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How Do We Create Meaning in Today’s Office Spaces?

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By Sascha Wagner, AIA IIDA LEED AP

As commercial real estate costs continue to climb in tech-focused urban markets, competition for the right space remains high and for talent it’s even higher. People and the built environment represent two of the largest expenses for most organizations, and they are connected at the hip. How a built space meets the needs of its users and how well it supports an organization’s culture are qualities of its design. With employee satisfaction increasingly linked to factors beyond salary and benefits, the office environment is becoming more critical in the HR equation. Simply put, meaningful workplaces help attract and retain quality employees. Finding the right mix of features, amenities, technology, and aesthetics can be daunting without a trusted design partner. Here are four key components designers consider when working with clients on their workspace strategy:

Work Style Choices
Long gone are universal solutions assigning workspace based on a user’s job function or title. Employees today expect a more customized experience based on their preferred work styles. A salesperson’s work flow and privacy needs are clearly different than a software developer’s. Putting everyone in the same work setting (cubicles or even benching) hinders effectiveness by prioritizing space efficiency. Mobile technology allows employers to offer a choice of settings to support a variety of work styles. In Activity-Based Planning, users move among various environments to suit their current work mode – collaboration or heads-down, café or phone room. Generally, this has led to a re-allocation of real estate – less assigned “me space” and more “we space”, with different generations of workers adapting at varying rates. One key factor often overlooked in this scenario is that the users also need to feel empowered to work this way. Supporting agile workplace policies at an HR, IT, and operational level and visible participation by a company’s leaders are keys to making a choice-based workplace successful.

At workplaces for Argonaut and Quantcast, both in San Francisco, CA, mobile technology allows employers to offer a choice of settings to support a variety of work styles. (Photos: David Wakely, Jasper Sanidad)

Health and Well-being
Seeking to eliminate toxic materials, ensuring good air quality, and prioritizing access to daylight are sound design strategies, and the obvious values and benefits of “greener” buildings highlighted by rating systems like LEED have led many jurisdictions to adopt local sustainability ordinances as part of their permit process. More recently, the WELL Building Standard™ has gone a step further to focus specifically on human health and wellness, both physical and mental. Factors like ergonomics, acoustics, fitness, and nutrition, even the effects of color temperature in lighting, have impacts on wellness and are prioritized in the design of the built environment. Today’s WELL accredited designers are using evidence-based medical research to address these factors and support human wellness in the workplace.
The positive effects of designing with wellness as a priority are obvious from an HR standpoint, which impacts an organization’s bottom line. Even for existing spaces, offering healthier food and drink options, exercise programs, quiet space, and addressing ergonomics with sit-stand desks are good first steps.

Offices for Aquent in Boston, MA and Medium in San Francisco, CA illustrate the positive effects of designing with wellness as a priority. (Photos: Garett Rowland, Darren Hull)

Integrated Technology
Bring your own device. Plug-and-play. Share your screen with others. Conference in the team from Europe. Save it to the Cloud. And do all of this while maintaining air tight security. Simple, right? The ever-increasing demands and complexities of technology don’t just extend to presentation or communication tools. How smart spaces and buildings can sense and even predict user behavior, and in turn create a more customized, healthy, and productive user experience is the new frontier of office design. Rooms that sense the number of occupants and adjust ventilation and temperature. Light fixtures that respond to available daylight and change color temperature based on circadian rhythms. Chairs that tell you it’s time to stand for a while, and standing desks that tell you when it’s time to sit. A recent focus of commercial furniture manufacturers has been the integration of sensors into furniture and architectural components to collect data about a user’s presence, location, or movements, with the goal of allowing environments to adapt and reconfigure accordingly. Smart building technology optimizes an organization’s real estate footprint by optimizing space utilization and reducing resource and energy use. Whether at a full building scale or a single desk, facilities operators are looking to big data (and to the designers that can interpret it) to help improve user experiences.

Workspace for Sequoia Consulting in San Mateo, CA and Next15 in San Francisco, CA demonstrate how smart spaces create a more customized, healthy, and productive user experience. (Photos: Anthony Lindsey)

Engagement and Culture
It’s an over-used word to be sure, but a company’s culture remains the most critical element influencing the design of effective and engaging work spaces. Employee retention is influenced by a shared mission, fair management practices, evolved HR policies, social connection, and of course the right tools and technologies for getting work done. Beyond these fundamentals of an organization’s culture, the workplace is often cited as the next important factor in employee engagement. Built spaces are about creating a sense of place & belonging. Mobile technology has enabled remote work for a long time, but people generally still prefer to interact directly with colleagues – and in an environment where their organization’s values and brand are reflected. One could argue that co-working spaces create a pseudo-version of this ‘tribal’ support system, but without the shared mission component. Successful organizations reflect and support their values through workspaces that encourage or discourage behaviors accordingly. A wall made of glass sends a message about transparency. A round table creates a less formal dynamic for a meeting. Every detail is carefully designed to convey certain values. To increase retention and productivity (there’s that bottom line again) employers provide amenities that promote work-life integration and convenience – meals, laundry, dry cleaning, daycare, even on-site haircuts. Leveraged correctly, these office perks are seen as part of an enhanced work experience and a positive component of company culture. The designer’s role is to dive deep into what makes a client’s organization unique, and in response create a space infused with meaning.

Successful organizations like Appeagle in Jersey City, NJ and Quantcast in San Francisco reflect and support their values through the workspace. (Photos: Garrett Rowland, Jasper Sanidad)

Getting Your Workplace to Feel Right
With increased competition for talent and workspace, corporate leaders can’t afford any missteps on their Real Estate decisions. There is a direct relationship between a well-designed workplace and employee retention. As part of a larger strategy, workplace boosters like choice, wellness, productivity, and engagement are seamlessly integrated and work in concert to create meaningful experiences. Healthy, comfortable employees, focused on the company’s mission, supported by the right team and tools, in an optimally designed environment will ultimately perform at a higher level. In the most successful examples these workplace components are actually invisible to the user. Employees only know that somehow things just work, their workspace just “feels right.” Of course, that response is completely by design.