Design Going Forward: Environment vs. Experience

Clients are demanding that office space be much more than merely a place to sit and work, but that’s easier said than done. Here’s how you can plan for the future.

05/01/2013 By Kay Sargent

What’s next? What are the forces that will be influencing workplace design in the coming years? The paradigms are shifting. How can we stay ahead of the curve? These days, any conversation with designers and clients keeps coming back to this same concern: “What are the most important challenges facing the office design market and how do we plan for the future?”

Today, clients are demanding that office space be more than merely a place to sit and work. It must be a place where people can perform more efficiently, more flexibly and more productively. It must also be a place in tune with today’s work styles, technology and a new generation of workers. What’s more, it must be a place where workers have choices.

One of the most critical challenges in the design market today is improving both productivity and the employee experience. A recent survey estimated that 72 percent of employees are sleepwalking through the day. An environment that stimulates them even a little more makes them more engaged in their work, and can therefore have a significant impact on improving productivity and reducing presenteeism.

After salaries, the biggest expense most companies have is real estate, closely followed by IT. That is why it is so critical to clients—and designers—to improve the way space is utilized. We’re not just talking about reducing square footage, but rather, about helping clients make better, smarter use of the space they currently have, and allowing companies to accommodate future growth without taking additional real estate. Businesses are looking to reduce their risk and optimize their real estate portfolios with the right space, in the right buildings, in the right locations.

Another design challenge is branding. Companies want their spaces to reflect and contribute to their image and brand. This doesn’t just mean their external image to their customers and shareholders, but also (and just as importantly) how they are seen internally by their own employees. Whether a company intends it to or not, its office environment says exactly what kind of company they are. Cutting-edge? Up to date? Square? Hip? Stodgy? Indifferent? Caring? The right design can ensure a company’s office space says the right things.

Clients are also challenging designers to create flexible
spaces to meet the current and future needs of the organization. Indeed, not too long ago, the corporate real estate mantra was “location, location, location.” These days, location is still critical, but flexibility has become the number one consideration for clients when developing their corporate real estate strategy.

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Creating a sense of place is another new challenge for today’s designers. Employees are truly untethered and can work anytime, anywhere. Many companies are challenged with designing a compelling space, one that their staffs want to come to everyday. This newfound freedom is due almost entirely to technology.

Integrating the impact of technology is essential to anyone designing workspaces today. As IT continues to evolve at an exponential rate, keeping up with the latest trends and incorporating them into the workspace is a constant challenge.

There’s also a renewed emphasis on sustainability, and a desire to employ “common sense” solutions in lieu of chasing points. The Living Building Challenge, for example, provides a framework for design, construction and the symbiotic relationship between people and all aspects of the built environment. It also calls for ambitious standards for carbon equivalent footprints, which measure not just carbon emissions, but other greenhouse gasses that contribute to climate change. The Health Product Declaration calls for even more transparencies in chemicals of concern.

As if all this weren’t enough, there’s the macro question of how companies—our clients—manage all this change.


“The only thing constant is change. It is inevitable, so embrace it. Because change is inevitable, opportunity is inevitable, too.”

the forces of change
As designers, perhaps the best news we could hear is that the world is changing—and at a faster and faster pace. This is not a problem for us, but rather an amazing opportunity. To take advantage of that opportunity, it is imperative that we remind our clients that we are not designing the office of the past. We are not even designing the office of today. We are designing the office of the future. And that future will be driven by many complex and interrelated factors.

Take globalization, for example. Boundaries are disappearing and companies are operating everywhere. Even companies that are not themselves global are being impacted by global trends. One trend is benching systems designed to provide clients with various levels of mobility and collaboration. But beware: just because something works in one part of the world doesn’t mean it’s applicable in other regions. We must respect the cultural differences of each region and weigh them when deciding what may or may not work for us.

Recent economic volatility has caused companies to seek maximum strategic return on everything they spend. How does your design vision translate into productivity? Demographics are another complex factor to consider. A glance around almost any office will reveal the tremendous impact of changing demographics. With more diverse workforces than ever before, better ways need to be found to manage different styles of working and interacting.

We have four generations of workers today, ranging from Digital Natives to Digital Immigrants to Digital Nomads. We are also seeing more women advancing to senior leadership positions and a greater ethnic mix in the workplace. All these factors open us up to more opportunities but also have their challenges.

The entire vision of what a building is and how we work has changed, too. Today, as companies are driving to create more innovative and productive environments, they must also be concerned with employee well-being and engagement. After all, a happy, healthy, empowered and engaged employee will be more productive than an unhappy, disconnected, sickly or disgruntled one any day of the week.

Design today must focus on making the environment more active for the end-user. That leads to employees being healthier and more invigorated, which in turn makes them more productive. And that impacts our clients’ bottom line.

the speed of change
To manage change properly we have to understand that not everything in the world changes at the same pace. A building is revitalized approximately every 40 years. The workplace changes about every 10 years, based on the length of a typical lease. The workforce is in transition every 5 years. Business changes every 3 years. (To put this in perspective, a very short time ago there were no Internet search engines, as we know them. We can all easily remember a time before social media, and our smartphones and touchscreen tablets are even more recent.) Yet many companies are working in offices designed 25 years ago.

Today technology changes every 6 months, and even that pace is accelerating. Imagine your IT people installing a system and saying, “See you in 10 years.” That’s what has been happening with workplace design. When the workspace doesn’t change and becomes static while everything around it is evolving, then the workspace quickly becomes out-of-date, its relevance drops and radical change is necessary when it is finally redesigned. If we want space to be the powerful business tool we know it can be, it needs to be dynamic, agile and adaptable. We need to design it to evolve over time, just as everything else is.


“The design process should be as continual as the changes in the workplace. It should be an evolution, not revolution.”

workplace trends
If we are to design spaces that can truly evolve, we need to keep our fingers on the pulse of the most important workplace trends. The 12 most important issues impacting the workplace today are:

  1. Improving productivity through employee engagement. As we have seen, this means getting employees to engage, keeping them active, getting them moving and giving them stimulating environments.
  2. Creating a balance of open and private spaces. This is about identifying your client’s DNA and giving them the environment that best suits their culture, demographic, regional influences, work styles, industry and organizational structure.
  3. Remembering it’s all about the experience. It’s not just about the space or the tools. It’s about how all of it combines to deliver a great work experience.
  4. Improving space utilization. We need to use the space we have more intelligently and, if possible, reduce it.
  5. Creating engaging, branded spaces that reflect a company’s core values, cultures and ideals.
  6. Providing flexible spaces and options for work. This is a case of one-size-misfits-all. We need to design environments with a variety of settings that empower employees to pick the right setting to accomplish the task at hand.
  7. Integrating technology into the space and allowing for future evolution.
  8. Being sustainable. More and more, this is about using common sense and doing the right thing than it is about catching points.
  9. Managing change through evolving space. If the space is static, it’s not a powerful business tool. We need to design spaces to be agile.
  10. Improving the occupants’ well-being.
  11. Utilizing evidence-based design. This means really looking at what people are doing and creating a solution that meets the needs of the users, regardless of what benchmarking or trends are telling you.
  12. Understanding that we are human. This is the most important factor to consider. There’s been so much focus on technology and sustainability, but we must remember that, ultimately, we’re designing spaces for people. And at the end of the day, they are both our greatest expense and our greatest asset.


“The most flexible thing in any space isn’t the wall or the furniture. It’s the people.”

Everybody wants flexibility. And it’s certainly important that things like the walls and the furniture be designed to be flexible. But the most flexible thing in any office is the people. Consider for a moment the modern workday:

  1. An employee arrives at the office and drops off his or her coat
  2. They grab a cup of coffee in the pantry and catch up with some of their peers
  3. On the way to their desk, they check their phone for messages
  4. They settle into their workstation and check some emails
  5. They pop into their boss’ office for a quick face-to-face
  6. On the way back, they bump into a colleague and have a quick exchange
  7. Then it’s off to a dedicated room for a conference call with the international team or a client
  8. At noon, it’s off to the deli to grab a lunch with a teammate and then they run a quick errand
  9. After lunch, it’s back at the workstation to scan emails and prepare a report
  10. Then it’s off to a meeting with the Productive Development Team
  11. Then the team gets together in a war room to prepare for a meeting the following day
  12. And at the end of day, there’s a social hour in the common area

People are on the go, so designing for this kind of contemporary workday is different than in the past. We are no longer sitting in one place all day. We need to create task-oriented solutions that encourage movement and empower people to select the right space for the task at hand. This is activity-based design.

Instead of designing a space as if it were a one-room efficiency apartment where you sit in one place all day, this concept gives people options and choices based on the various activities of their workday. It’s the idea of different spaces for different functions, the way a house has a room for cooking, dining, sleeping, etc.


“As we shift space from individuals to shared spaced, we are giving people more settings in which to work, thus increasing their options. We should not design for people as if they were potted plants.”

The famous spy novelist John le Carré wrote, “A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world.” He no doubt had deeper meanings in mind, but from a pure productivity perspective, he was exactly right.

Overly sedentary work environments create all kinds of unintended consequences, not the least of which is decreased productivity. As designers, we want to create stimulating environments that help people collaborate when they want to and do focus work when they need to. We want to create environments that get people moving throughout the space and actually improve productivity, chance encounters and interaction.

the human element and collaboration
These days, all companies are interested in utilizing their space more efficiently and cost-effectively, and they frequently look to technology to help them achieve those goals. And yet, in spite of all the mobility that technology offers us, including the ability to work remotely from home or from our briefcase, people are still human. We are social creatures and we want to come together. Just because we can work anytime, anywhere doesn’t necessarily mean we want to.

Companies today are eager to create environments that enable collaboration. But what kind of space promotes true collaboration? Would it surprise you to learn that putting people into open space does not necessarily equate to creating a collaborative environment? Studies have shown that introverts often shut down in spaces that have no areas for retreat or privacy, and people who do a high level of focus work also find open spaces very distracting. We need to create a balance and give people choices that allow for concentration and teaming.

We’ve gone from being potted plants sitting in one place all day to providing people with rooms to roam to being digital nomads. Thanks to technology, we can now truly work anytime, anywhere. We can work at home, in a coffee shop, on the road or in the office.


“As we reallocate space from individuals to collaborative spaces, we rarely reduce the overall square footage unless there is also a change in the desk-to-employee ratio.”

A recent survey by CoreNet Global, JLL, Cisco and Teknion of corporate real estate executives asked what strategies they were employing to increase the efficiency of their company’s space utilization. 77 percent said open workspaces with fewer offices; 62 percent said denser workspaces; and 46 percent said having more employees working remotely, either from home, satellite sites or client sites.

Unfortunately, according to most designers, the 77 percent are largely kidding themselves. Unless their previous space usage was grossly inefficient, going from offices to an open plan is usually just a shift that doesn’t actually result in any meaningful reduction of square footage if the goal is to increase collaboration as well. The companies that are saving big money on their real estate are the ones reducing the number of desks and altering the desk-to-employee ratio.

Historically, if a company had 100 employees they had 110 desks—some for visitors, interns, growth, etc. But today, companies that are highly sales- or consultative-based want their employees out in the field more, meeting clients and making money. Many companies are also realizing that the office is underutilized 40-60 percent of the time, so desk sharing is an option. For them, 100 employees might only require 60 desks, because their people are out and externally mobile. Many have introduced hoteling or free-addressing, while others are reducing their real estate by establishing teleworking policies that enable employees to work from home.

But the jury is still out on how employees and employers feel about working from home. Recent studies show that only 10 percent of people who were offered the opportunity to telework actually did; 90 percent still came to the office. A study by Microsoft showed that the main reasons for that were: lack of appropriate IT equipment or connectivity issues; a lack of HR policies; middle management resistance; and the fact that we are human—we are social, we are territorial, we are creatures of habit and we like to gather!

Similarly, employers are still ambivalent about people working from home versus in the office. On one hand, they know that people who work at home can be significantly more productive. Recent studies show that employees working from home typically work 10 hours more a week. When you consider that the average commute takes about 10 hours a week, it’s clear there is a correlation, especially since people who telework (also known as telecommuting) report greater satisfaction with their work/life balance and a willingness to give the company a little of the time back that they saved not having to commute. But working from home can also make employees feel isolated, and ultimately, it can erode corporate culture and test the bonds that lead to loyalty.

On the other hand, having employees together in the office every day is what creates and solidifies corporate culture. Companies that specialize in intense knowledge work are designing campuses that bring everybody together. They want their people in the office. They thrive on the intellectual stimulation and synergy that come from their people interacting. It reinforces the idea of teamwork and takes advantage of the kind of stimulating synergy of fresh ideas being shared, challenged and defended. And knowing that employees are more loyal to the people that they work with than the company they work for, strengthening those bonds can be a key to reducing churn.

Despite the tendency for sides to become polarized around the extremes, the real solution will ultimately lie in the middle. Whether a company’s policy favors work-from-home or come-to-the-office, the questions they need to answer are: What is right for your culture and your work styles? And can you measure the benefits of your choice?

At the end of the day, the answer might come back to giving people choices and being flexible. Companies will flourish if they encourage the attitude that we’re all in this together, stay agile and pay constant attention to the ever-changing dynamics of the workforce.


“Technology is the most important factor influencing and enabling the scale of change within workplaces today, but we are starting to see the rise of the human factor.”

the trends are clear
While there is no one-size-fits-all design solution, the trends are there. Mobile is a real trend, where employees move to where the work (or the function) is, either internally, as in the example discussed earlier, or externally to a client or vendor site.

A second trend is the proliferation of co-working centers. These are for people who want to telework but not necessarily from their homes. If you’ve ever seen the sea of laptops at a Starbucks, Panera or Tim Horton’s, you know why there is a need for co-working centers that provide a more professional environment for people to work in and connect with one another.

Add to these trends the fact the one-third of the employment force today is either self-employed or a consultant, and you can see that more and more people want options as to where they work.

So it shouldn’t surprise you that telework is on the increase, even through the recession. According to Fortune magazine, “82 percent of the ‘Best Companies to Work For’ allow employees to telecommute at least 20 percent of the time.” But what might surprise you is who is doing it.


“The millennials may have driven the mobility movement, but it’s the Xers and baby boomers who are the prime distributed workers.”

The people who are embracing teleworking the most are those with the most to gain from it—namely, gen Xers and baby boomers. They are the ones who have kids, aging parents and tend to live in the suburbs, so they need the work/life balance benefits that teleworking offers. They are also the ones who are more likely to have “tenure” and have proven themselves, meaning they may be given more freedom. Finally, they are the ones who are realizing that they may not be able to retire when they thought they would, and are investigating the kind of a “soft” retirement that teleworking a few days a week can provide.

Besides, the younger generation, the millennials, are all about the “We-volution.” They do everything in packs and want to make their mark. And to do that, they need to be seen and heard.

how much teleworking is enough?
Just one day a week of teleworking can have a significant impact on the environment and an individual’s work/life balance, but to save on real estate costs or impact the workplace, it takes three to four days a week of teleworking to have an effect. And that can be dramatic.

Conservatively, companies estimate that if they can give up a desk (and the real estate associated with that desk), they can save on average $13,000 to $20,000 a year per employee.

These benefits, however, are elusive. As we have seen, fewer than 10 percent of employees who are given the opportunity to telework are actually electing to do so. And not all space that is freed up can be released or repurposed. But in certain cases, it is a serious real estate strategy to consider.

the office of tomorrow
Predicting the future is a tricky business. Thirty years ago, for example, designers were designing state-of-the-art ashtrays for workstations. Who would have foreseen that smoking would be completely outlawed in most offices? We can though, as we have tried to do here, identify current trends and try to infer a reasonable future.

It appears that the office as we know it will evolve into a place where people come to engage and collaborate. The spaces we design need to encourage and facilitate that.

For years, the design community has been saying that appropriately designed space can be a very powerful business tool. The “C Suite” finally agrees, but now the burden of proof is on us. Our designs are increasingly being held to a strict business standard. The science of design is as important today as the art of design, as we move from being less of a commodity and more of a business tool and partner.

After all, we’re not just designing the environment any more—we’re designing the entire experience.

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