Blue lighting in the morning means it’s a quiet time in the coffee gathering area. Later in the afternoon, a red light indicates it’s a higher energy time and a good opportunity to socialize. At the end of the work day, the lights will turn purple to indicate a transition to after hours socializing.
M+A Architects created these lighting activations for a digital marketing agency with a highly coffee-motivated staff as one component of its office redesign, said Mark Bryan, director of innovation and research and senior interior designer at the planning and architecture firm based in Ohio. Creating a music room was another appeal to bring employees back to the office once the firm discovered that many people at the company had a shared passion for music. They cared less about 24/7 building access or on-site daycare.
“They really wanted to figure out how to create better social collision and interaction with their employees,” Bryan said.
“What they’re realizing is that the destination that they are creating has to be the differentiator ... It goes back to highly branded spaces where their employees can really connect to the values that they represent,” said Natalie Engels of architecture firm Gensler.
Tech companies are the original office space innovators, but as more businesses across industries transition to remote-first workplaces, any physical office spaces need to offer something special to get employees to return to in-person work.
“What they’re realizing is that the destination that they are creating has to be the differentiator,” said Natalie Engels, design director and principal at Gensler, a global architecture and design firm based in San Francisco. “It goes back to highly branded spaces where their employees can really connect to the values that they represent.”
The main draw that physical offices can offer is in-person interaction, and that’s what companies are currently focusing on for their redesigns. “People want to come back because they missed the collaboration. They miss socialization. It’s not necessarily about doing heads-down work,” Bryan said.
Creating Adaptable Spaces
Historically, architects and designers would approach office space design with the entire company in mind. Now, Bryan said office design is being broken down to the department level and even the individual employee level.
“We’re not just creating a one-size-fits-all platform anymore,” Bryan said. “It’s no longer just about every employee gets 125 square feet per person … it’s really about what their needs are.”
M+A looks at the needs of a company’s employees based on their job functions and personal circumstances like if they have disabilities or are on the neurodiverse spectrum, Bryan said. That information is used to create suggestions on what designs will work best for a department’s employees at a given time.
“Those are flexible and adaptable so that way they can change and shift as the department changes,” Bryan said. “We’re moving into an era that’s less about flexibility and more about adaptability.”
During the pandemic, M+A came up with a framework to guide companies in their office redesign efforts called the Three Cs — choice, comfort and control.
“Just being able to adjust your space, being able to know when things are clean, being able to know I can choose to turn the lights on, or I can control how much noise is going to be around me really just allows people to take control of their environment,” Bryan said.
Companies are looking to create “transformer” spaces where perhaps a social space can be converted into a learning space or a productivity area, Engels said. Companies are now realizing that global circumstances can change again, so they want to create environments that can be adjusted depending on the employees’ needs at a given time.
Fostering Collaboration in a Hybrid World
In summer 2021, fintech startup Alloy moved from its office in New York City’s Chinatown to a 44,000-square-foot office in the West Village to accommodate the company’s 140 percent growth in employees.
Alloy currently occupies the second and third floors of 41 East 11th. This new space has been redesigned with transparency in mind, which is one of the company’s values, said Kim Nguyen, vice president of people at Alloy. That entailed creating lots of shared spaces like lounges and opening up walls as much as possible.
“It is that important for us to think about how we create ergonomics, create community, create connectivity, for both our in-person experiences, folks that are Zooming in, folks that maybe one day will be coming on a quarterly basis to visit the team,” Nguyen said.
Some companies are doing away with huge conference rooms to accommodate more hybrid meetings.
“We’re seeing a lot of those larger conference rooms be taken down to become much smaller person-to-person virtual conferencing spaces,” Bryan said. “It’s really about making sure that there’s the right acoustic treatments, there’s the right privacy, so that people can have those conversations.”
“How do you create an equitable experience for people where we can still feel like one-on-one?”
One way remote meeting participants can feel more engaged during hybrid meetings is for in-person participants to bring their laptops to the conference room and join on video too, Engels said. Some of Gensler’s clients are exploring what the conference room of the future looks like and creating meeting environments where remote employees can feel engaged in discussions and the whiteboarding process as much as in-person employees, she said.
“How do you create an equitable experience for people where we can still feel like one-on-one?” Engels said. “I think experimenting and really dialing in what technology and what setup is going to work for your company is extremely important.”
Engels added that companies want their conference rooms to be multi-purpose — spaces that can be modified into team rooms and have flexible furniture like tables that pull apart into desks.
“We always had this issue, especially in tech, where you would have teams that were always located in different locations. It’s interesting that this has always been an issue, but now we get to address it,” Engels said.
Promoting Employee Wellbeing
Bringing employees back into physical spaces should include special attention to mental health, Bryan said. M+A created the concept of a respite room that is designed to calm the central nervous system down in about 30 minutes or less. Prior to the pandemic, he said companies weren’t so interested in having these rooms in their office spaces, but now clients are coming to M+A because of the concept.
“The big differentiator is they’re not a phone room. It’s not a mother’s room. It’s a space to really take a break,” Bryan said. “From a health standpoint, we’re seeing a lot more of the clients focusing on what their employees’ mental health are and then what their mental health offerings can be for their clients as well too, from the products that they’re offering.”
Creating inclusive environments is also a part of employee wellbeing. For example, part of Alloy’s redesign included building gender neutral bathrooms since that was lacking in the new office space. Nguyen said diversity, equity and inclusion are of utmost importance to the company with regard to its hiring, so that is driving the company’s redesign plans as well. “It’s really important that we build this for the future,” she said.
Adding Learning Spaces
Employees are leaving companies for a variety of reasons, and one of them is a lack of skills development and learning opportunities offered to help employees grow their careers. “One of the things that we’re diving into pretty deeply with a lot of different clients is learning spaces,” Engels said. “How do you really encourage learning? How do we facilitate learning in different types of spaces?”
Bryan echoed that similar discussions are happening with M+A clients who are focused on creating skill building opportunities for employees.
“Part of the anti-resignation wave is helping people either upskill and reskill themselves,” Bryan said. “We’re creating some more digital spaces and platforms to help people to reskill or upskill their career pathway so that our clients don’t lose employees.”
Ensuring Health and Safety
As the pandemic continues on, health and safety are top of mind for companies who want to bring employees back to physical spaces. To keep employees as safe as possible from infection, many companies are upgrading their office HVAC and air filtration systems.
“This has become a norm that the mechanical systems for so many companies have been edited — the filtration system, the amount that they’re flushing the system out, how much they can bring outdoor air in to flush,” Engels said.
In new builds, she said companies want operable windows or outdoor areas as a part of the workspace designed with temperature comfort in mind. Some companies want touchless features and are thinking about limiting access to outside visitors with more employee only areas, Bryan said.
Advice to Consider for Office Redesigns
Surveying employees is an important part of deciding how to redesign an office space, but Bryan said company leaders can sometimes become overwhelmed with “analysis paralysis” when wanting to start an office redesign. To make the surveying and information gathering stage easier, M+A starts with a cultural analysis based on what a company’s needs are and what that means to their current employee roster.
“There is so much value in embracing experimentation,” Engels said. “How do you get that feedback and make it useful? There needs to be a measurable component to it.”
Companies need to be open to change and truly listen to their employees if they want to retain talent and create office spaces that employees want to utilize, Engels said.
“For leadership, they need to set the tone. There are great benefits to bringing people back together, and they need to listen. The need to model and learn from it,” Engels said