In October 2022, I sat in a crowded conference center, across the table from industry leaders representing a wide variety of business sectors, all to discuss the return to the office. After many presentations, panel discussions, and round table talks it was abundantly clear: nobody had answers. This was punctuated by one Head of Real Estate who chronicled his implementation of a mobile coffee cart that, to his great incredulity and dismay, enticed precisely no one to return to the office. The great incentive, the foolproof ploy was… coffee on wheels. While it is no surprise his plan fell short, the lack of holistic consideration on the part of today’s employer is.
In my mind, the coffee cart is a bellwether of precisely what is wrong with the majority of return-to-office thinking. The focus on amenities, both large and small, does not comprehensively consider employee wellness and a sense of belonging. Nor does it take accountability for the fact that employers have been building out deeply inadequate office space for decades.
The standardized office was initially introduced in the 1960s as an equitable approach to the workplace. Since then, it was stripped and reduced to its present form, the open office, an approach that is almost universally applied and universally despised. It’s not that an open office doesn’t work, but that the very elements that allow the open to function are always the first things to be cut in favor of the bottom line. For years we packed people into ever smaller desks with ever-decreasing square footage allotments per person. A race to the bottom led to offices that look like factory farms for knowledge workers. Depressing. Now we find ourselves, emerging battle-worn from a global health and ideological crisis, seeking a path back to the office only to be met with resistance. It feels deeply ironic that employers are baffled by the lack of enthusiasm to return to these spaces, no matter how much freewheeling coffee is offered.
So, what is the grand solution? As stated before, nobody has concrete answers. But, as dust from the pandemic settles, some ideas are starting to emerge and we can categorize them into 3 general groups: good policy, good metrics, and good design.
First and foremost, we cannot incentivize people back into the office without a thorough examination of policies that, perhaps, make being an employee for your company harder than necessary.
Flexible work hours, hybrid work environments, and generous parental leave are policy examples that shift the focus away from an employee’s productivity and onto their overall well-being. Making human-centric work policies the core of your workplace has a net positive effect on culture, allowing employees to feel less like cogs in a machine and more like valued individuals whose personal lives are not secondary to their professional lives. It puts the employee and their needs front and center, both from a policy standpoint and also in terms of the built environment. A holistic approach understands that a happy, healthy, engaged person is the shortest path to a happy, healthy, engaged employee, and that is good for the bottom line.
We must make informed workplace decisions based on complete data and insightful metrics. There are quite a few companies right now pioneering smart building software that will allow workplaces to understand nuances about their physical environment: traffic patterns, preferred ambient temperatures, which teams prefer to sit where and when, etc. This evolution in badge data will allow employers to make educated decisions about the workplace and its design. And while implementing systems to collect this data benefits employers by allowing them to better understand how their space is being utilized, it simultaneously allows employees to tailor their environment to their needs. Eventually, it could go so far as to assume a predictive role. Aggregated data could suggest where in the building a specific employee might enjoy working on any given day in relation to other colleagues in the vicinity and scheduled meetings. It could even adjust light levels, temperature, and sound masking to an employee’s preferences before they arrive, optimizing the environment to their needs and reducing the friction of being in the office.
While incorporating this technology could present a financial hardship for certain employers it does not mean that they must forego a data-driven workplace; it simply means thinking differently and creating innovative markers for success is necessary. By investing time and thought, a workplace could develop its own metrics that are important to its unique organization. For instance, how would a digital equity scale, agility index, or even social cohesion scale impact your employee retention? Can we craft a more finely tuned space that is more responsive to the organization’s needs by examining our preconceived markers of success?
Prior to the pandemic, the leading metric for making decisions about the built environment was how many square feet per person were allotted and whether you could fit the prescribed program onto your floorplate using said allotment. There was little consideration for how implementation (or exclusion) of programmatic and policy elements affected the workforce and office long term. It is clear that this metric no longer works and is too reductive. Innovation exists to make better, smarter decisions about our workforce and our real estate investments.
While this seems obvious, we must return to the fundamentals of good design. We should be creating spaces that inspire and excite – we must invest in spaces that people want to be in. It used to be that the employer with the coolest amenities would win the talent war, but these days it’s no longer about who has a ball pit or catered lunch, but rather who can provide the best employee experience. That said, crafting experience and inspiration is a much more intangible and nuanced goal than simply adding amenities. It requires innovative design minds and brave clients to set out to achieve something wholly new. These are the employers who will attract and retain talent going forward.
Recently, we’ve observed employers who wish to attract their employees back to the office by refreshing their space, but perhaps through poor design leadership or even fear, end up executing a space that looks exactly like their previous one. The same sea of workstations, the same general lack of private space, the same monotonous design in the name of economically dictated ‘standards.’ But, if you do what you’ve always done, you’re going to get what you’ve always gotten. Never has this idiom rung so true. These are not the spaces that inspire. These are the spaces destined to fail.
Employers are afraid of departing too much from what they know, afraid of alienating employees, afraid of spending money on a built space that doesn’t speak to their needs. This is where working with a trusted designer is key. A good designer will know not only the current trends in the market, but also offer innovative solutions to problems you might not even realize you have. If you’re working with a designer who is simply acting as an order taker and not questioning preconceived limits and pushing boundaries, it is time to get a new designer. Additionally, as a client, coming to the table with an open mind is critical to progress. Designers cannot innovate if their clients aren’t willing to walk through that open door.
While these 3 principles are by no means silver bullets, they will guide us toward a better, smarter, and more beautiful future. Hybrid work is here to stay, but that doesn’t mean that people want to stay locked in their houses. We can capitalize on our basic human need for connection by building spaces that facilitate it. People are the most expensive investment a company makes, therefore the policies we craft and environments we build should do everything possible to support that investment.
We must depart and never return to the monolithic design solutions of the past. We must accept that we cannot simply stick everyone in the same 4-foot wide, height-adjustable desk amongst a sprawling landscape of other desks and expect them all to succeed. A holistic workplace anticipates a neurodiverse workforce and offers as many space types as possible in response. It requires intrepid employers to do away with past paradigms, embrace new and innovative thought, and most of all, to take a chance.
With all this in mind, we must not forget that we are at a pivotal moment in design. We are collectively and actively inventing the future. Where will we be even a couple of years from now? How will the conversation around workplace design evolve? What positive steps can we take for the betterment of all? Let’s go out, be brave, and make something beautiful.