‘Create a Place That Is Purpose-Designed’; Offices Must Change to Meet New Reality

In speaking with leaders at last week’s Neal Awards, bringing people back to the office was not top-of-mind. Recruitment, adding more diverse voices, finding the right metrics, revenue initiatives and onboarding all figured more prominently. But offices aren’t going away (yet). In seeking some type of middle ground, so to speak, experts recommend that a more “purpose-designed” office approach must be taken.

“What we’re seeing is a desire to be in an environment that’s more like a hospitality setting or a hotel setting,” says Nena Martin, global technology leader and director of workplace for the design and architecture firm Gensler, in an article on Fast Company about the workplace of the future.

Gone, she says, might be the executive corner office. “We’re seeing [executives] migrate to more of the middle of the space, and giving that corner to employees for a huddle room or a meeting room. It becomes more democratic, and now they have excellent views and it’ll get utilized more often.”

If you’re emphasizing that the point of coming to an office is the water-cooler conversations, then providing the nicest room makes a lot of sense. No reason to keep that interaction so serendipitous.

“Workspaces aren’t about a cubicle farm full of desks with people beavering away on their computers anymore,” says Carolyn Trickett, head of business technology, property and asset management at global real estate services firm JLL, in an excellent report titled Workplaces Disrupted: The Office of the Future on AESC’s Executive Talent digital magazine. “It’s not about having people in the office; it’s now about having people interacting in different ways, depending on the type of work that they’re doing.”

What else can companies do to their offices to make them desirable and—maybe, more importantly—beneficial for people to come in?

Approach it purpose-designed. The ideal, according to Maja Paleka, a founder and director of Juggle Strategies, is “to create a place that is purpose-designed, where people are very careful and purposeful about how this space is going to serve us, what it is going to deliver, and what it is designed for…” she says in the AESC report. “Sometimes where organizations fumble is when the initial motivation is about cost-cutting, real estate consolidation and things like that.”

Often, organizations falter when they prioritize financial objectives without recognizing the broader impact on productivity and employee satisfaction. By focusing solely on cost reduction, there’s a risk of overlooking the strategic potential of a purpose-designed environment.

In the realm of real estate finance, it becomes imperative to comprehend the diverse facets of property types. For instance, it’s crucial to understand what is a condominium—a distinct form of housing ownership where individuals own their units but share common areas and facilities. This nuanced understanding is integral to making informed decisions about real estate investments. When contemplating financial strategies related to real estate, recognizing the unique attributes and purposes of different property types can lead to more effective and sustainable outcomes, aligning with the holistic vision of purpose-designed spaces.

Provide the comforts of home and support sustainability. To make the office more desirable, Martin points to a “few universal elements, including warmer lighting (think: task lights at desks rather than bright overheads), a variety of soft seating, and ‘biophilic elements’ like plants and access to natural light.” Paleka agrees, saying that reclaimed wood, live plants and natural textures and hues are becoming integral. “Because there is so much of that integration of work and life, we’re seeing more organizations create these really comfortable spaces, so huge use of natural materials is a trend, seeing lots of greenery, but again, creating purposeful spaces within them.”

Duplicate home rituals. “Resimercial” is how Courtney Cotrupe, president of Partners + Napier, a creative agency, describes the build-out of their new space, in the AESC report. “Think about how you work at home: you might wake up in the morning, grab a cup of coffee, start to do some emails in the kitchen, then maybe you grab your laptop and go to the dining room table, and maybe you get up and walk around while you have a conference call,” she said. “We really wanted to inspire that type of work, here.” She left out the couch to nap on.

Bring your dogs to work days. An article in The Washington Post yesterday talked about Wallace, a 2-year-old border collie, chasing ping pong balls in the office all day, as his dog mom worked. (Yes, ping pong tables are front and center in that office.) “Half of the 500 top executives surveyed said they are planning to allow pets at the office,” writes Danielle Abril. “Tech companies including Google, Amazon and Uber plan to continue to allow dogs at their offices, even with their flexible office policies.” Of course, not all agree. Gesundheit.

Add more flexibility. Someone remarked to me this weekend that downtown DC is still overflowing with young people; they’re just not necessarily going to offices. “They don’t want to be at their desks all the time,” said another design expert. “They want to be doing different things [and] be able to move around.” According to the U.K. Workplace Survey 2019 by Gensler Research Institute, “employees who rate their organizations highly on innovation measures also report having greater choice and use a wider range of workspaces to get their work done.” So design matters.

“I think the role of workplace experience managers are just becoming more and more important,” says another expert. Amen and good luck.

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