After spending over 30 years designing work environments for companies of all shapes and sizes, I have a pretty clear idea of what goes into making a company great. How can a designer possess such insight? Well, through the design process, I’ve gotten up-close looks into who and what makes an organization tick. While I believe a good workplace design supports an organization’s success and that it can be a key agent for reinforcing ideals, I am equally convinced that office design can’t have much of an impact unless the following five boxes are checked.
The first is vision: An organization has to know where it is going, so people can get behind and be guided by something tangible. A close second is culture. Positive culture is palpable (and so is its opposite). Number three, leadership, makes the two aforementioned happen. Number four, talent, is critical — and doesn’t tend to stick around in the absence of strong leadership, a firm vision, and a supportive culture. Number five is an obvious one: fiscal responsibility — which, as we’ve seen in recent years, can be surprisingly lacking. Without these five, your physical work environment is not going to produce the results that design and management consultancies would like you to believe. But if you’re on track with one through five, go ahead and read the following keys to creating a bang-up workplace.
[The City of Vancouver’s Engineering Office. Photo: Perkins+Will]
1. Engage different perspectives. If you have all boxes checked, you probably already understand that the creation of any great workplace requires collaboration among multiple disciplines within an organization, including leadership, HR, IT, finance, real estate, and facilities management. Without all these points of view, the end result will be unbalanced. Many organizations don’t see the benefit of this degree of feedback and cooperation, but those that do, create the best places.
2. Provide an anchor. We haven’t been tethered to the office in years, and the mobile style of working won’t be going away. That said, there is still a need for a sense of place. Coworker camaraderie can be built virtually, but nothing matches in-person interaction. The most creative companies are exploring ways place can enhance connections between people. The design and innovation consultancy, IDEO, creates project rooms, where teams assemble to collaborate. In Chicago, IDEO employees can get away to the roof terrace for a bit of fresh air and informal discussion. While quite different, both spaces foster connections.
3. Design for efficiency. The workplace is shrinking, giving rise to a number of strategies to maximize space, such as non-hierarchical planning, desk-sharing, working from home, and “benching” (rows of desks arranged in benchlike fashion). These strategies will continue to grow in popularity and acceptance, because technology allows for it and there are tangible benefits from a real-estate perspective. As spaces grow denser, it is important to ensure that mechanical systems are designed properly to meet the demands, as indoor climate has substantial effects on health and productivity.
[IDEO Chicago. Photo: Steve Hall/Hedrich Blessing]
4. Support different working styles. Creating a sense of community is important, but so is recognizing the needs of the individual. Generous areas for socializing or working over coffee, a snack, or a meal are vital, and they are always part of the design solutions for top-notch companies. We all know that one can’t always think in a group or in a room full of people; some of our most productive moments happen during quiet, alone time. Finding this balance means offering a menu of spaces within the work environment to meet a wide variety of working styles.
[CompTIA. Photo: Steve Hall/Hedrich Blessing]
5. Adapt to technology. Technological innovation is the single-greatest force in workplace evolution, and successful companies must be at ease with technology and flexible enough to adapt to rapid changes. Engaging the right experts to provide a glimpse into what’s next and building the power and data infrastructure to support technological changes makes sound business sense. A leading global proprietary trading company designed their Chicago offices? electrical and communications infrastructure in a flexible grid under a raised floor, allowing its mobile trading stations to be configured in any fashion in their 100,000-square-foot space.
6. Embrace shifting demographics. The Baby Boomer branches on the corporate tree will inevitably be pruned to allow for new growth. Future Generation X and Y leaders don’t expect the workplace to be precious; they expect it to work and be informal, flexible, and healthy. Organizations that get this will have a competitive advantage in recruiting and retaining talent.
7. Address wellness holistically. The best companies want their employees to be healthy. Creating an environment that promotes well-being goes beyond setting up a fitness center; it means creating interiors that are free of harmful materials and cater to human comfort, with ergonomic furnishings and work tools. Greater attention is already being paid to the benefits of spaces filled with natural light, and walls and divider panels are being lowered in height or taken away altogether.
[Great River Energy. Photo: Don Wong]
8. Express your brand. Just as a retail or dining establishment conveys a certain vibe, an office also communicates the company’s brand. Think long and hard about what you want your space to reflect about your business. Apple and Target stores offer great examples of brand expressed in the retail environment, but workplaces can also communicate value to employees and clients. Our solution for Darden Restaurants? Orlando, Florida, headquarters does this extremely well; environmental graphics and other components reflecting the company’s history, current events, and employee recognition build on the brand story “to nourish and delight.”
[Darden Restaurants. Photo: Michelle Litvin]
William Hannah and Joseph Barbara, the creators of the 1962 cartoon series “The Jetsons” accurately predicted a few things about the future workplace. George Jetson connected with his boss, Cosmo Spacely, via mobile communication devices (much like our cell phones), video-conferencing, and telepresence technology. I don’t have the imagination of Hannah or Barbara, so my prediction for the workplace — and life, for that matter — is guided by a particularly insightful fortune cookie I once received: “Possibilities are infinite because change is inevitable.” I would ask, however, that as you embrace this inevitable change, you remember not to lose sight of the five principles (vision, culture, leadership, talent, and fiscal responsibility) and then, by all means, build an awesome workplace. It will make a true difference.
As the global design leader of Perkins+Will’s interior design discipline, Gina Berndt sets the bar for exemplary design, client service, and ethics. For more than 30 years, she has led teams to deliver design solutions that delight clients, meet their functional parameters, and exceed their expectations. With her singular focus on interiors, she is acutely in tune with the trends that affect how people work, live, learn, and heal.