Trends in Corporate: Workplace amenities must make a compelling argument for in-person work - April 2022
By Jessica Chevalier
The return to the office has begun for many white-collar Americans and with that comes a new understanding of how the workplace should function in support of its inhabitants. The work-from-home era of the pandemic proved that productivity is not limited to the walls of a cubicle or the confines of a desk. And with the popularity of hybrid work scenarios, meaning fewer workers are at their desk on any given day, the corporate workplace may not need the same allocation of space that it once did.
At the same time, the pandemic shifted the power dynamics of the workplace to some degree, creating something of a workers’ market. And some companies see offering fully remote work as a competitive advantage in attracting talent, as they can hire from any area of the country or even across the world. For this reason, workplaces that require in-person participation must, through their interiors and amenities, make a compelling argument that in-person work has benefits.
The corporate sector is the largest among the commercial sectors, and it accounts for a significant square footage of flooring. With the corporate workspace in flux amid the work-from-home phase of the pandemic, those needs changed, to some degree. A survey conducted by CoreNet Global asked 300 global companies whether they were currently using less space than in March 2020: 45% said they were using 0% to 10% less; 40% said they were using 10% to 30% less; and 15% said they had increased their space. Looking one to five years out, 29% of companies expect their square footage to increase, while 59% expect it to decrease.
However, even if square footage is decreased overall, the efforts to attune it to the needs of the day, creating spaces that both retain and attract talent, may build flooring demand, especially for style-forward, differentiated product. And, with so many corporations prioritizing sustainable building, demand for verifiably green products, especially those with recycling options at the end of their useful life, will grow in importance.
Gensler interior designers Samantha Lewis and Marissa Everling, both based in San Francisco, place the current workplace sector trends in four buckets: rethinking the office as a compelling destination, looking at the office as part of an ecosystem, inclusivity and wellness.
Creating compelling destinations varies greatly from one industry to the next and one workplace to the next but is, at its most basic, about making the office a place that people want to be and providing an experience that they can’t get working remotely. This may include offering a quality coffee shop or healthy, delicious dining options; providing an aesthetically appealing environment; or offering unique amenities that offer an escape from the hustle and bustle of meetings, such as a craft space or lounge.
Looking at the office as part of an ecosystem involves seeing it as one piece in a kit of parts, with work in the home office, the park or a travel destination, for instance, as other pieces within a system of productivity-not exceptions to the preferred in-office work. This vision was accelerated by the pandemic, and, says Lewis, “I don’t think it will ever go back to [what it was].”
Inclusivity embraces physical differences among workers as well as neurodiversity-seeking to give everyone equal footing. This may mean going further than ADA regulations specify; for example, considering how the tones and textures of flooring and transitions between materials impact those with vision loss. Essentially, this is about building for equity and meeting workers where they are, not simply checking the boxes of accommodation.
Lastly, while an in-house gym is standard fare today, workplaces are taking the idea of wellness even further, offering electronic-free respite spaces or yoga studios, for example. This trend acknowledges that work is one component of a healthy lifestyle, with downtime equally important, seeking to support life-work balance in a tangible way.
Carrie Walker, senior interior designer with JPC Architects, has added a host of unique spaces on her recent projects, including breakrooms with free drinks and snacks, yoga and meditation spaces, libraries, speakeasies, theaters, hair studios and massage spaces. “These aren’t typical corporate spaces where it’s all business,” Walker says. “They work hard, and they play hard.” JPC works with many technology and gaming companies, which are generally progressive with regard to workplace trends.
Everling adds that the workplaces with whom she partners today are willing to pilot ideas for a time and are open to reconsidering their application if a concept or space isn’t working.
Walker concurs, noting that today’s clients are more willing to experiment in this Covid era, with a focus on considering how space serves the workforce and the ideas of incorporating comfort and increasing choice. In fact, one of Walker’s recurring clients recently asked her to double down on a speakeasy space that had been well received, requesting that she enlarge the space at the original location and build a similar space in a new location.
ACTIVATING THE OFFICE
A big part of success in workspace planning comes from understanding the culture of an organization and then determining how that culture can be translated into and supported by physical space. In this effort, Walker’s clients often set up interviews between the design team and knowledgeable staff members or incorporate staff into project planning discussions.
In addition, large firms may include behavioral professionals in such discussions. “Our clients are taking time to strategize and looking to us to come up with big ideas,” explains Lewis. “They connect with psychologists and strategists to plan offices in different ways, considering concepts that may seem futuristic and piloting some of those ideas. Design is not just physical, but behavioral. We have tested, failed, tested again and learned so that we were able to implement the best ideas into a project.”
And while the pandemic did certainly impact daily patterns, how that translates long term is yet to be seen. Walker believes that, with regard to office routines, workers are likely to fall back into their old ways, leaning into what feels “normal.”
However, there are some pandemic conveniences that might stick. Walker points to her own experience back in the office, noting that it is sometimes preferable to remain at her desk and participate in meetings virtually, rather than trek to a meeting room with her computer. “You can pack more in with virtual meetings and don’t have to rush around,” she notes, adding that maintaining virtual platforms is crucial for supporting hybrid work scenarios. Essentially, the meeting room of today must flex to accommodate its users, wherever they be or however they work, rather than expecting workers to fit their needs into the box of the space.
When the pandemic hit, a good number of projects underway took the hiatus to re-consider their spaces in light of the Covid experience. “For my Omaha [Nebraska] LinkedIn project, which started pre-pandemic,” explains Everling, “we completed the build-out, then took a six-month pause to re-imagine, to experiment with new ideas about future needs, and we proceeded to implement those. We ended up keeping most of the original design but incorporated respite rooms, and we reworked the cafeteria space. Instead of a big, open cafeteria with a ‘slop line,’ we developed food kiosks with operable windows for a more curated experience.”
That being said, with the pandemic ongoing and the return to the office fresh for many, Lewis is cognizant of over-reacting. “We’re waiting for the dust to settle and for workers to get back in the groove before we make big moves,” she says. “We have invested time and money in studying and piloting.”
On another of Everling’s projects, she reconsidered the function of reception, transforming it from a single-use, sit-and-wait zone to an activated destination space where employees gather, which both provides the client more bang for its square-footage-buck as well as introduces visitors to the culture of the business from their first step in the door.
Similarly, Walker reconsidered the layout of the workspace on particular projects, increasing the number of flex rooms for casual meetings; adding more ‘fun’ into its work zones, often through flooring; and utilizing some of the square footage for free space, rather than packing in desks and chairs. Walker often likes to keep spaces open enough to provide outside views for the users of the space. In fact, one of her recent clients opted for “very minimal build-out, separating areas with lounge furniture rather than walls.” In these instances, flooring cues and transitions are important in directing wayfinding and differentiating space types.
Everling saw similar trends with her clients, with neighborhood spaces going from a standard layout to provide more choice. “Everyone works differently, and we are implementing that into the workplace,” says Everling.
“The neighborhood is an ecosystem of varieties of space: desking, open collaboration, heads-down space,” explains Lewis. “We don’t want open collaboration near focus space. What we have done is be more intentional and attempt to shift behaviors, so that workers are finding a space that suits their current needs. I’m a loud talker and on calls a lot, so I need to remind myself to use phone rooms so as not to disturb my neighbors. But that isn’t always possible, so a team member may step away to a quiet area-a no-chat zone or focus room. It’s more about moving the body to a space that best suits the task at hand.” As walls have come down in the workspace, mitigation of acoustics has become ever more important and the increased use of concrete in the workplace has not helped the situation. For this reason and aesthetic ones, soft surface flooring continues to play an important role in the modern office.
Taking a looser approach to the workspace footprint mimics the adoption of a more hybrid, dynamic work environment overall, says Lewis. “They are being flexible in protocols. The idea of going back to work and being at a desk is really hard, now that we’ve had the liberty of owning our own lives and priorities [amid the work-from-home phase]. We were able to walk our dogs, work in the sun, take a long lunch. Today, the priority is supporting people at their best.”
Lewis continues, “The questions then are, how do we stay connected with the culture of a workplace? How do we meet new coworkers? How do we mentor? We are more aware that these are the reasons that will drive employees back to the office, and we are designing with intentionality behind that. Do they collaborate best in person? Do they want to use the office facilities or amenities? Is it best to look at materials and colors in person? These are all reasons why we believe employees will continue going into the office.” The goal, then, is to build an office around supporting these driving behaviors.
And that knowledge, of course, is best acquired from the horse’s mouth, as they say. “Our office, for example, really tries to be a place where employees want and choose to be. [Leadership] is really in-tune with the workforce, surveying us and asking what employees want,” says Everling.
WALKER’S FOCUSES ON FLOORING
Walker begins her finishes search with flooring, which she considers the most important component of the finishes package. Her considerations in choosing flooring are driven first and foremost by aesthetics, followed by upfront cost and maintenance, which is a big concern for clients. In carpet, patterns that will hide stains are prioritized.
Walker, whose father was a flooring installer by trade, utilizes carpet and LVT on every corporate project. These materials rise to the top due to their durability and price. “I’d love to use more hardwood, but that often isn’t in the budget,” says Walker. “Design for carpet and LVT has come such a long way, and I enjoy creating design schemes that yield a creative, fun and distinctive environment.” Walker often partners products from multiple manufacturers or collections to create a one-of-a-kind look. Some of her go-to manufacturers for corporate specification are Shaw Contract, Bentley and Interface, which offer products with good color ranges as well as a plethora of designs with natural-looking components that coordinate well with her design aesthetic. She also appreciates the range of products from Patcraft, Milliken and Mohawk Group.
On one recent project, themed “industrial Zen,” Walker paired an Interface product with a pebble look with another that carries attributes of a Zen sand garden. For a ramp, she utilized a black LVT plank with an aged wood look to represent a Zen bridge. The design is accented by many plants, reinforcing the garden feel. Walker, a plant-lover, has become even more keen on incorporating them into her designs amid Covid due to their air-purifying abilities.
For a Seattle, Washington digital streaming firm project, Walker utilized 16 different flooring specifications across the space to build pattern and texture into a neutral palette. As a homage to the Pacific Northwest location, the space included bleachers, used as a gathering space, with hardwood from Pioneer Millworks and a closely matching LVT for the floor. These selections complemented products from Bentley, Shaw Contract, Interface (along with its Flor brand) and United Tile, including a reception area rug assembled with a handful of different SKUs. The office features a yoga studio, library and speakeasy.
Walker is grateful that the flooring industry has made sustainability an easy box to check on her projects and notes that same-height carpet and LVT innovations have made life easier. “Patcraft has been very successful with these products, but I don’t generally choose materials specifically based on the same-height factor,” Walker notes. “Because the LVT is thicker, it can come at a premium.”
Design-wise, she encourages the flooring industry to continue innovating and reports that she’d specifically like to see “LVT catch up with porcelain in design,” noting her desire for “more intricate patterns. There are so many wood looks out there but very few patterns, and, if there are patterns, they’re often linen.”
Walker appreciates it when manufacturers include a wide range of price points within a single collection, as that allows her to choose a more high-end good for a specialty area, while choosing more budget-friendly materials for other zones.
The designer notes that, budget-wise, what you can get for a dollar is less than it was previously. Wait times are another headache, and the designer reports challenges with Italian tile specifically, noting that “lead times are longer, but the construction schedule has remained the same.”
LEWIS & EVERLING WEIGH IN
First and foremost, in alignment with Gensler’s practices, Lewis and Everling prioritize flooring materials that are sustainable. Says Lewis, “Carpet is our most-used material. Gensler has been trying to reduce the amount of LVT it uses because the material is not environmentally friendly.” In addition to carpet, Lewis and Everling specify ceramic, area rugs and concrete for corporate projects. Everling also utilizes linoleum for lower-traffic zones.
In fact, Everling’s ultimate wish from the flooring industry is “eliminating any product that doesn’t have a carbon negative footprint.” Another important component is recycling programs. “How can we work with manufacturers to track the lifespan of a product?” she asks. “Where does the product end up ultimately, and how can we make that end result clear to the client?” She also notes that what she doesn’t want are “sustainable products that aren’t sustainably pleasing.”
In this effort, Lewis explains that she and her team look both back at what flooring material was installed previously to determine whether any of it can be reused, and ahead toward what material will serve not only the current client well for years to come but, potentially, even future clients. “When specifying products, we think about whether a product is timeless, its lifespan, whether it can be easily recycled and whether the next tenant will be able to use it,” the designer explains. “We consider much more than budget. It’s about what’s the best decision for the environment overall.” Even component materials, such as grout, are scrutinized. Gensler has a sustainability team tasked with providing designers with the information they need in making such determinations.
With regard to the goals around designing for neurodiversity, Lewis points to a recent discussion a client had with a psychologist who reported that it was challenging for people with vision differences to step from one flooring material onto a darker one. This led Lewis to rethink the strategy of using a darker material in circulation paths, which may create something of a barrier for those with vision differences, and raised a host of questions. How much contrast is too much? Is pattern, often utilized to hide soiling, problematic as well? “We need specifications that would hide wear-and-tear through time and also solve for that specific problem,” concludes Lewis.
In designing amenity and community spaces, Lewis believes it is imperative to move forward with a hospitality-first mentality. She says, “The role of reception was previously as a check-in, but perhaps that role evolves to be more hospitality-oriented, like walking into a hotel lobby where the use is intuitive and greeters escort the visitor to a room or amenity. Whether this is in-person or a platform, leading with that level of hospitality will make the space successful.”
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