Why designers must look beyond trends to create spaces that truly serve the unique needs of the specific client.
Workplace design has changed a lot over the years. The cramped, productivity-focused spaces of the early 20th century eventually morphed into the cube farms that took center stage in the 80s and 90s. In the last decade, employers have gravitated toward open-plan workspaces designed to maximize spatial efficiencies and encourage impromptu “collisions,” conversations and brainstorming sessions. However, new research is starting to debunk the latter reasoning. A recent Harvard study found companies that move from a traditional office to an open-plan office actually see a decrease in collaboration at the workstation as employees opt to communicate via email and messaging more frequently.
Designing a functional workspace requires intuition and a deep understanding of the end users functional and experiential needs. We must gauge and try to predict how employees will use the space for the next decade in order to maximize its efficacy. Here are three emerging trends that stand to not only endure the changes in workplace design but become the cornerstones for 2020 and beyond.
An inclusive, equitable approach to design
Workplace end user personalities and work styles run the gamut from individuals who need peace and quiet to those who jump from desk to desk conversing with colleagues. As such, the work environment should be tailored for a multitude of dispositions.
With introverts, extroverts and all types in-between, designers can no longer apply a “one size fits all” approach to planning an office. Moving toward a philosophical approach which breaks down the workplace into neighborhoods or clusters — creating areas of focused respite in addition to more energetic team-based spaces — will unify the workplace in a way where each employee is thoughtfully considered. Inflexible, one-size-fits-all solutions are timeworn and have contributed to a broken office model that doesn’t reflect the needs of all personality types and work styles.
For instance, when creating the CARE HQ in downtown Atlanta, the design team implemented an assortment of space types informed by illuminating company-wide discussions. There are no traditional corner offices or defined hierarchical areas. Instead, the design followed a different kind of hierarchy: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. The team flipped the script on open floor plans and repurposed existing perimeter spaces into shared offices that boast views of the Atlanta skyline. This design solution promotes employee esteem by eliminating the physical barriers that signal status (like the corner office). Community hubs and meeting spaces were brought to the center of each floor. These collaborative areas support connectivity and friendship, while individual workspaces offer a sense of safety and security. Global art from different cultures, prayer rooms and mother’s rooms support the need for love and belonging. And a “palette of postures” — a variety of seating and standing areas, like standing desks and phone booths – support employees’ physical needs throughout the workday.
Rather than duplicating efforts across a spectrum, prioritizing a diverse medley of space types will continue to push the envelope and ensure that there is equity for all in the modern office of tomorrow.
Data-driven design as a subscription model
As the ability to collect and analyze environmental data matures, there’s a new possibility to use this data to inform design in real time. Instead of allowing outdated spaces or design elements to run their course in the project life cycle, subsequently requiring a full-scale renovation, technology might allow designers to take near real-time action and make frequent, tailored updates that extend the lifetime of the overall workplace design.
Currently, the information we’re able to gather about the effectiveness of workspaces is limited. Post-occupancy surveys are largely anecdotal and cannot adequately gauge the use of an area over time. An in-office data stream could significantly enhance our ability to make small tweaks and additions that augment space usability. New technological sensor-based data would allow us to prioritize necessary updates, so that rooms, spaces, or even furniture pieces that are underutilized could be updated and re-optimized.
Innovative companies like Tesla are already using product-generated data to inform repairs, upgrades and even the future of its vehicle fleet, in a similar vein to laptops or smartphone devices. Over-the-air software updates eliminate many of the hassles associated with car ownership, like taking the vehicle in for a fix (for instance, a recent charger plug malfunction was deftly handled by a software push).
Introducing solutions like these make continuous micro-projects a more realistic notion. The benefits are two-pronged: For designers, we are able to modify design instantaneously to create an ever-evolving suite of upgrades. For employers, the return on investment is ongoing, generating long-term value.
In the new gig economy, this inventive approach might even mean design firms can investigate the business potential of rolling out “subscription-based services” to clients so that they can continually help analyze data and refine the workplace to meet the ever-changing needs of its occupants.
It’s true, most of the flashiest workplace amenities don’t really matter much to employees after the initial interview tour has concluded. While indoor swings, slides, scooters and ping pong tables might reflect the “fun” aspects of a company’s culture, they may not fully resonate with the majority of the workforce and actually provide them with a useful daily amenity to be more productive and innovative.
We remedy this by unpacking the employee routine to find “authentic” amenities that would benefit their daily work experience. Using experience mapping, designers can discover which workplace features an employee would likely interact with throughout the day and apply this information practically to craft authentic amenity spaces which would appeal to specific individual end users.
As an example, if a user’s daily experience map indicates a need for some periods of quiet, an available private office or heads-down room nearby could be implemented and would become a far more authentic amenity space for their day than having a shuffleboard court in the common area. With this, we can begin to find commonalities, or overlaps among the habits of multiple employees, from the C-suite to the coordinator, to establish a workplace culture that is compatible with more people. Ideally, we will create an engaging atmosphere that has positive implications for daily output and facilitates enduring success.
For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. The inherent value of design is indicated by the emotional reactions that are a result of the surrounding built environment. In the future, the workplace can be more than a “second place” outside of home (first place) and community gathering areas (third place). Qualities such as custom-fit features that reflect the intricacies of employees and elicit emotional satisfaction will be more akin to the “third place,” representing yet another transition in the evolution of workplace design.