Leading architectural firm imagines future of the physical office

Employees expect flexible options in where and how they work—especially after Covid-19. Here’s how Gensler, a leading architecture firm, emphasizes employee experience in their vision of the reopened office.

ARTICLE | 6m read
February 19, 2021

While remote work has become our primary mode of working, most employees don’t want to work from home forever. 4 out of 5 U.S. office workers want to return to shared office space at least part time once it is safe to do so. This reinforces the need for company leaders to prioritize flexibility as a key value in their employee experience, particularly in the role of the physical office. This will be especially crucial as organizations aim to attract and retain top talent by adopting flexible office space and technology.

To speak to these goals, we interviewed Janet Pogue McLaurin, a Workplace Leader and Principal at the leading architecture firm Gensler. As one of Gensler’s thought leaders on how the physical workplace impacts employee experience, McLaurin is an expert in how design can improve performance, innovation, and wellness in the office. Reimagining the physical office after the coronavirus, McLaurin offers helpful insights for office space design, employee engagement, and embracing flexibility in the future of work.

How the role of the physical office is changing office design

Q: How has the pandemic changed the way you think about shared workspaces?

McLaurin: When I rethink the future of office space, what stands out is that most issues facing today’s workplace were not created, but exacerbated by COVID-19. Many of the workplace trends that already existed pre-pandemic—like choice, mobility, and wellbeing—have accelerated. This has brought us a new awareness of how we each work best, and what we truly value.

THE LONGER WE WORK FROM HOME AND ADAPT TO VIRTUAL COLLABORATION, THE MORE WE’VE REALIZED BEING TOGETHER MATTERS.

Janet Pogue McLaurin
Principal, Global Workplace Research Leader
Gensler

For example, the longer we work from home and adapt to virtual collaboration, the more being together matters. It’s only been out of necessity that we’ve discovered working from home can be brutally effective and productive for focus work. But if employees want to collaborate, innovate, and build networks, we now know the office is still the best place for that. Gensler’s latest workplace research found 81% of U.S. office workers want to come back to the office full or part-time. When asked why, they said for in-person collaboration, socializing, and the long-term positive impact on their careers and organizational relationships.

Q: It certainly seems like the role of the physical office has changed. How does that affect the way you design shared workspaces to center employee careabouts?

McLaurin: I agree. The Who, When and the Why of the office has fundamentally shifted. And the data backs that up. In Gensler’s Summer/Fall US Workplace Survey, 19% of U.S. employees said they prefer to work at home full time, 29% in the office full time and 52% in a hybrid model (spending some time at both the office and working remotely). For architects and designers, this means we need to design different experiences supporting whomever is coming into the office, how often, and for what purpose. Some people need the office for intense focus work, others have jobs that are highly reliant on in-person collaboration or need specific spaces or resources in the office.

The future of work will be built on flexibility

Q: Which characteristics will office space have in the coming years, and how will they impact employee experience?

McLaurin: A great workplace needs to optimize employee experience as well as individual and team performance. For example, physical workspaces should nudge healthy behaviors such as internal stairs for movement, natural light/view, healthy food offerings, and access to outdoor spaces. Those characteristics not only increase workplace effectiveness, but workplace experience as well. Our pre-pandemic research consistently found great offices are employees preferred place to work. When I think about what workers now want from office space, I believe they want to return to the workplace while keeping the benefits of flexibility and privacy they’ve enjoyed working from home.

Q: So flexible work will be essential to attracting and retaining talented employees. What does this flexibility look like?

McLaurin: It’s both flexibility and privacy. Our research on U.S. workers found 90 percent of employees prefer an assigned desk (only to be used by them) and only 39 percent would give up their assigned desk to have more flexibility to work remotely. As we begin to reimagine the office, we know employees want increased access to private spaces like huddle rooms, focus rooms, enclosed team rooms, and conference rooms outfitted with the right technology to seamlessly collaborate in-person and virtually. Organizations will need to innovate how they reserve space to balance room utilization, employee and team schedules, and safety considerations. Considering this is happening as companies also explore the size of their real estate footprint, I could see the challenge of shared versus assigned space creating new real estate models.

How organizations can enable better employee experiences within the physical office

Q: What advice do you have to help organizations curate and reimagine their office space to enable a better employee experience?

McLaurin: Organizations should double down on thinking about how their spaces can positively impact their business and fix what wasn’t working pre-COVID. Even before the pandemic, we knew successful workplaces tailored space and policies to fit the needs of their unique organization – their mission, their business, their culture, and, most importantly, how their employees feel in order to be productive.

ORGANIZATIONS SHOULD DOUBLE DOWN ON THINKING ABOUT HOW THEIR SPACES CAN POSITIVELY IMPACT THEIR BUSINESS AND FIX WHAT WASN’T WORKING PRE-COVID.

Janet Pogue McLaurin
Principal, Global Workplace Research Leader
Gensler

In Gensler’s 2013 research, we learned employers who provide a spectrum of choices for when and where to work were seen as more innovative and have higher-performing employees. In 2016, we found innovative companies spend more time collaborating away from their desk and spend only about 3.5 days (74 percent) of their workweek in the office. This shows our research has consistently proven that people who work 1–2 days away from the office have a better experience, higher workplace satisfaction, and higher job commitment – all indicators of higher employee engagement.

Q: It sounds like the path to higher employee engagement runs through flexible work. Do you have any other thoughts before we close?

McLaurin: We should try to see this as an opportunity to rethink the physical workplace, creating spaces where employees not only want to be, but also to do their individual and collective best work. The return is within sight now. There is a vaccine. There will be a return this year. Some organizations already have started phased returns. The number one question companies should answer right now is: how do you want to create intentional experiences for your people to do their best work – both at the office and remotely?

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