That was Then – This is Now

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When I was looking for a job, I wasn’t concerned about the workplace. I wanted to work in a design firm and it didn’t really matter where, with whom or how the space looked or felt.

Today, I would think more about why I was going to work, where I would be, what I might be doing and with whom I would work and socialize. This is what I have come to understand– not from analytics, deep research or articles in the popular press. I have come to this point of view from talking to interns, new recruits and my kids looking for work and making decisions about the workplace. A younger generation’s perspective can be … insightful … especially when they suggest you might be stuck in a world that no longer exists. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Recently I was invited to a meeting to discuss the future of the workplace and what is influencing change. Before we started, our prospective client wanted to set the stage. He asked if there were any millennials in the room; yes, we had one on our team. She looked at him and said, “Don’t worry about me; say whatever you want,” waiting for a general remark about entitlement or work ethic. No, this was different. He looked at her and said, “by the time we build and occupy these new buildings, more than likely none of us will still be with the company. We want to understand what we might be missing; that’s what we want to learn.” He continued with a story that brought the point home: “Back in the day we believed in the 3 R’s – reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic; today we still subscribe to 3 R’s, only they’re different: recruitment, retention, and return.”

From there we discussed what it means to build workplaces in the current and future environments, and how we will know if we get it right. What follows, using the 3 R’s as our guide points, are a few thoughts about where we were, where we think we are going, how we might measure success, and how we can better understand what is driving change today.


People do not make choices in a vacuum, especially when seeking employment. They make them in a world where many features, noticed and unnoticed, can influence their decisions. The person who creates the workplace is usually a designer, also known as a choice architect.

Whether these designers choose to understand the context fully, they have responsibility for organizing the workplace in which people make decisions. Yet, that is only part of the solution. The people that inhabit the space bring their “whole person” every day. No less complex than the design experience we create, each user brings a myriad of wants, needs, and requirements to their workplace.

Across all generations there are influences that make up who we are. Rather than rehash generalizations about chronological generations, it may be more instructive if we try to understand a person’s:
1) present and future life stages,
2) parental nurturing (a lot or a little),
3) family conditions during formative years,
4) view of the world,
5) cultural influences,
6) influential peer trends, and
7) seminal events that shaped their lives; political, economic, social, or spiritual/religious. It’s complicated sorting these things out, though necessary to make good recruitment choices.

During recruitment, a company considers its needs to profitably produce its goods and services. But also, during the century and a half since the industrial revolution, there has been a growing recognition that achieving organizational goals is facilitated when work environments align to the needs of the “whole person.” Companies tend to hire employees for their resume, immediate problem-solving capability, and education. Yet it is their ability to adapt quickly and work well with others, and their strong positive attitude that promote retention, which, in turn, supports the organizations business objectives. Today, more employees are hired based on attitude since they can be trained for the skills to do the job.

Sven Goraars Whole Person

The workplace must also address employee needs to enhance their engagement by rejuvenating, re-energizing and enabling them to feel positive about being productive. For as much as we may dismiss well-being as a fad much like sustainability was seen in the not so distant past, research indicates that where we work affects how we work. Unless a recruit is considered in all their dimensions, we may later discover personal concerns that need attention. If we continue to ignore the whole person, another company may provide for their needs, while the initial employer loses an otherwise great employee and incurs additional recruitment and training costs.

What expectations do we build into our organizational work life? There was a time we went to work from 9 to 5 and left work at the office. We couldn’t bring it home, there were no cell phones, no laptop computers, and we didn’t think about it again until the next day. With the advent of mobility, improved technology, and greater expectations for longer work days – we have a challenging time leaving work at the office.


People now work from the moment they wake up until they go to bed. During lectures and conference presentations, I ask the audience, “How many of you work before you get to the office (show of hands) and how many of you work after you leave the office (again, a show of hands); without much variation in both cases easily 80% or more of the audience confirms that is the case, regardless of location. What does this tell us? Perhaps we should find ways to accommodate personal needs in the workplace – not as a way of extending the work day, but more as a way of supporting better well-being by giving people a chance to take care of their whole lives: making a personal call, setting up appointments, repairing the car, and a whole host of tasks.

In the current environment, when pondering the relationship of well-being, productivity and profitable return for a company, I previously attributed problems to the lack of good planning and individual style and work habits. Now our work/life has significantly changed and with-it employee expectations, and personal needs. As designers, we have a responsibility to improve the work environment to reflect these changes, expectations and needs to better optimize organizational performance.


Once you hire, you need to retain. Workplace retention is another complex topic. Simply stated, a miserable workplace encourages miserable work. Experience and research indicates the factors that contribute to a miserable workplace and to better workplaces. Pertinent design factors influence physical, emotional and cognitive abilities.

Gensler Design Factors

The 10 most impactful design factors are tools we use to shape the experience of place for people.

Maintaining the status quo is not okay. Better workplaces contribute to happier people and more engaged and productive employees; it’s that simple. We have the tools to create higher performing workplaces and we know that alignment between organizational and individual needs to promote productivity and cut expenses. Retention is about give and take between the organization and employee, accommodation, and mutual support.

Companies stress employee engagement to increase productivity – that is what we read in the popular press and hear from Human Resource professionals – everyone seeks good experiences. Ultimately it comes down to what companies want to provide and what designers create. What both work with are people, workplaces and technology.

Where we used to talk about people, place and process working in concert, we later emphasized, people, place and technology. Today we’re thinking more holistically about people, place and connectivity. Connectivity includes technology and process as well as individual, team and community relationships. When process was supplanted by technology, it was largely due to the acceleration of delivery systems with the introduction of smart devices and virtual means of connection. In this context, technology is defined as the way a company transforms its resources, data, and expertise into goods and services for higher value.

We cannot talk of place without discussing the people that inhabit the space, and we cannot achieve effective and efficient workplaces without the right technologies. Today, most are virtual. We are not interested in what the technologies look like or how they work, we just want them to work and not get in the way of what we can profitably produce.

Even though we dissect people, place and connectivity to better understand each element, we must also consider them together, as an interrelated whole. People and place blend together into a co-created experience while connectivity, technology and relationships enable these two to come together successfully. The integration of these three elements should be seamless, ubiquitous, and intuitive. As an example, one day I walked into a toy store and there in front of me was a display of fidget spinners.

Fidget Spinner

I picked one up and as I moved my finger to start the legs moving into one continuous circle I saw the three legs as people, place and technology. As it spun I saw how much our explanation of the workplace has changed, becoming less cumbersome and simpler. Achieving this integration is a critical success factor for top performing companies today.

There is another shift that is influencing our workplace design strategy and should be addressed. As much as we want to support community and belonging to increase innovation, creativity is often an individual endeavor, although often stimulated by interactions and social conversation. Spaces and places for both are important.

In addition, employee retention is affected by how a company delivers on its brand – its “brand promise”. A company cannot retain valuable employees without fulfilling its mission and vision. This goes beyond the use of words and involves the workplace. Now, more than ever, employees desire that their employers’ values and missions are compatible with their own or, at the very least, employees seek employment where they and their employer’s cultural values have common ground.

Companies make recruitment decisions, but individuals do the same, interviewing companies to discern their transparency and integrity. Both must work in tandem to optimize workplace productivity.


Lastly, we come to the remaining “R,” return, which we use to denote profitability or revenue after expense. It is what makes a company viable. Making money and doing good for employees and the community can co-exist. The days of the industrial revolution – where fair pay and employee wellbeing were considered counterproductive, or at least unnecessary – are fast fading into the past. Organizations, particularly in a service economy, are dependent upon the creativity and productivity of employees for revenue production; with this comes the need to manage expenses related to the employees, including medical expenses. People matter and are important considerations. But it takes rising to the challenge and the ability to see dramatic changes from the traditional business model of only a few generations ago.

While the company remains at the center of the business model, we now see the individual as the generator of the revenue that ensures the viability of the company. Most revenue today is driven by customer access and employee generated intellectual property and know-how, not by company assets. This is a huge shift in the value proposition for most companies.

Shifting Economy Gensler

It is incumbent upon designers to create workplaces that enhance the ability of organizations to recruit, train and retain a more productive workforce, while managing related expenses. Retention concerns are amplified as an organizations’ capital lies in its employees, who, in turn, can carry that with them to other employment opportunities.

Research today indicates employees not only work for money, they also seek meaning and purpose in their work life; this is not a new drive, though it is now one that many see as achievable. Accordingly, we as designers need to provide employers with a workplace that promotes stronger employee engagement by supporting well-being. We also need to create workplaces that give employees a sense of importance to the enterprise through better branding and work settings and by providing a design that facilitates the information flow needed to achieve the organization’s efficient and energetic operation.


There was a time when the three “R’s” of reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic were all you needed to get a job. You accepted the work environment and interrelationships of workers once you went to work. Today, the relationship between an individual and their employer is more complex, and we have only skimmed the surface in this discussion of recruitment, retention and return. We need to better design workplaces for the workforce, increasingly the most important capital of an organization.

Effective design, however, is not sufficient. A workforce must fully understand how to use the workplace; that includes leaders, managers as well as the general employee. Companies today that see the changes described here and act upon them can accelerate their businesses well beyond the competition. They see that the future is already here and is not “out there” waiting for the right article or research to show the way. They are actively working in concert with their workforce.

The alignment of process, technology and place is a difficult endeavor by itself. The alignment of people takes a separate set of skills. You cannot calculate the alignment of people on paper the way you can a process or lay out a workplace design. It is imperative to prepare the people and the organization to move forward alongside the preparation of the space and implementation of technology. Recruitment decisions have a greater impact on a company in the initial stages of hiring, training and development. Resources are expended to bring new recruits to a productive level. Later, if the people added to the workforce don’t work out the cost implications are greater. The care, feeding and nurturing of a strong workforce requires the right infrastructure, including the workplace, which has a significant impact on how people feel.

The knowledge and opportunity is available for discerning organizations to transform, recognizing that the work environment is not what it was only 20 years ago. Today, the most successful competitors are those who strive to align their organizational needs and values with those of their workforce.

When the way you look at things changes, then the things you look at change. Welcome to the future workplace.


Gensler Actualization

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