of time with the CEO and staff exploring the firm’s culture, work habits and goals to determine the best use of the space now and in the future.

Insight Future of Office 02
The right workplace design can play an important role in helping people find the right balance in their lives.

The end result was an array of collaborative spaces and flexibility in how and where people work. There are fewer workstations than employees; lockers are provided to store work materials. The old building was opened to the outdoors, creating natural ventilation and a healthy environment. The design also carves out two spaces for lease, which can be expanded or contracted depending on the company’s future needs.

But that’s RiverRock; these solutions would not be appropriate for every project. If I were to focus on one word in the future, it would be: specificity. Each workplace must be designed around specific uses and the firm’s culture and goals. It’s not one size fits all. When people ask, “What’s the future of the workplace?” the answer won’t be the same for everybody, and it really shouldn’t be. It should be about adaptability and customization. There needs to be more trust, and more freedom, providing employees with choices to help them make the work environment a positive for their lifestyle.

In every way, the outdoor space is crucial. We’re seeing that across the board. There’s the health and safety issue, but we’re going to see outdoor spaces utilized much differently in the future, with more actual work environments outside. On several projects, we’re working with clients to expand their spaces and create outdoor areas that support many roles that go beyond a space to eat lunch.

If they’re to go back, people want to see changes in the workplace. They want to grow. They want to be their best selves, and everyone wants to understand that they’re part of a bigger whole. We tend to brush over that, but it’s important. We all want to be part of something bigger, and we want to understand where we fit in.

I recently listened to a podcast whose hosts suggested that the best movie depicting the future of the workplace was “9 to 5,” with Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin. When the film opens, these women are in a typical work environment — cubicles, the whole bit — and they are miserable. After they kidnap their boss, they redo the office and completely change the way it works. They incorporate aspects such as job sharing, hybrid work, a daycare center. Nothing they did was about design. It was about making the lives of these people easier so that they could have a better work-life balance.

The developer who gets a handle on these issues is going to be the one that gets the tenants. This is an opportunity to think differently about infrastructure. The nature of office parks can change to provide more services, so that people don’t feel that they’re so remote from home. The facility can offer doggie daycare, fluff-and-fold laundry services and a place to get packaged foods to take home at night.

The workplace can be a big part of helping people find the right balance in their lives, but designers can’t do it alone. We need to break down traditional barriers to work with operations and go deeper to explore how the workplace can be relevant to people’s lives.

In the future, I don’t think we’re going to see the end of offices. But we are going to need to be smarter about how we design them and how we communicate with staff about designing workplaces that meet their needs.