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Designing an Office That Your Workers Actually Want

September 02, 2022 Employee Experience
Mike Prokopeak
By Mike Prokopeak

Drowned out in the high-profile arguments about remote work between business executives, bestselling authors and rank-and-file office workers is a much more interesting conversation about the future of office design.

First, some numbers. Many office workers continue to prefer remote and hybrid work arrangements, but 72% of business decision makers believe the physical office remains central to doing business. That's according to an August 2022 survey of 1,000 corporate real estate leaders conducted by Chicago-based global real estate firm JLL. That reality puts businesses in a tough spot, caught between bosses who want workers back at their desks pronto and workers who'd really rather not.

Redesigning the office offers an enticing solution for businesses that are serious about tackling the challenge. "The next three years will prove to be an inflection point for real estate as businesses plot their future path and rethink the purpose of their portfolio," said Marie Puybaraud, global head of research at JLL Work Dynamics, in a press release statement announcing the release of the firm's 2022 Future of Work Survey.

Hybrid work and the rising importance of employee experience are shaping up to be the driving forces of this next phase of office design.

Redesigning the Office for Hybrid Work

The topic of hybrid work isn't a new one for many businesses. Organizations that fully embraced remote work in the early days of COVID-19 have since slowly inched their way back to some form of mixed remote and in-person working as the pandemic waxed and waned in the subsequent two-plus years. In principle, the idea is to have the best of both worlds: maintain the flexibility and work-life balance that workers came to value from remote work, while bringing workers back together to boost collaboration, renew and rebuild workplace bonds and enjoy the culture-building effects of in-person work.

Bosses seem to embrace the idea, with 77% of commercial real estate leaders saying remote or hybrid work is critical to attracting and retaining talented people, according to JLL. But the reality of an even occasional return to office for some workers can be grim. What many were greeted by was a half-empty office with little or no difference from the pre-pandemic style of working. That all needs to change, according to design consultants and workplace experience managers.

“Post-pandemic work and meetings spaces need to work hard for us — to embrace our new work styles — not the other way around,” said Katie Kaiser, senior associate and strategy manager at design and architecture firm Gensler, speaking during a presentation at this summer's NeoCon interior design conference in Chicago.

Kaiser spoke alongside workplace design and experience managers from software maker Adobe and shared how the two organizations re-envisioned what work would look like at the global software company's offices after the pandemic hit. That involved not just remote and hybrid work design, but also rethinking how the office would look. 

“The workplace is a critical part of the work ecosystem," Kaiser said, echoing JLL's findings. "Each of us individually and the teams we are a part of need the workplace to bring us together in a new way.” That spotlights employee experience as a key principle behind future office design.

Related Article: What Makes an Office Worth Coming To

Employee Experience and Office Design

While it's not surprising that real estate consultants and design firms would champion the shared office as a hub for work, they're not the only ones who see the office as central to future work models. Collaboration, community and connection are what give meaning to the office, said Eric Kline, Adobe director of global workplace experience, at NeoCon.

According to Gensler 2021 survey data, employees are saying that they prefer the office as a place for work requiring deep concentration, creative tasks and "ideation." Further, more than 65% of employees said that offices are crucial to making connections. The research also identified the five top reasons why employees choose to come into the office:

  1. Meet and collaboration with colleagues.
  2. Informally connect with colleagues.
  3. To separate work and home life.
  4. Participate in employee events, training and learning programs.
  5. Use on-site amenities and services.

It's important to look at the work ecosystem as the intersection of people, place and technology and give employees choice, flexibility and autonomy within that, Kline said. Human-centered design is at the heart of it all.

“Sometimes it’s spatial, sometimes it's digital, sometimes it's operational," Kline said. "But it always needs to be based in our understanding of the data.”

For Adobe, that data-focused approach to workplace design meant starting with an understanding the needs and wants of the company's 26,000 people across 35 countries. Kline's team conducted surveys, interviews and convened focus groups across all the regions where the company operates. Using that data, they identified five work-from-home personas from die-hard office lovers to thriving homebodies (Fig. 1).

Adobe image of five work from home personas
Fig. 1: Adobe's five work-from-home personasPHOTO: Adobe, 2022.

"We found a spectrum of sentiments from employees who really thrived at home, and then we also found a spectrum that thought they would thrive at the office," Kline said.

Related Article: Great Design Drives the Digital Employee Experience

Going Deeper Into Team-Based Work Analysis

From there, they focused on developing team archetypes that would guide the office design decisions they would make. The five archetypes are digital pioneers, independent creators, collective connectors, active nomads and anchored makers (Fig. 2).

Collective connectors, for example, are groups that depend on teams working together and collaborating, and would need ample opportunities for in-person time and one-on-one meetings.

"We felt like we need to have teams have the opportunity to move from intense focus all the way through intense collaboration," Kline said of their design needs.

Adobe office design team archetypes
Fig. 2: Adobe's five team archetypesPHOTO: Adobe

There's no one size fits all when it comes to office design. For progressive organizations, the days of office as warehouse for legions of office workers are long gone. But how does a company put a manageable framework around how they design the office to avoid having to design for a multitude of teams?

Adobe settled on the concept of workplace neighborhoods to shape how flexible and hybrid work spaces would operate. Neighborhoods are flexible work spaces that reflect a team's identity and can support their future growth and need to change. 

Related Article: Minimum Viable Office Is the Future

What Is a Workplace Neighborhood? 

Furniture makers have picked up on the trend and created new office designs and updated furniture to adapt to the need for more community and customization. 

"This idea really came from the post-pandemic workplace where we see organizations [and] leaders, they know they want their people back," said Katie Pace, director of media relations for Steelcase, a Grand Rapids, Mich.-based manufacturer of furniture.

Photo of a open office environment showing a workplace neighborhood
An example of a workplace neighborhoodPHOTO: Jacob Van Singel, Steelcase.
"What we see happening is organizations open their doors and then people don't come," she said from the floor at the company's showroom at Chicago's Merchandise Mart. "And if you just open your doors again expecting people to come back, they're really not going to come back because the way we work, how we work, what we do at work has shifted so fundamentally. So when workers come back, they come back to their same old office, change the calendar from March of 2020 and find, wait, this really doesn't work for me."

The goal of neighborhoods is to give workers a compelling reason to go back to the office. Companies need to earn the commute, Pace said, and office neighborhoods are the way to do that.

"That means having different spaces for different type of work, having areas to be social, having areas to have privacy, but giving teams a home where they can call their own, just like you have in your own community, your own neighborhood," she said.

Pace said it's about creating an emotional connection where people feel like they belong and have a sense of comfort, trust and ownership over where they work.

Employees Are Looking for Privacy and Flexibility in How They Work

Creating a successful neighborhood isn't as simple as letting teams hang some new artwork and arrange their seating how they'd like, however. There are two key design distinctions to an effective workplace neighborhood, Pace said.

The first is privacy. For many workers, the ability to shut the door and find a quiet space to work was one significant advantages of remote work, assuming they had the space to do so.

"We think that is one of the things employees really want as they come back to the office," Pace said, "and it's critical that they have privacy — places with a door, places with a little screening, visual privacy, acoustic privacy."

The other key design concept of neighborhoods is flexibility. In effective workplace neighborhoods, much of the office furniture is mobile and allows the team to adjust the space to their needs. 

"You'll see a lot of furniture on wheels, mobile whiteboards, mobile acoustical barriers, all of that, giving workers this sense of I can control my environment for what I need," Pace said. "So my team needs to come together. We need to solve this problem. Hey, we've got this island right here, we can do that." If they need to get away to focus, they can then easily shift back to a more heads-down, private setting.

"It allows people to be in control of their day, in control of power, their work and then from a facilities perspective, from a real estate perspective, it allows the real estate to be really flexible too," she said.

Remote Is Not the Only Way

One of the ironies of remote and hybrid work, at least at companies that are embracing it and rethinking the workplace experience like Adobe, is that they are actually not disinvesting in real estate. They often find themselves expanding their real estate portfolio, said Ryan Anderson, vice president of research and insights at MillerKnoll, in a recent conversation with Reworked.

"If I look at companies like Okta or Atlassian, companies that have said to their employees you'd don't ever have to come back to the office, in many cases they've expanded their real estate profile or made them better ... because what it forces them to do is to say, 'Well, if we're going to invest in the physical workplace, it needs to be something that our employees truly value and need," he said.

Which brings it back to Adobe's human-centered approach to workplace design informed by data. By far, the most important thing a company can do is to engage employees in the process, Anderson said.

"If the workplace needs to become what the employees need it to be, the days of hiring a 'starchitect' to come in and say this is what the office wants to be is over," he said. "The best architects, the best interior designers, are those that can come and say we're going to help you figure out what your people really need and it needs to be a much more participative process."

It also means that workplace design teams continue to experiment and try out new approaches.

"We're in continuous learning mode, where if we aren't failing we aren't trying hard enough," said Noelle Borda, Adobe senior program manager for workplace design.

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