Future-Proofing the Office (Part 1)

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Kay Sargent
Kay Sargent
Kay Sargent, Director of WorkPlace, HOK With 37 years of experience, Kay is a recognized expert on workplace design and strategy issues and an award-winning designer. Kay is Global Co-Director of HOK’s WorkPlace team and sits on HOK’s Board of Directors. In 2020 she was named ASID’s Designer of Distinction. Kay currently serves on the ASID’s Foundation Research Taskforce; George Washington University Advisory Council; the IWBI Mind Advisory Team and the Advisory Boards for I+S and WorkDesign magazines. During her career she has also served on the International Boards of CoreNet Global, AVIXA, IFI - International Federation of Interior Designers /Architects, ASID, IIDA, NCQLP and the Advisory Board of Virginia Tech School of Architecture and Design and NVCC. She is an active member of IFMA and co-founder of the IFMA Workplace Evolutionaries, WE community and serves as an Executive committee for WE. In 2021 she was selected from her field of peers to provide Congressional Subject Matter Expert Testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives on “Federal Real Estate Post-COVID-19: A View from The Private Sector.” Kay also serves on the GSA Diversity taskforce and is an advisor for the HOK Diversity Advisory Council.

This is Part 1 of a 2-part series on how to future proof your office.

Work and the workplace are changing today, driven by globalization, shifting demographics, technological advances, and economic pressures, just to name a few causes. And no one sees that stopping anytime soon.

More and more companies are asking themselves how to plan to ensure that they can meet the needs of the future without fully understanding what those needs might be.

In other words, how do we future-proof the office?

The “Office”

First, let’s define the office.

According to Wikipedia, “An office is generally a room or other area in which people work, referring to the location of one’s duty. An office is an architectural and design phenomenon and a social phenomenon. In modern terms an office usually refers to the location where white-collar workers are employed.”

But more often where we work is harder to define since we can work anywhere at any time. This phenomenon has lead to the terms home office, third-place, co-working and a variety of others that describe the ever-expanding locations of where we work.

The space we traditionally called the office is taking on a new set of terminology itself, such as hub, engagement center, and corporate living room. So defining the word “office” isn’t as easy as it used to be, for today, it can mean many different things.

Now let’s define future-proof.

If you take the term literally, it means making it so the future doesn’t come, but let’s face it, it’s coming.

As defined by Wikipedia, “The phrase future proofing describes the exclusive process of trying to anticipate future developments, so that action can be taken to minimize possible negative consequences, and to seize opportunities.”

So by that definition, let the future-proofing begin!

Future-proofing the Office

But how?


Let’s embrace the fact that today, “The only thing that is constant is change.

It’s inevitable so you might as well embrace it.”

Embedding flexibility and agility into the space solutions is important. The key there is to remember that the most flexible thing in any space is the people, not the furniture and walls.

Spaces should be designed to encourage movement and to allow people to work in different settings, and they don’t all have to be confined to the same building.


Employees are looking to increase productivity and drive innovation. Presenteeism — employees who are at work but not fully engaged — is impacting productivity and morale more than most employers realize.

Employee engagement is key to increasing productivity and creating environments that engage the staff, connect employees, maximize the potential for information sharing through displays and writable surfaces, and encourage collaboration. Empowered employees will happily produce.


A hangover from the volatile economy is a continued desire to reduce risk and improve the way we use space. That doesn’t have to mean a reduction of space, though in many cases it does.

Today, and in the future, companies are looking to make better use of the space they have and often want to do more with less, including expanding within the existing space instead of taking more.

Designers are being challenged to create spaces that serve multiple purposes, such as eating areas that can serve as meeting spaces in off hours, or files that serve as a seat or meeting surface as well.


Today, everyone is intrigued about what others are doing and are requesting benchmarking information. But benchmarking only tells you what they are doing – not if they want to be doing it, or if it works. And if it is working, just because something works for everyone else doesn’t mean that it will work for you.

Ask what worked, and didn’t, and understand whether their experiences are relevant or applicable to you. Every company has their own DNA, their unique personality, culture and demographic attributes.

Understanding what the attributes of a company are and finding the right approach for them, regardless of what others are doing, is the best way to get a tailor-made solution.


So how do we accommodate the various work styles, demographic groups and reflect the culture of the company – all while improving productivity and controlling cost?

We shift from fixed, individual space to a variety of shared-space types.

We need to create a balance of open and closed spaces, giving people more settings to work in, hence increasing their options. The operative word is balance, because few people do the same thing eight hours a day, every day.

People are happier, healthier, more inspired and more productive if they can go to areas that are designed to support the task at hand, and focus on it without distractions.


We are going through a demographic shift, a technology explosion, globalization, green awakening, and unprecedented opportunities to work in new ways.

So why does the office look the same as it did 40 years ago? And why is it only renovated once every 10 years or longer in many cases?

The design process should be as continual as the other factors changing in the workplace. We need to embed flexibility and refresh opportunities into our space. Design should be an evolution, not a revolution.


There are different types of collaboration, and open space doesn’t always equate to collaborative space. If the space is too open, with no areas of respite or private zones to retreat to, it can actually stymie collaborative work.

A recent study by Virginia Tech found that introverts can shut down in spaces that are too open. Giving people options is essential.


The rapid evolution of technology is presenting not only opportunities but challenges. Many spaces cannot integrate new IT solutions into the space without a rabbit warren of wires, and most offices are years behind innovative IT solutions.

Teknion’s Boston Showroom

Working remotely is still a challenge, too. A recent study by Microsoft shows that even when given the option to work remotely, less than 10 percent of employees are electing to do so. They still tend to come to the office.

The study showed that there are several possible reasons; lack of appropriate IT, inability to access files, lack of management support, or simply the fact that we are social beings and many people still want to come to the office. Providing IT solutions to support not only the type of work done today, but when and where it is done, is critical. And incorporating technology into the space, if not the architecture itself, will increasingly become the norm.

Work and the workplace are changing. And that gives rise to new challenges, but new opportunities as well. To meet the needs of a future we can’t fully anticipate means being open to new ideas, being flexible, and being agile.


We’ll explore additional points next month in Part 2 of this series.

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  1. Kay, the article caught my eye with the Future-proofing phrase, unusually bothersome to think that we’ve trained ourselves to think we can provide proof against the future. But then I read it again and noted the definition you added \”“The phrase future proofing describes the exclusive process of trying to anticipate future developments, so that action can be taken to minimize possible negative consequences, and to seize opportunities”
    Appreciate what you have written so far, especially being agile, being open to whatever changes are common our way, those are the most important.
    Doug Wittnebel

  2. I think we have experiences so much change and are still in the miidst of it, some companies moreso than others. Maybe we need to stop trying to predict the future and just start designing for the possibilities.


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