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With WFH as a Growing Choice, Project Designs Will Need to Draw Employees to the Office, Experts Say

Gensler, Arup, Baltimore, Design Forecast, Morphable Office, San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles
Courtesy of Gensler

By Meghan Hall

There is no doubting it any longer: The pandemic has greatly and permanently shifted the way companies do business and where employees can work. While there is some excitement about returning to the office, flexible work schedules will remain a fixture for many firms and how employees utilize the office will change. More than ever, experts believe, office designs and environments will need to create memorable experiences to encourage workers to come into the office.

“Why do we need a new approach? Work from home will continue as part of a hybrid work model, so the office no longer needs to be a container for people who can do focused work anywhere,” explained Gensler Principal Duncan Lyons at a recent event hosted by the firm about the future of office space. “[Design will be about] culture, creativity and innovation…Offices must focus on creating memorable experiences for the tenants that use them.”

“The office is now all about people. You have a choice as to whether or not you want to go into the office, so the office better be a place that supports your lifestyle,” added Gensler Senior Associate Ian Zapata.

Moving ahead, there are a number of key factors that will serve to make office buildings more successful. Some of these trends were already underway prior to pandemic, but have been increasingly emphasized in recent months as a result of COVID-19.

At the forefront of these has been the explosion of health and wellness, as well as hospitality-oriented offerings. Gensler states that wellness is an important amenity strategy. Healthy food choices, opportunity for movement and the ability to socialize safely and effectively will be key to drawing employees into the office.

Offices will need to cater to what Gensler has termed “polycentric work models.” Employees will now be coming to the office to accomplish a wide variety of tasks, and the population of a building will ebb and flow given the time of day. Gensler believes that office spaces that cater more widely to different types of work and varying schedules will operate most effectively. 

Piggybacking off of the idea of flexibility is that of high-performance outdoor space. Outdoor spaces of the future will no longer be unused, empty patios or sparsely furnished courtyards. Instead, they should be treated as extensions of the office itself.

“it’s not just any kind of outdoor space,” Zapata emphasized. “It’s high performance outdoor space. It’s not just pretty to look at, but space…that allows us to have meetings, focus space, etc.”

The use of light, air and space will as architectural strategies in and of themselves will enable tenants to feel more comfortable and safer, producing a better working environment long-term.

Most significantly, Gensler believes that the creation of “20-minute cities,” in which offices aren’t syphoned off from their communities but play an active role in their life and development. The architecture firm believes that the most successful offices will be ones easily accessible to employee bases, ones that are well integrated into other retail, open space and transportation amenities. Gensler notes that developments in “walkable urban places” garnered rents 75 percent higher than the metro average in the nation’s 30 largest cities, while also increasing equity and investment opportunities. 

“I think traditionally, we go to work in an urban center, and we leave work at the end of the day,” noted Gensler Principal Sheryl Schulze. “We go there for a purpose; we do not necessarily linger. [The neighborhood] isn’t necessarily a place where we might live.”

Gensler tested these theories out in a study of its own, selecting a site in Baltimore—chosen for its proximity to UMD Medical, the waterfront and inner city residential generally underserved by development—to put its design model to the test. [Building Design]

In conjunction with Arup, another global design and engineering firm, Gensler’s case study design included an office building set back from the street, creating a linear park that would connect to the pedestrian realm, local events and nearby public markets. Additionally, the building was raised up, allowing the public space to flow underneath the building. Green space was extended up the façade of the building, creating a vertical garden and giving tenants access to plenty of biophilic benefits.

Perhaps most importantly, a number of horizontal and vertical circulation elements—including through the planned green spaces—will allow tenants to traverse the building without ever having to go inside. The design continues to build on this theme through the implementation of a “morphable” floor plate. The floorplate features a perimeter terrace and exterior walking loop of about 600 feet, as well as large open work spaces. The core of the tower is offset, allowing for more accessibility to the outdoors, as well.

“One of the things that we think is really important is that you’re not seeing a lot of facade here. Part of the idea,” said Lyons. “…This is where the design really gets radical…is this building has facade that opens up completely to allow outdoor air and outdoor environments into the space.”

The inspiration for the floorplate’s layout came from a neurological study, noted Gensler, that found people are most productive and the human brain tends to be the most creative when we are outside, moving, and mildly distracted by a physical activity.

The building can be designed to morph from 70 percent enclosed to 50 percent enclosed by moving back façade panels. Technologies such as radiant slabs, wind shields, ceiling fans and evaporative tooling will help make such outdoor spaces more comfortable in variable climates, according to Gensler’s study.

These trends will be critical to attracting new tenants in the future, notes Gensler. Many landlords and developers are embracing such strategies knowing they can be key to securing tenants in the future. Gensler’s Office Buildings Resilience Leader Jim Stanislaski explained that such buildings can generate measurable wellness, social equity and economic impacts long-term. In some of these areas, legislation is underway or has been passed—particularly in the environmental sector—to encourage these innovations. However, many companies are taking the changes in stride on their own.

“A lot of these forward-thinking clients don’t want to be on the wrong side of a business opportunity,” noted Stanislaski.  “They are being proactive, not reactive.”