OnOffice: Living Research on Workplace Design

LPA designers use San Jose studio as a case study to explore design that incorporates remote working, increases mobility and brings new value to the workplace

In September 2020, as the global economy flickered back to life after the first wave of Covid-19 restrictions, employees of LPA’s San Jose studio gathered online to discuss their future workplace. Like other businesses around the world, LPA was planning the design of a new office space at a time when no one knew when or how people would work together again.

The future will most likely be a hybrid of studio and remote work, I told the group during the online charrette. “We need to find the balance and understand how to design for when we come together. Because that is what the actual physical space will be about — expressing our culture and brand and who we are as a firm.”

Over the next few months, the San Jose studio served as a ‘living research’ project for LPA’s workplace team. All rules and preconceptions were left behind. With our own studio as the client, we explored every aspect of the workplace, focusing on a design that would support the San Jose team for years, while developing concepts, data and approaches for clients facing the same questions.

Read more: Why do we need to go back to the office?

The result is a hybrid design that blends ‘free address’ workstations with informal collaboration spaces. There are fewer workstations than employees. Studio members can reserve spots and create their own clusters, depending on the project. Responding to input from the teams, emphasis was placed on acoustics, privacy and heads-down workspace.

Beyond the desks and conference spaces, the design served as a case study of the firm’s own process and approach to workplace design. From the first meetings, the process analysed the connection between operations and design, recognising the fundamental changes in how people were working.

“We have to understand the company, organisation and how we will function differently and better in the future,” I told the group at the September charrette. “Everything needs to be vetted.”

Studying the Workplace

The consolidation of LPA’s San Jose studio was planned long before the pandemic. The designers were split between space on the ground floor and 4,500 square feet on the 12th floor of the downtown building.

The plan was to expand the 12th-floor space, which is enclosed on three sides by tall windows with spectacular views, and bring everybody together in a new 6,700-square-foot space designed to provide an environment that helped the different disciplines and practices better function as a team, even if many were primarily working from home.

“It was a great opportunity to explore the tasks that we’re doing,” says LPA San Jose studio director Patrick McClintock. “What is it we’re actually needing to produce? What’s the appropriate space to support that process?”

The design process started with an exploration of the team’s work habits and priorities by LPAred, the firm’s in-house research team. Each member of the San Jose studio received a survey; 100 percent responded. Topics ranged from furniture configurations to the fundamental role of the workplace.

“We really tried to focus on the question: What is the purpose of the office?” says Kimari Phillips, Research Manager of LPAred. “What are really the tangible and intangible things that bring people in?”

Even before the pandemic, remote work was part of the conversation. The surveys found that many people were finding it easier to work at home; their home workspace often offered more privacy and heads-down work opportunities.

Seventy-one percent of the respondents said they preferred a hybrid schedule working from home two or three days a week. “Acoustic privacy” and “ability to focus and reflect” were identified as key ways to increase employee satisfaction.

The survey also provided insight into the staff’s collaboration preferences. Open, informal meeting areas with flexible furniture were overwhelmingly favoured over traditional conference rooms.

Impromptu face-to-face interaction (87%) and the ability to see creativity on display (71%) were considered the most useful intangible resources offered by the workplace. The majority of their time (58%) is devoted to focused, heads-down work; only 42% is spent in collaboration.

The San Jose team also talked about the camaraderie in the office and the importance of food and meals. “The staff described the office’s culture as a very close-knit community with a small-studio vibe,” Phillips says. “They definitely wanted to maintain that.”

The survey results served as the foundation for a series of charrettes and visioning sessions, hosted online. Different options were explored, including layouts for collaboration spaces. Lighting, acoustics and furniture choices were all part of the discussion. Fundamental questions were asked: Does everyone need a desk? How can the workplace help people work together better?

The New Workplace

The plans changed several times during the process, as designers worked with the staff to explore different ways to marry process, function and influence. The focus was on “right-sizing” the design to support how people were working, while preparing for inevitable changes in the future.

Extra time was spent on the collaboration spaces. Did the staff want one grand studio space? Where did the collaboration fit best? How is that really going to function? “It was a very collaborative process with the staff,” says LPA project designer Lindsay Votel.

“I think there was a great consensus among everyone around the final layout.” The final design recognises that there will be shifts in the number of people working in the studios at any one time. The focus is on providing the staff more choice and control, allowing them to decide where, when and how they work best and most effectively.

Fifty percent of the staff are assigned permanent workstations; the rest of the staff can choose which mobility workstation to use when they are in the office, using the Envoy app to reserve a space. They can schedule a location based on the project and their needs that day. “We have seating designed to really support our hybrid work environment that leverages work from home and working in studio effectively,” McClintock says.

The workstation configuration allowed for 25% more collaborative space than a typical design. Based on feedback, the design focused on three large informal collaboration spaces, in addition to conference rooms. A roaming digital cart delivers technology and video connections to different sections of the studio, as needed.

Despite the small footprint, the design incorporated many elements found in larger studios, including a resource library, a wellness room, a large conference room and plenty of space for designers to pin up their work in progress.

“We were able to accommodate a lot of programme into that space because we reduced the number of workstations based on our mobility model,” Votel says. “Work from home has redefined what we thought we needed to store and what we physically need to do our work. This allowed us to be really thoughtful with storage because the space is not that big.”

Workstations and amenities were pulled back from the tall windows to take full advantage of natural light and views. Acoustic zones were established, giving people options for their work environment. Several small nooks and work areas offer the opportunity for focused, heads-down work time within the larger studio.

Separate spaces are included for the firm to gather for social events, apart from work areas. “We settled on a plan that blended where we gathered and met and where we actually work,” McClintock says. “It was really important for us from a social perspective.”

The design was also developed through a sustainability lens. Existing components of the space were preserved whenever possible. The location of the break room, plumbing, lighting fixtures and open ceilings were all retained, reducing waste and the need for new materials.

The Future Office

McClintock says he has been surprised by how easily people have adapted to the mobility elements of the new studio. Each day when people come into the office, they can decide where they want to work. People are able to engage with different disciplines and different project teams.

“That sounds simple, but to me it’s one of the most dynamic aspects of the new studio,” McClintock says. “Every day you come in it’s like a totally different office.”

The next step will be to study the results and explore how people are actually using the spaces. LPAred will track the effectiveness of the workplace, exploring what worked and what didn’t, which will generate valuable data to share with clients. The studio will continue to evolve to support changing work preferences.

“We don’t look at this solution as something that’s static,” McClintock says. “This is a space that is designed to transition as we grow and think differently about our work.”

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