THE ENVIRONMENT WE WORK IN HAS A PROFOUND EFFECT ON OUR HAPPINESS AND PRODUCTIVITY. HERE, EXPERTS WEIGH IN ON HOW TO CREATE A SPACE YOUR EMPLOYEES WILL LOVE.
From Ping-Pong tables to nap pods to cold beer on tap, tech startups have long been associated with cool office space. But what really impacts employees’ well-being, and what’s just fluff? And will any of this matter in a post-pandemic world? Whether you’re designing your office to recruit top talent or reconfiguring your space for an eventual return, we have advice.
Wow Candidates with Thoughtful Design
When you’re trying to attract talent, salary and benefits matter, but so does your office—and more than you might think. “Office design is a reflection of the organization and its culture,” says Dr. Susan Chung, director of Research & Knowledge Management at the American Society of Interior Designers. “Cues from the space—for example, layout, furnishings and artifacts—offer a real glimpse into the organization and can communicate the [company’s] vibe, its organizational values and even some unspoken benefits. These messages can be quite powerful.”
So, what do potential employees look for? Shalini Kumari, a marketer with Zyeta, an interior design firm that specializes in workspaces, says today’s job candidates prefer people-centric workplace design. (“People-centric” cultures put people over profits. The theory is that the more you focus on employee wellness, the more motivated your staff will be to excel, which naturally leads to higher profits.) According to Kumari, the major elements of this type of design are flexible spatial planning that enables employees to work anywhere in the office, data-backed office design to create user-specific workplace experiences for every employee, and sustainable design materials that take employees’ health, as well as the environment, into account. “When a prospective employee sees the importance of people’s well-being and health in an office, he or she will automatically prefer it,” Kumari says.
Other experts we consulted also stressed the importance of prioritizing wellness. “In the battle for top talent, environment influences not only personal wellness, but also a company’s ability to recruit and retain employees,” says Steve Levine, president and CEO of AtmosAir Solutions, a Connecticut company that makes bipolar ionization indoor air quality devices for businesses and commercial real estate companies. “Offices are an untapped recruiting tool.”
Levine pointed to a 2019 Harvard survey of more than 1,000 professionals who work in corporate offices. The study authors were surprised to find that indoor air quality was the top amenity requested by study participants; many said that poor air quality made them feel tired and hurt productivity. Access to natural light was also high on the list of employee requests, as was the freedom to personalize their workspace. (On-site fitness facilities ranked near the bottom.)
What about open-plan offices, which not too long ago were widely touted as the best new way to foster collaboration? Research confirmed what those of us who worked in these spaces knew all along: they’re dreadful. “Few things discourage new talent to consider a workplace more than open-plan offices and shared open spaces,” says Frances Moss, lead interior designer and stylist at English Blinds.
“Long tables with people working on both sides, ear buds in, gives the appearance of monks copying the Bible more than the appearance of collaboration,” says Leslie Saul, AIA, NCIDQ, LEED AP BD+C, an architect and interior designer with Leslie Saul & Associates. “It is a cheap way to start up, so maybe that will still be appropriate for working on the next big thing in the garage or basement.”
Moss and Saul have a point, but what if you can’t afford private offices for all? Luckily, there’s an alternative. “Design tricks that personalize and seclude workspaces to provide personal space are up-and-coming,” says Moss. “Partitioning, false walls and design elements like shelving disrupt large, open spaces and provide privacy.”
Keep the Employees You Have
Aside from attracting talent, the office environment can both cultivate and support creativity in the people who already work there—a must for startups trying to disrupt established industries. “Creativity research includes ‘place’ among the four Ps,” says Chung. (The four P’s are pillars thought to influence creativity—the others are person, process and product). Chung’s office is the subject of a case study examining pre- and post-occupancy results of the LEED-Platinum and WELL-Platinum certified space—the first such space in the world. “Employees reported, on average, a 34 percent increase in self-reported creativity scores, with 71 percent agreeing that the new office empowered the creation of new ideas,” Chung says.
As we learned earlier, quality lighting is also essential. “Lighting—the presence or absence of natural lighting, how good and pleasant the artificial lighting is, access to windows, and autonomy over lighting control for individual workspaces—has a significant impact on how a space is perceived,” says Moss. Can’t give everyone a spot near a window? Do what startups do best: think creatively. Moss’s company collaborated with a commercial interior decoration firm to redesign an open floorspace for a third party. The teams integrated partitions and false walls with blinds and shades over diffuse artificial lighting sources. The result, Moss says, gives the impression of seclusion and emulates filtered natural light even in the center of a large open floor.
Another office space trend our experts are seeing is flexible design. “A major theme of the new modern office is having multipurpose rooms. We’re not talking about a meeting room that you book on the company’s calendar; real multipurpose rooms can switch from cubicle space to open-office layout to boardroom to training room and back again,” says Ryan Hulland, president of Netfloor USA, a design, manufacturing, sales and installation company for raised access floors. “Today, more space and more flexibility are must-haves.”
While you’re considering design, don’t forget the outside of your building. “Parking can make or break a deal, especially in densely populated communities,” says Ashley Baskin, a licensed real estate agent who serves on the advisory board for Home Life Digest. “You need to make sure parking is available, even if it costs extra.”
Bryan Stoddard, who runs Homewares Insider, may just have the best advice of all. “Provide high-quality office chairs,” he says.
Of course, you can’t think about office design today without thinking about COVID-19 and its impact on the way we work. “Over the past few months, we have seen that people from almost every discipline, if granted access to a computer, can work remotely and efficiently,” says Wayne Turett, an architect and founder of the architecture and design firm Turett Collaborative. As a result, “some companies will cut costs by downsizing to smaller offices. We may also see the reemergence of hot desking: multiple workers using desks and coming into the office on different days. This requires strict sanitation and adherence to safety guidelines but allows people to experience both the office and work-from-home, as long as social distancing is [still] of concern.”
Since people can work remotely, though, does your office even matter anymore? Saul says yes. “Most people don’t have enough space at home, and they have too many distractions, even if they don’t have kids at home.”
Understandably, the pandemic is forcing office space design to focus on health and safety more than ever. But don’t just throw up a few plastic dividers and call it a day. “When making an investment, consider fundamental changes to the space, such as air filters, that would benefit the occupants in the long term,” says Chung, who also recommends considering your office operational plans before investing in short-term purchases. “For example, can you space out occupants instead of installing plexiglass partitions that you may not use in the next couple of years?” If employee health and wellness are part of your organization’s values, Chung says to “invest in holistic approaches that look at how the built environment supports physical, mental and social well-being—for example, WELL certification.”
Saul, who has worked with nascent startups and more established companies moving into a “real office” after second and third funding rounds, has seen her fair share of trends. “Since the pandemic, I’ve seen many changes as companies try to figure out how to get their employees back to work—as they try to keep the office attractive and avoid the old Dilbert cubes while making the office safe. Many companies have closed their kitchens and lounges. They’ve added plexiglass dividers on open tables. They’ve made one-way aisles. But maybe it’s time to rethink office design,” she says. “Maybe if we focus on employee well-being for the long haul, we can avoid some of these temporary solutions.” Her solution, which may be perfect for startups in particular, is a pinwheel-type layout.
Since the pandemic, many companies are deciding whether to continue to burn runway on office space at all. Hulland is seeing something different. “From the millions of jobless claims, you would assume that businesses would be eager to offload vacant offices. But you’d be wrong. In the most recent quarter, we have seen a 30 percent increase in businesses renovating their offices, with many expanding their space.”
Hulland reiterates that with new health guidelines to follow, flexibility is critical. “The result [of the pandemic] will be an uptick in remote workers, but an increase in raw square footage for offices. Visitors and employees alike will need to be farther apart when working in-person, and businesses will need to accommodate new regulations. In the coming months and years, business owners will have their hands full staying compliant with the new laws. Having extra space and flexibility in your office will be vital to keeping your employees happy and healthy. Employees may need to work from home a significant amount of time, but nothing beats the collaboration you get when you’re face to face.”
We’ll raise a glass to that. (During a physically distanced Zoom happy hour for now, of course.)
Before You Sign a Lease…
Ready to sign on the dotted line? Not so fast. Ashley Baskin of Home Life Digest and Ryan Hulland of Netfloor USA say to ask your potential landlord these questions first.
- What amenities are included?
- Where is parking, and how much does it cost?
- What amenities are included?
- Are there restricted hours?
- What are the cleaning procedures?
- Is there room if my company expands?
- What security do you have for the building?
- Does the rental rate increase annually?
- Is furniture included?
- What changes can I make to the layout?
- Am I allowed to move walls or create partitions?
- When I run wires and cables to my employees’ workstations, can I run them in the ceiling?
- Can I dig out the concrete floor to run wires?
- Who is in charge of approving changes, and are there preferred contractors I must hire to perform the work?