Five Things You Need to Know About the Changing Office

07.30.2018

Cheryl Durst & Jan Johnson

Those in business and marketing understanding that a company is more than the product it creates: brand loyalists want the experience and culture that the company embodies. And yet, when designing office spaces, the discussion moves further away from company culture towards the static aspects of an interior.

The fact of the matter is, it’s the company culture that draws in and retains clients and employees alike. Employees—particularly millennials and gen z—aren’t working for the kegorator or ping-pong table; they’re working for the culture that those things can represent.

These changes in what the office space looks like and the role it is taking on aren’t symbolic of the death of offices, however. “I still think that there is such a human need for face to face that I wouldn't believe anybody that said, ‘The office is dying,’” said Jan Johnson, vice president of design and workplace resources for Allsteel. “I don't believe that for a minute, but I think it's going to take a lot of different forms.”

Following their panel discussion during NeoCon 2018 on office culture and design, interiors+sources sat down with Johnson and Cheryl Durst, executive vice president and CEO of the International Interior Design Association (IIDA) to discuss some of the takeaways that designers should keep in mind.


IIDA Chicago followed the path of modernizing their office space in 2017.

Employees are a company’s greatest tools

As technology allows for ever-more specialized work, how companies utilize their employees is becoming more important, as is how their employees are treated.

“People expect to have more autonomy and control,” Johnson said. “The workplace should be designed to support that. Part of our job as interior designers and/or workplace strategists is to help figure out what are the needs of those permission sets, and how does that work with the way we design things? How do we design in enough flexibility to give them the permission and capability of doing those things?”

When approaching how an office should be designed or arranged, it’s important not to think of differences in generations as much as providing the best possible space—including a bit of freedom—to allow employees to work their best. This is a lesson Johnson learned early in her career: the return on investing in employees and providing them with what they need to do their best work far outweigh what’s saved from keeping an obstacle course of checks and balances in their way.

However, the answers to what is needed aren’t the same across the board. “I think parity is really easy for people to put in place because if we treat everybody exactly alike, then nobody can complain,” she explained. “[But] pluralism is probably what we really need, and it’s much harder because it’s easy for people to pick at that and say, ‘Well, how come they got [that] and I didn’t get it?’”

Status via corner office isn’t as important


IIDA Chicago followed the path of modernizing their office space in 2017.

“[The office space] is less about systems, it is less about structure; it is absolutely people-based, human-centered,” Durst explained. “Culture is that wonderfully sticky word to use to describe what people are wanting out of their workplace.”

More Cheryl Durst: ASID and IIDA Release Joint Statement

When looking at the office as a microcosm of individuals working with their own set of skills, status becomes less important—a trend that’s being noticed across the board.

Johnson elaborated, ”I think the office is no longer as much about expressing status or structure in the way we assign space, for example, which is a manifestation of that. It is trying to get to creating a great experience and along with that making sure we understand what people really need to do to perform at their peak.”

“Once upon a time, a private office was a status symbol,” Durst said. “I think we’re starting to see the death of that. Most of the time now when people want a private office, it’s just that they’re looking for a quiet place to do heads-down work.”


IIDA Chicago followed the path of modernizing their office space in 2017.

A big part of this evolution in mindset also involves the ways in which technology has changed where work can happen. As a whole, companies have less use for their office space—so why have offices to begin with? “The workplace has become almost like the campfire that people gather around,” Durst continued. “Increasingly there’s been this movement to bring people back into an office to have some kind of central landing point because organizations are citing community as their goal. The word community has as much import as culture. Organizations want people to rally around something in the organization, and they want them to have that human contact.”

With the office becoming more of a landing pad for their increasingly mobile employees, the importance of space as community center increases, decreasing the importance of the corner office as a status symbol.

The question isn’t “open office space or closed”

Many of the clichés used to discuss changes in the office place—“sitting is the new smoking,” “open office vs. closed”—come from outside the design industry. While clients may take them into consideration when discussing their office layout, it’s up to designers to understand what their employees truly need.

“To me, [statements like “sitting is the new smoking”] is a signal that the mainstream press is trying to get its brain, its head, and its heart wrapped around what design means,” Durst explained. “The conversation which designers are having with end users who gravitate towards those statements, it’s like ‘oh my god, I want all of my people to stand.’ Well, no, you don’t.”

Allsteel: Workplace Design Along the L.A. Skyline

As designers and workplace strategists, it’s important to find solutions to a client’s needs—solutions that may be different from what they’ve been told are the correct answer. Particularly as offices continue towards becoming community centers for diverse employees with a wide list of differing individual needs, the answer for designers won’t be found in a one-size-fits-all solution.

“[It] goes back to that conversation again that designers have been talking about for more than a decade: we need to offer choice,” she continued. “It's not open plan versus private office, because the reality is, you do need both. [Design is about] finding what's right for your organization. So that taking of cultural temperature has become more important. Understanding an organization throws that competency right back to interior designers that design is about people first. Then it's about place.”


IIDA Chicago followed the path of modernizing their office space in 2017.

#MeToo is changing the look of the modern office space

Durst admits, however, that there is still a need for offices where confidential or sensitive work can be done, but clients shouldn’t expect C-suite offices to continue to be out of sight. The #MeToo movement in which stories of sexual harassment and assault have come out into the light of day is changing the way offices are designed. More often soundproof glass is being used for office walls, and corner offices are moving towards the core of the building.

“Transparency is getting the C-suite out from behind closed doors and working out in the open,” Durst said. “There was a woman I heard at NeoCon who said ‘we’re putting our CEO front and center. We’re putting his office right in the middle so everyone can see what he’s doing.’”

We have no idea what offices will look like in five to 10 years.

Because advancements and changes in the office space are tied to technological advancements, office spaces need to be agile because we don’t know what they will look like even five years from now. “It’s hard because it’s so far out,” Johnson admitted. “There are so many things that could happen between now and then, and who knows what technology is going to continue to cause us to do differently because that changes so quickly.”

However, she added that diversity in physical space will continue its trend upwards—not just in who is working for a company, but the shape offices take.

Paraphrasing an article she had read about restaurants in Manhattan that were opening their doors as co-working spaces between meal rushes, Johnson said that the continued blurring of lines between the design of spaces like restaurants, offices, hospitality, and retail will create new spacing from which to work.

Again, this isn’t to say that the office is “dying,” but, she pointed out, “there may be other forms the office takes.”


Cheryl Durst & Jan Johnson, Five Things You Need to Know About the Changing Office

We're not done yet. More brand new interior design:

Brand Renovations: A Tree Grows in Manhattan
New Expansion of St. Louis Gateway Arch Museum