by Laura Busse McGarity, KYCID, IIDA
The Covid-19 pandemic has provided a once-in-a-lifetime, accelerated opportunity to advance the thinking of the optimal work environment. CEOs, designers, architects, and developers must plan worker-centric workspaces that emphasizes collaboration, communication and creative inspiration.
The interior office landscape is forever altered despite the uncomfortableness this new change brings for many business owners. Rather than a specific single target, design decision makers are tasked with incorporating dozens of simultaneous, non-linear workplace goals such as community responsibility, sustainability, advanced technology, health and safety. (4.0 Literary Review. Chapter 4 of “Remote Design Thinking” | by Laïla von Alvensleben | Remote Design Thinking | Medium)
A LeesmanIndex.com report from March 2021, which measures and analyzes employee work experience, found 54% of global employees had little to no experience working from home pre-pandemic. A return to the physical space of a pre-pandemic office illuminates the mismatch of employee needs and wants versus actual space provided. The world has changed dramatically, and the office landscape will never return to pre-pandemic times.
Death to the Hierarchy
As CEOs and company leaders move to revise, retool and renovate their buildings, designers and architects are tasked with creating spaces that are both individual and collaborative without sacrificing one over the other. A positive outcome will include providing a physical workspace that embodies their corporate culture without giving valuable square footage to systems or functions that are no longer relevant. The decades long, hierarchal, tiered system of job title equaling square footage has ended.
This transitional time of redefining the definition of the workplace requires true teamwork between designer and client. Success will come from the outside influence of the designer and the inside client knowledge from organizational operations. Office spaces cannot simply warehouse desks and conference tables, but rather be a viable alternative to working from home.
Time to Cure Unhealthy Offices
The health of the American worker and the burden of chronic disease permeates every company. Jeffrey Pfeffer’s new book Dying for a Paycheck references the biggest source of stress is the workplace. Health relevant behaviors such as overeating, under exercising and drug/alcohol abuse are all exacerbated by stress. Workplace interior design delivers the opportunity to combat worker burden and stress.
Many companies focus on corporate sustainability but not the social and human-centric damages they are causing. For example, the disappearance of honeybees and the impact of tree deforestation are always high profile causes as bees and trees are not able to take action to defend themselves. Conversely, humans are thought to be responsible for their own well-being.
Corporations can significantly impact their workforce through sustainability practices aimed at people. The floor plan of the average interior office space is intrinsically linked to well-being. Access to natural light, live plants and acoustically quiet workspaces are all at the top of employee lists according a post-pandemic survey by Silverado Roundtable.
Getting It (and Us) Together
Motivating employees to return to in person working when many prefer to be remote is difficult, but a challenge worth conquering due the innovation that occurs from face-to-face interaction. In 100% remote work environments casually bumping into a coworker on the way to the copier doesn’t exist. Even the surge in a cluster of small, in person office locations rather than one centralized space contributes to these challenges. Offices must promote the benefits of interdisciplinary and cross connection work.
A Harvard Business School Online study (5 Myths About Flexible Work) published in early June 2021 showed most professionals excelled working at home and 81% don’t want to go back to the office or would choose hybrid. These professionals do not want to go back to the old ways of working and are not able to envision a new interior workspace… yet.
Flexing Creative Muscles
The character traits of today’s successful worker include curiosity, growth-oriented, emotionally intelligent, authentic, consistent, trustworthy, resilient, proactive, flexible, adaptive, communicative and collaborative. The post-pandemic worker requires a workplace with an adaptable footprint that can accommodate multiple modes of work.
Hybrid work should not be feared, but rather requires specific, defined processes and systems to flourish. Organizational leaders must be explicit about how to develop careers and evaluate employees they may not see daily or even weekly. Finding the balance of hybrid work relies on a highly flexible workforce and interior environment.
The gains from in person work such as social connections, collaborative teams, and modern technology cannot be prioritized over the needs of today’s worker. In person work also provides employees with the opportunity to observe the behavior of successful people!
Humanistic & Holistic Design
More than a year of working remotely showcased the value of acoustic privacy, health improvements from reduced commutes and access to full home kitchens for cooking to many workers. The workplace must support both hard and digital infrastructures, provide job engagement, and no longer subscribe to a “one size fits all” methodology. For employees to return to the workplace, a humanistic environment of support and engagement is required. Flexible workspaces, generous amenities and current technology are essential.
Interior designers, facility planners, architects and anyone making decisions for the built environment are fraught with balancing these new dynamics. Rather than input from employees being the caboose on a very long train, the employee experience is now the engine driving the design.
Designers are providing real world, tangible footprints to overcomes the natural and expected fears business leaders have regarding interior planning and solutions. Technology is the key for this new way of working to succeed. Displaying several potential floorplan options for an interior space builds confidence in the solution and helps to alleviate “loss aversion” or avoidance of a possible loss by sticking with the status quo rather than risking a possible gain by opting for change!
Design has the power to be the conduit for a passionate, inspired and productive workforce rather than a compliant workforce.