The Future of the Workplace: Physical Spaces

Space Matters

Post pandemic and on the office front, we are in a great transition, with employees loathe to trade the morning dog walk for the morning commute. But there are things about office life and working face to face that people miss. Many recent discussions have been about how to entice people back into the office. How can employers earn the commute? Is it about bells and whistles? Flexibility and choice? How the workplace will look in the near future and even five, ten years down the line is germinating in response to changes wrought by the pandemic — hybrid schedules, work habits developed during remote work and a heightened awareness of health and security risks. In addition, the future of office space will be affected by new technologies and fresh design ideas.

Here’s what will matter...

The Hybrid Effect

Hybrid schedules – combining work-from-home days with in-office days each week – are pretty much the new norm globally, as confirmed by a recent McKinsey report. “The topic is one of the big questions from candidates,” says Bill Brewer, managing director and global functional leader, human resources at Stanton Chase. “Candidates ask, ‘What is the company’s philosophy on hybrid work?’ Candidates in leadership positions want to understand what they’re inheriting.”

The way each organization approaches hybrid scheduling is different. For example, Warren Rushbrook, head of search & practice director at Quinton Anthony in Sydney, says that with the economic cycle in Australia tightening, “employers are putting more pressure on more people to spend more time back in the office.” He adds that many of his clients are in the construction sector, which “presents a different set of challenges and may be a little bit behind some of the other sectors and taking more of a mandated than a flexible position on hybrid work.”

Hybrid schedules will affect the office layout. “With our new flexible work model, it makes sense to implement hoteling,” says Helen Ng, vice president, global head of real estate at Spencer Stuart. She explains that “hoteling” is a way for employees to reserve a workspace in advance that is most appropriate for their workday. (This differs from “hot desking,” where employees don’t have an assigned space but choose a spot whenever they come in.)

Over the years, as Spencer Stuart has opened new or remodeled existing offices, the firm has incorporated hoteling practices. “We used IP tracking data to understand our occupancy level for each office,” Ng says. They found that pre-covid, on average only 65% of their global office space was occupied. “This gave us the opportunity to rethink how we design and use our space. Shifting to hoteling was part of it.”

Employees can choose a workspace where they feel comfortable and productive — a closed-door office, a cubicle, a bench workstation in the open floor plan — and book it up to six weeks in advance. If they want to partner with others, they can sit next to each other or book a conference room. Employees are required to clean out the space after they’ve used it and have lockers for personal items. Hoteling requires some pre-planning on the part of employees.

Some people like hoteling and are more flexible about their office time. Others may not. If hoteling isn’t part of the company culture, “it can be difficult to implement and requires significant change management,” Ng says.

Ng reports that closed-door offices get booked first. At the same time, people like to engage with others. Spencer Stuart’s design strategy now incorporates more gathering space and spacious cafes for individuals to use throughout the day. Ultimately, the firm needs “less square footage since we are not providing workspace for each person, but the need for amenity spaces like the cafĂ©, reception and social spaces remain the same.”

Hybrid schedules also can affect employee morale. People want to choose when to work from home or from the office, especially at higher levels, Brewer says. “When candidates are being told, ‘You’ve got to be here on this specific day, or all these days,’ candidates and employees have a sense, ‘You don't trust me. Haven't I been effective working from home?’ Smart organizations are addressing the trust factor and highlighting ways that they could demonstrate trust towards their employees.”

Lack of trust may lead to retention and turnover issues. Adrian von Dewall, managing partner, Boyden in Germany, cautions that organizations forcing RTO mandates may pay a price. “The cost of losing trained talent can be significant, often outweighing the perceived benefits of mandating a return to the physical offices — recruitment expenses, training new hires, loss of institutional knowledge and potential disruption to team dynamics and productivity.” Allowing employees to work remotely can lead, he says, “to increased job satisfaction and reduced turnover. It may even attract new talent who value flexibility. From a financial and operational standpoint, the benefits of retaining experienced, skilled employees by offering remote work options are substantial.”

Recent statistics from the University of Pittsburgh bear this out, showing declines in employees’ job satisfaction but no significant changes in financial performance or firm values after RTO mandates.

Culture Connection

The modern office has morphed over the years as styles and tastes changed. There have been coveted corner offices, cubicles and partitions, open floor plans, ping pong tables and fridges stocked with beer. What organizations have come to realize is that what works for one doesn’t necessarily work for another.

“A one-size-fits-all solution is no longer an applicable approach to workplace planning,” says Sarah Brengarth, a design manager at Gensler, a global architecture, design, and planning firm. “Workplace design is curated and intentional, and companies are delving into their culture, their mission, their primary drivers and then tailoring their workplace planning strategies around that.”

Case in point, search consultants Coulter Partners recently moved into a new space for its London office, a refurbished tobacco warehouse. As they considered the layout, says COO Joe Coulter, it was important to have an open floor plan. “We've always had an open floor plan office. We invest a heck of a lot in developing our team and want to have an environment where the consultants are in the open so that the more junior members can hear what's going on. We've never had a culture where the partners disappear into offices and the rest of the team sits out in the open plan. Other search firms are used to a much more compartmentalized style of office, but that's never been us.”

Variety, Functionality, Choice

Since not every person works in the same way, Brengarth says, “new offices will provide everything from library spaces or quiet zones where individuals can do focused, head-down tasks to really buzzy social areas that promote collaboration and community — all tying back to the company culture and the work that they are fundamentally doing.”

Coulter says their need for video connection across the firm’s five global offices, led them to create a boardroom in a “theater-like performance space, which is all wired up to enable us to do town hall meetings and lunch and learns.” They also have separate suites for clients to use to interview candidates as well as an area for “hot desking. There are plenty of spaces where people can withdraw from the main, open office, and employees can choose where to sit.”

These kinds of spaces can lead to passive learning and serendipitous interactions — the very things remote workers miss about office life. What they didn’t miss and what they like about remote work is a level of choice and control that they didn’t find in the office, the ability to move from room to room, work from an outdoor space or close a door when they needed privacy.

Neurodivergent Outlook

By recognizing and accommodating the wide range of human cognitive diversity, companies can ensure that all employees, regardless of their neurological makeup, have the opportunity to thrive.

“To create a truly inclusive, adaptable and empathetic workplace, it is essential to consider the unique needs of neurodiverse employees,” von Dewall says. “This includes being mindful of sensitivities to sensory stimuli, such as lighting and noise, and accommodating needs for structured routines or flexible work arrangements.”

He suggests implementing quiet zones, adjustable lighting, and offering options for remote work. “These can significantly improve the productivity and comfort of neurodivergent employees.” In addition, he says, “inclusive design and policies that acknowledge and support neurodiversity not only signal a company’s commitment to diversity but also contribute positively to the overall work culture.”

Material Awareness

“Material specification is a critical component in terms of looking at reducing your carbon footprint and creating a sustainable and inclusive workplace,” Brengarth says. But design goes beyond choosing sustainable, low-VOC materials that won’t off-gas into a space. “For one client we did an analysis of their internal paint colors to make sure that that we were creating inclusive environments for multiple skin tones,” Brengarth says. “They wanted to make sure that in a meeting room when someone is on camera, the backdrop has enough visual contrast for those viewing from the other side to clearly distinguish people.”

Upgrade Technology

If hybrid is the new norm, organizations will need the latest technology to be able to communicate with employees both in-house and remote. On a basic level, Rushbrook points out the importance of having “a suite of tools, technology, resources and facilities that are attractive to a workforce that has been working remotely. If your office environment is less attractive than your home office, it's much more difficult to entice people to return.”

Brengarth is finding that technology is being integrated in non-traditional ways such as more screens located throughout open collaboration spaces and social spaces. “These allow for individuals to have a level of on-demand connectivity.”

She also sees new room configurations. “No longer is it the standard setup with a screen at one end of the room and a long table with everyone focused on one screen and one camera. We're finding successful environments that provide equity for in-person and hybrid participants using multiple cameras and multiple screens. Multiple cameras and multiple points of view offer the remote, on-screen individual the ability to have more of an equal experience to those participants that are there in person.”

New Lenses, New Looks

Sustainability, well-being, social impact and diversity are not just marketing buzzwords. They are truly lenses through which organizations are looking to make offices healthier, more inclusive, energy efficient and cost-effective.

Von Dewall believes “future workplaces will be using eco-friendly materials, implementing recycling and waste management systems and incorporating renewable energy sources. Green design principles will be integrated to create environmentally conscious work environments.”

Organizations are seeking certifications such as LEED, WELL or Fitwel, which provide frameworks and guidelines for sustainable construction and healthy and efficient environments.

In addition, many cities have mandates for organizations to lower their carbon footprint. For example, New York City passed the Climate Mobilization Act in April 2019 regulating limits on greenhouse gas emissions on commercial buildings over 25,000 square feet. San Francisco has green building standards that require zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2035. And according to a Deloitte research paper, as of May 2020, 28 major cities in the world signed the World Green Building Council’s “Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment,” calling for cities to reach “net zero carbon in operation by 2030 for all assets under their direct control, and to advocate for all buildings to become net zero carbon in operation by 2050.”

Sustainability can extend beyond physical space. Says Rushbroook, “We've seen a significant increase in consideration given to things like psychological safety, wellness and well-being. Some of that translates into the physical workspace, and some of it lurches strongly into the cultural piece. They go hand in hand.”

To encourage health and wellness in their employees, many organizations are taking a holistic approach. They incorporate biophilic design principles, which offer increased access to nature — anything from natural lighting, improved indoor air quality and ventilation to living plant walls and water features. New office designs place emphasis on access to the outdoors by incorporating terraces and decks or locating near trails and parks.

Why This Matters

Our physical spaces reflect who we are. Policies reflect how we should act. The two have to work together. Just because an office is set among woodsy trails, doesn’t mean employees will get out and use them. “Leaders need to exhibit the behaviors they want to see,” Rushbrook says. He says he has seen CEOs in their gym gear walk through the office and out the door to go for a run. “Suddenly a significant percentage of that workforce feels comfortable going to the gym or for a walk during the day. Sending a memo and talking about it isn't the same as living and breathing it.”

While candidates don’t ask search consultants about office design, per se, they do ask about office culture and how employees interact. “Our business is built on a combination of getting great people to join the firm and developing the people within the firm. Our space has always been a reflection of that. At the end of the day, executive search is an information business. We have to know more about the clients than the candidates. We work on everything collaboratively and need a space that encourages conversation, that encourages flow of information, that stops teams being siloed into little groups. Our space is always being designed to reflect that.” Coulter is speaking about his own firm, but his response applies to many organizations.

Curated and intentional design choices will lead to healthy, warm, flexible workspaces that will encourage employees to want to return to the office, as opposed to following a mandate to return. These spaces also will tell a story that talent will want to listen to and be part of – which will have an impact on retention and, ultimately, the bottom line.