WDM chats with Janet Pogue McLaurin of Gensler to learn more about their US Workplace Survey Summer 2021 and the future of workplace design.
The anticipation was that the migration “back to the office” would accelerate after the US Labor Day holiday in early September. The reality is that there is still uncertainty and concern about the lingering COVID-19 virus, its variants, and the impact that it’s having on companies as they assess and reassess what options are out there to re-frame the concept of workplace for their employees.
Behind the scenes, workplace strategists, designers, architects, tenants and property owners across the spectrum are evaluating options to pilot towards the future of work that is emerging out of the disruption of the past nineteen months of the pandemic.
Gensler Research Institute’s recently released US Workplace Survey Summer 2021 captured the most recent data on the top performing companies’ current thinking on how and where they want to work as they move forward. Interestingly, the conclusions lean to acquiring more space to support their work and corporate culture. In the spirit of how we are currently working, we had a discussion with Janet Pogue McLaurin, Global Workplace Research Leader and Principal at Gensler, to talk about the survey and give us insight on her current thinking about where workplace design and planning is headed.
WDM: The study suggests that companies in evaluating future space requirements are thinking more space, not less. Given the push to hybrid environments, staggered schedules, and slow returns, what are the primary drivers for larger footprints?
Janet: Top-performing companies value the office differently. They support flexibility and autonomy but expect more of their staff to be in the office concurrently at any one time. Looking to a post-COVID work environment, both corporate leaders and employees are leaning toward defining a more flexible work environment with a mix of remote options as well as providing physical workplaces to foster the creativity and knowledge sharing that naturally happens when people are together “in person.” Building and supporting a robust corporate culture for human interaction to thrive is critical to business success.
Janet noted that clients are looking for guidance to develop strategies that will promote a workplace that is flexible and adaptable to support new anticipated ways of working. This drives new design opportunities to create spaces for the kinds of work activities and interactions that people can’t do remotely – including both deep focus and hyper-collaboration.
WDM: The back to work situation seems fluid (with the variant issues, vaccine issues, etc.). Do you think we are still not in position to make definitive changes to workplace strategies? How are companies coping with this holding pattern?
Janet: It is too early to be definitive, but most of our clients are no longer willing to wait out the challenges and uncertainties; they are optimistically forging ahead. This next year will be one of experimentation – piloting and testing new ways of working, creating new experiences and learning what works and what doesn’t. Workplace strategies, policies and design will need to adapt and evolve as we uncover how we work best – both as individuals and collectively with our teams and organizations.
WDM: The concept of work is being redefined and the disruption of the pandemic has actually pushed the envelope in many ways. What do your designers and strategists see as the key factors that will inform the next iteration of the best and most innovative workplaces?
Janet: There are new innovations and creative thinking in office building designs. We are seeing an increased focus on touchless and smart building systems, HVAC systems designed for energy-efficiency and health, such as air filtration systems which provide cleaner air for occupants. New building designs must adapt to both times of high and low risk – whether it’s a pandemic, natural disaster or other disruptions in the future. Natural light, access to outdoor spaces and reconfigurable spaces, for example, are all necessary for consideration in planning the next iteration of our workplaces.
The biggest innovations on the horizon may be digitally enabled workspaces that allow teams to seamlessly connect a distributed workforce and enhance the in-office experience. Technology applications can not only monitor how we are using space in real time but can predict future space usage. This has the power to transform the user experience and building operations into an integrated platform. That’s a game changer!
WDM: Companies do realize the value of a physical space for their work to happen. When do you think we will see other changes that will come out of the current disruption?
Janet: The top performing companies that participated in our survey are looking at the value of “the office” very differently. There is a heightened awareness of the importance of having places to bring people together and a new understanding of how they can work best. Client and design teams are expanding to include HR, IT and other stakeholders to address issues, such as equity, technology, policy, resilience, sustainability and climate issues. This is a foundational shift in how we need to think about how we work and how we can create a great workplace experience where people want to be, that is inclusive, and supports how we all work best.
Companies are currently in a war for talent. HR and talent managers can play a critical role in understanding a multi-generational workforce and what aspects of the workplace have the most value. This is a time to experiment and create pilot projects for learning and understanding of how we can create great workplace experiences for people. That is what is truly important.
WDM: There are lots of buzzwords thrown around about how people will be working. If you had to kill off some of these words, which one’s come to mind first?
Janet: I would think the “New Normal” would have to go. Workplace was changing prior to the pandemic, the disruption just accelerated many of the changes that were already taking place. What is normal for one person or company is not necessarily normal for another.
The other term that needs to be eliminated from the conversation is “Hybrid.” Where to work (home or office) is not a binary solution. Again, circumstances are different for each organization. We need to move to designing an ecosystem of workplaces. There are multiple options that can be utilized depending on the day and the tasks at hand. Co-working, alternate offices, third places and all the other places and ways that create a work experience are going to be what will inform the planning and design of the new work experience.
Janet: It’s clear that a continuing conversation is going to lead to the design of projects that will demonstrate the best of what has been learned from the shared experience of the past year and half. We will be on the lookout for Gensler’s continuing research as they work across the globe with their clients across the spectrum of businesses that are pondering their next steps toward their workplaces of the future.