Trends in the Workplace: Today’s employees are creating workspaces that motivate employees to return to the office - February 2023
By Jessica Chevalier
The pandemic marked an unprecedented era in many aspects of life-with work-life high on that list. The changes to work-life wrought by the event were drastic and, in a post-Covid world, both employers and the design teams serving them are working to determine what the lessons of remote work mean for office life and design today.
Increasingly, employers are requiring their employees be back in the office part or full time, but a return to the rigidity of the pre-Covid 9:00-5:00 doesn’t sit well with a good portion of the workforce. “According to McKinsey, 87% of Americans want to work in a flexible environment that allows for work in an office setting as well as virtually,” reports Forbes. “But some business leaders say all signs point toward companies forcing employees back into the office in 2023.”
In part, the question of how this push-and-pull plays out comes down to who has the power: the employer or the employee. The fact is, it has been shown that many businesses can run-and even thrive-with employees working remotely, but many employers still believe that in-person culture-building and collaboration are important components of work-life.
When employees are in the office, both culture and collaboration are heavily impacted by space design. The space and its finishes, including flooring, set the tone for the business and its team. That being said, with fewer employees in the office full time, many real estate holders and leasers have extra space on their hands, and some are looking at how they may differentiate their space to lure employees back into the workplace. Those differentiators are both amenity- and design-based.
As the foundation of a workplace design, it’s important that designers get the right flooring for the right space, especially as replacement in a workplace full of office furniture is not only expensive, but also a significant and frustrating undertaking.
“Flooring is the base,” says Janet Lougée, vice president, director of interiors for Wight + Company, based in Chicago, Illinois. “It really sets the stage for the balance of the materials. What is the look and feel we want conveyed? Is it formality? An industrial aesthetic? Flooring is one of the first decisions.”
David Holt, interior designer and practice leader in HOK’s Seattle studio, notes, “The floor and ceiling are giant planes that have to be super-functional. They are visually dominant, and there are durability expectations that other parts of the build-out don’t face to the same degree. The expectations on it are huge.”
Both Holt and Bret Harper, principal with Lionakis, based in Sacramento, California, believe strongly in material honesty, utilizing materials that look and feel and even smell like what they are, rather than faux looks.
Holt utilizes cork, rubber and Forbo’s Marmoleum. “I am a lifelong Forbo fan. A lifelong Marmoleum fan,” he says. “It does what it does really well, and it lasts forever. It’s always a good product.”
Holt points out that while cork, rubber and linoleum have long useful lives, as natural materials they also evolve over time, showing a bit of age as they are used, which he believes to be a beautiful feature, noting, however, that “in a world of five- to seven-year leases, that argument may not hold much water.”
All that said, Holt would love to see these categories putting in the same level of innovation that he sees in resilient flooring to expand their aesthetics offerings, among other things.
In addition to the authenticity of the material, utilizing materials with a green profile is highly important to Holt and many of his clients. “We have a Red List Free library, so having products with a renewable, sustainable or recyclable story is critical,” he notes.
Holt uses some ceramic, mainly in traditional places such as bathrooms, kitchens and entry zones. While ceramic can be cost prohibitive, Holt also notes that, “with a surface that hard, you have to make up for it with sound absorption somewhere else.”
Wood is a material that Holt would like to use more of in the workplace, though he notes that “facilities people are scared of the maintenance, and no amount of warranty seems to matter.” Harper also appreciates hardwood but doesn’t use it widely in workplace design, except for the occasional gymnasium or in a niche space such as an education studio.
Ultimately, Harper seeks flooring materials that are “complementary to organic materials: less decorative and more functional. I think that’s what makes flooring beautiful; it’s not just an object laid on the subfloor but one that organically fits in the space and feels as natural as any other material.”
As for LVT’s place in workplace design, Lougée notes, “When manufacturers thickened LVT to be level with carpet tile, it was a huge winner. In addition, manufacturers are doing an exceptional job with the added options for color and pattern.”
“I love to talk about how many of the workplace models changed overnight,” says Lionakis’ Bret Harper. “No one would have said that was possible, and yet, it was one of the greatest tests of and testaments to human adaptability. The most honest of us say, ‘If the workplace model could be turned on its head and still function, and businesses still succeed-some doing better with lower operating costs-maybe I should be more open to varied models of how people work.’ If the pandemic hadn’t caused that, how long would we have worked before coming to that conclusion?
“Lots of people want the workplace back to where it was pre-pandemic as opposed to seeing positives of it. But I ask, ‘What should the workplace be now, and what can we turn the workplace into?’ There are varied responses to that. Clients will often say, ‘We don’t know what the future should be. Can we work through some scenarios?’”
Harper is a big fan of polished concrete and chose the material for Lionakis’ new Sacramento workspace, which is in a converted pre-WWII tractor showroom. “I did about 50% of the floors in the office as polished concrete,” he notes.” I wanted to let all those different layers of history show.” He notes that stained concrete has gone out of style in his market.
Holt, who also likes polished concrete, senses that there may be some decline in the material’s use. “Maintenance and facility people have killed polished concrete a bit because of early expectations around it,” he says. “They expected it to be perfect, like the surface of a bowling ball, and it is never that. Polished concrete tells the story of a space with its imperfections and wear patterns.”
In Lougée’s market, the use of polished concrete is holding, and clients are still requesting the material for spaces that are more casual, comfortable and organic-feeling in nature. However, the designer sometimes opts for a concrete-look material in LVT or ceramic, sometimes with a shift in scale, to achieve a cleaner finish than true concrete offers.
On the carpet side of things, Holt is a fan of Tarkett’s Tandus. “I’ve had lots of luck with their products,” he says. “And I believe they were really smart to bring in Suzanne Tick years ago, whose designs are a little outside the box because she’s not a lifelong carpet designer. Tandus has good marketing, and its products are beautiful and interesting.” Holt notes that carpet reps are, in his option, the best reps in the A&D industry. “You call a carpet rep and ask for a sample, and they show up within 24 hours with the sample you asked for and three others that might work. They follow up. They are really on top of customer service.”
Harper believes that there are many good carpet products on the market today. He likes Mohawk Group’s Lichen, particularly for its ability to bring in a smattering of color without being too decorative, as well as Shaw Contract’s Hexagon Tile. “I didn’t think I’d have a lot of use for [Lichen] initially,” he recalls, “but then I had a job where the whole floorplate of the building was on a slight curve. A square carpet tile would have been fighting that. Lichen can be laid randomly, and, on a big scale, it looks cellular. You can pop in areas of color, and that color can crawl into the space and come back out again; it doesn’t have to fit into a border.”
For Lionakis’ Sacramento office, Harper opted for a felt-look carpet tile in a medium-tone grey to marry with the polished concrete floor. It’s a look and product he has gravitated to often in his workplace designs. The Interface product he originally used was discontinued but replaced with a similar look under the Flor line.
In workplace design, Lougée often uses area rugs to create islands of softness, sometimes carpet tile with a border. She reports that her design team depends on Bentley for higher-end, higher-pile luxury products, noting that the company is “very sophisticated in small-scale textures”; and “sustainable guru” Interface for “beautiful, well-made product and reliable products.” She adds, “Milliken is also huge on our list.”
In specifiying carpet products, Lougée notes that “remaining innovative and sustainable at the same time is really important. And performance always wins.” She calls out innovation around shapes in carpet tile as “very creative and exciting.”
Harper says, “What’s interesting to me is that, post-Covid, one might have thought the resimercial trend would have increased, but it appears that, with people having a hybrid work situation, it is seeming less sincere for the office to try to use a residential palette, so workplace is swinging the other direction and looking more like a work environment. It’s a reprieve. With resimercial design, there are lots of trinkets on the tables, throws on the sofas, but now employees are saying, ‘I have that at home; I want something sharper and crisper at work.”
Holt has noticed a similar preference for less busy and less cluttered interiors than were desired before the pandemic, noting that, as a direct reaction to the pandemic, people don’t want to exist in a frenetic visual, but desire simpler, beautiful workspaces.
DIFFERENT STROKES FOR DIFFERENT FOLKS
Over the years, the workplace sector has seen big shifts in how space was divvied up for workers-from private offices to open office, benching to assigned seating, cubes to collaboration zones-and while the market certainly always knew that workers are unique, work differently and require different configurations to support their work styles, it hasn’t always made accommodation for that in the workplace.
At present, with many employees working in hybrid scenarios, Lougée notes that there is “serious consideration around downsizing” in the workplace sector. “Employers know that they won’t use as much space as they had before-except if they are growing, and some are,” the designer says. “But the allocation of space is different today.”
Holt reports that unassigned desking is becoming more popular, as employers have to be more efficient with square footage as they shed the excess. In these situations, the designer notes that lockers are sometimes added to house employees’ personal effects, along with caddies that employees can use to carry materials to their chosen workstation for the day.
Regardless of what a workplace ultimately looks like, Harper contends that the foundation of good design is listening. “Our workplace specialist team sits through very detailed space programming meetings,” he says. “A good workplace is many different things to so many different people. For some, it’s about interactivity, human connectivity, collaboration; to others, it’s about solitude, while still having ease of access to support when needed. Very often, we are catering specifically to one of those groups, and that can leave another in a near-permanent environment of anxiety. Listening and providing choices in the office is important. We meet with a broad cross-section of staff in our planning. The foundation of a good workplace is balanced by choice.”
Biophilia has moved from being a trend to a standard, in many cases. And, as Holt points out, biophilia is about more than plants in offices, just as sustainability has evolved from being primarily focused on material composition to being a broad look at the contribution of the building to the environment and a place of wellness for the people within.
“We have lots of discussions around carbon now; this is really critical to decisions,” says Lougée. “Amid Covid, we formed a futures team that asked, ‘What is top of mind for people?’ and carbon was right there. That is probably, to a large extent, because many corporations are doing environmental, social and governance reporting, and there are rules around what you report and how. Carbon is a big topic there, with the goal being to design to net zero.”
In addition, Lougée notes, “The diversity, equity and inclusion piece is huge right now. The whole idea of wellness and prioritizing employee wellbeing is strong. It’s an outgrowth of the sustainability movement.”
Holt adds, “Today, even our smallest clients have some sustainable mandates.”
Initial cost isn’t the driving factor in specification for Harper’s clients today, but long-term cost and durability are. “We want product that will visually last a long time. Who cares if it still functions but looks bad? We are seeing that most of our clients want the products they use to have green attributes; they want to know that in using them, they haven’t done something detrimental to the environment. And, more and more, people are concerned about off-gassing. They want the assurance of wellness.”
CULTURE & BRANDING
There is a significant shift toward addressing culture and brand, infusing what the company is, and how that moves the employee, into the design. “All three workplace projects we recently finished had a branding component,” says Lougée. The designer notes that this is as much for employees as it is for visitors.
She continues, “Sometimes culture is built by amenities that attract employees to the office, and we are supportive of that idea: less ‘me’ space, more ‘we’ space.”
Lougée talks about a recent workplace project that employed 900 people. The Wight + Co. team surveyed badge data to determine how many employees were using the office regularly, and found that, on a peak day, that number was about 200. The business used that figure to plan for its holiday gathering, but ran out of food when 400 employees showed up for the event. Lougée notes, “They came for the social benefits of connecting. The social side of life is still important.”
An important component of branding is identifying a workplace’s core values and mission. “Branding is a very powerful tool for remodeling,” says Lougée. “If a client wants to refresh, it’s a great way to generate excitement without spending too much.” Branding involves color schemes, technology assets that convey mission and message, logos, and more.
Holt notes that the foundation of any good design is full integration of the theme, with nothing left as an afterthought. He points out that even large clients with multiple offices and standardized guidelines for their spaces must leave room to incorporate regionality and culture if their spaces are to be dynamic and appealing.
Deanna Becker, executive vice president of JLL, a Chicago-based real estate brokerage and advisor firm, believes that culture and innovation go hand in hand. “That happens in the workplace when you have collisions of employees that you wouldn’t run into out of the office-those collisions foster culture and innovation.”
Harper has a slightly different view, noting, “Employers ask, ‘What can we do to encourage employees to come back to work?’ But if work-from-home worked, do we have to pretend it didn’t? A workplace should organically lure people back for the right things-maybe it’s a collaboration for a short period to get a product launched. If anything, that’s how the workplace can help employees-to give them more options than in the past.”
As might be expected amid this period of economic uncertainty, the designers with whom we spoke report that budgets for workplace projects remain tight. “End users have to be very discerning,” says Lougée. “Capital is not as liquid as it was. People must consider where and how to spend.”
Adds Becker, “I haven’t ever seen more executive leadership as part of real estate dealings. If there is capital budget tied to it, liquidity is a big factor. As a ramification of the crazy interest rates, the first thing to cut is cap expeditures (cap ex). If they decide between layoffs and cap ex, they will always cut cap ex.”
Says Holt, “It feels like everyone is waiting for someone else to make the first move. All the changes right now are tentative and experimental. I’m hopeful that, a year from now, there will be enough experiments done that people will be ready to make bigger moves.”
Becker reports that lease renewal rates nationwide are descending to historic lows, hitting 24% in early 2023, as companies relocate to higher-end facilities that offer more appeal. In 2008, the lease renewal rate stood at about 25%, rising to 38% in 2010 and staying in the 30s and high 20s until 2020, and rising to 38% in 2021, from where it has steadily declined.
This is the case, despite the fact that, as Becker explains, “it’s always easier to stay than go. Cost- and disruption-wise, renovation is a handful, but, having said that, tenants renew leases more frequently than they leave. Today, lease renewals are at a historic low, and that’s probably a combination of companies getting rid of space and relocating more frequently, tied to the fact that we saw landlords providing tenants with higher tenant improvement allowances to lure them into newer buildings, but that has started to moderate.”
“Best-in-class office product is capturing outsized demand, which is widening the performance disparity between new/amenitized and second-generation/undifferentiated assets,” JLL reports.
According to JLL, key differentiators include food and beverage offerings, quality architecture, outdoor spaces and tenant lounges-and flooring plays a role in three quarters of those. Says Becker, “What we have seen on the leasing side is that companies have been able to shed interior space, and building owners have been able to locate new amenities outside the four walls of the office-and they are marketing those amenities. Buildings with bowling alleys or basketball courts in the basement, for instance-these amenities are being used by tenants, and those are things employers are looking to provide.”
Adds Lougée, “It’s easier to go new build, get exactly what you need and create the right financial picture.”
In addition, half-empty workspaces can feel cavernous and discouraging. “What’s better than to walk into a new space with new ideas?” asks Becker.
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