i+D: Flexible, Functional Workplaces

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Published in i+D magazine, May/June 2019

Last year, two Harvard Business School researchers sparked a debate within workplaces when they reported that open-plan offices might be impeding team communication and collaboration. But, office designers and architects learned of the potentially compromised productivity of not only teams, but also individuals—even before these findings were published—whether it was through their own research, own experience, client feedback, or the “Quiet Revolution” brought about by champion-of-introverts and author Susan Cain. Whatever the case, many A&D professionals and their forward-thinking clients have concluded that offices require flexibility that empowers individual staff members with choices in how and where to work. Essentially, one work style does not fit all.

Workplace Diversity Now Has a Second Meaning

Designed by Ontario- and Québec-based firm Linebox Studio, a trio of offices for e-commerce company Shopify is an exemplary portfolio, each site offering variety to help workers “get away from the daily grind,” according to Amanda Ferguson, a partner at Linebox. Immediately adjacent to workstations, for example, one might find a living room-like grouping of leather couches and a coffee table. “Nooks and ‘back-alley’ spaces allow every staff member to find a spot where they can tuck away, feel refreshed, and keep their minds flowing with ideas and creativity,” she explains. These include wall niches with sound-dampening upholstered cushions and power access, as well as fully enclosed phone rooms and other semi-private spaces.  

For the North American headquarters of consumer-product behemoth Unilever, Perkins+Will applied similar tactics. On Unilever’s Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey campus, the project team renovated five existing buildings, four of which feature “neighborhoods” on every floor with different levels of openness and vibes—from lounge-inspired furniture clusters with working fireplaces to open spaces with long communal tables. The team unified the same four buildings by enclosing an underutilized courtyard between them, creating a central atrium-like structure with stepped floors that follow the natural rock-cliff terrain of the site. Dubbed the “Marketplace”—as it offers shops, services, and refreshments and is always bustling—the bright and airy volume offers employees an escape, a change of scenery, or an alternative place to meet when all the conference rooms are booked. Comprising brands that are vastly different from each other, such as Dove, Ben & Jerry’s, and Q-tips, Unilever also relies on this space to host town halls and foster communication—and maybe even impromptu collaboration—between disparate teams that would otherwise never work together.

If there is one concept in flexible offices that divides architects, it’s ownership versus hoteling. Unilever, whose locations throughout the world implement agile working, introduced the unassigned-desk practice in the New Jersey office (although buildings and neighborhoods still are designated for specific brand divisions). All desks are sit-stand to accommodate users of different sizes and their personal work styles. Lockers on every floor further facilitate the desk swapping by securing personal belongings and desk accessories overnight.

Linebox’s Ferguson, however, is of the opinion that “there’s enough of the unexpected in this world to have to worry about where you’re going to sit every day. Whether it’s a desk or cubby, people crave a sense of place and belonging—a home base!”

Sustainability Is the Status Quo

Green design of yore used to be a specialty and—let’s be honest— aesthetically unappealing. But, thanks to breakthroughs in manufacturing and forward design thinking, sustainability is encountered almost everywhere and is no longer an eyesore. Now, it’s more a matter of just how green the client is willing to go.

Perkins+Will and Unilever went so far as to stipulate and guarantee certain energy-use levels in a contract with the site’s developer. The architects employed several strategies to ensure these numbers, such as retrofitting all lamps to LED light sources, replacing exterior-facing windows with high-performance double-pane products, installing skylights in the new Marketplace roof to reduce the space’s need for artificial lighting, and implementing some 15,000 sensors across the buildings to track occupancy patterns. The latter move uncovered that the majority of employees worked from home on summer Fridays, so Unilever realized it could open just one of the buildings and the Marketplace on summer Fridays, enabling its facility managers to shut down heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning (HVAC) and lighting in the remaining buildings. For transparency, real-time energy usage always is displayed on screens in the main entrance and reception area. Together with mindful specification of products, these strategies earned the project the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED Platinum certification and an award from USGBC’s New Jersey chapter (USGBC NJ).

In Tysons (a community in Fairfax County, Virginia), financial concern Capital One achieved LEED Gold for its recently completed office tower using similar means as the aforementioned. Its daylighting strategy pairs LED lamping and expanses of high-performance glazing with automated window shades, for example. The project also boasts centralized trash and recycling bins, as well as dedicated receptacles for composting. And, rainwater harvesting supplies unpotable-but-reusable water for site irrigation and toilet flushing.

Wellness Is Gaining Momentum

Just like sustainable design, which grew from a niche category into a universal one, occupant wellness is rapidly becoming a norm. It’s a logical transition given there’s a major LEED category encompassing air quality, thermal conditions, and acoustic comfort, all of which impact the occupant experience. In 2014, more than a decade after the launch of LEED, the International WELL Building Standard from the International WELL Building Institute was established, encouraging architects and their clients to go further in designing people-centric workplaces. WELL proposed such elements as biophilia, lifestyle amenities, and healthy cafeteria menus to improve an employee’s overall health. Although WELL trails behind LEED currently (LEED is 14 years older, after all), WELL is no slouch, reporting 174 WELL certified projects and 1,514 WELL registered projects at press time. And, according to some firms, that number will likely grow with changing workforce demographics.

“The focus on wellness is an outgrowth of interest in a sustainable workplace, but it is also a result of the demographic priorities of millennials who are more focused on health and wellbeing,” says Paul Eagle, the Perkins+Will principal who led the Unilever design team and gleaned information from internal research. (At the time of this writing, the Unilever project is tracking WELL Gold certification.) In addition to the environmental factors, the project promotes physical and mental health via a revamped cafeteria offering healthier choices, a professionally staffed fitness center, and private rooms anyone can use for a video-led stretching session or meditation.

The Marketplace, meanwhile, helps replenish energy and also creates brand awareness among the Unilever family: A kiosk serves Lipton and Tazo tea beverages; hair-product brand TIGI runs an on-site salon; and an employee shop sells reduced-price products, such as Dove body wash, Bed Head hairspray, Knorr seasoning, and Seventh Generation paper towels. As the world’s biggest ice cream producer, the company, of course, treats staff to complimentary products that help take the edge off a hard day’s work. An open and unmanned ice cream parlor-like station in the Marketplace rotates the selections, so an employee can snatch up a Fudgsicle bar or Klondike ice cream sandwich one day and a classic Breyers strawberry or loaded Ben & Jerry’s Boom Chocolatta Cookie Core another.

Neither Capital One nor Shopify are pursuing WELL certification, but both certainly emphasize occupant wellbeing. Capital One actually has an in-house design team that utilizes employee surveys to help devise new building or renovation plans aimed at keeping staff happy and healthy. These findings informed the new Tysons tower. “Design choices, programs, and facilities that foster wellbeing are becoming an expectation instead of a nice-to-have feature,” says Erin Mical, the company’s senior director of workplace solutions. “We recognize when people have balance in their lives, they are better equipped to bring their whole selves to work and provide the best products and services to our customers.”

Working with HKS and CallisonRTKL, Mical’s team implemented the flexibility that workers require, along with wellness-oriented programs and spaces: Cafes offer healthier meal options at a lower price compared to other foods; a large-scale fitness center also hosts classes and personal training; “mindfulness rooms” provide quiet for meditation or prayer; lactation rooms afford new mothers the privacy to pump; a fully furnished outdoor roof deck offers tranquility and a connection to nature; and a regulation-size basketball court promotes group fitness—and, perhaps, even camaraderie. The abundant natural light and views of treetops add a biophilic element, while original artwork, such as a vibrant site-specific installation by mixed-media artist Gabriel Dawe, presents views of a different nature.

“The health and wellbeing of employees is extremely important today,” agrees Linebox Studio Founder Andrew Reeves. “Employers are competing globally for skilled individuals, and the companies committed to the wellbeing of staff have a better chance of attracting and retaining top talent.” The Shopify offices achieve this not only through providing workspace variety, but also by imbuing a comfy residential feel—carving out spaces with incredible natural light and views and presenting recreational areas, such as a yoga studio and meditation rooms. Truly inventive, whimsical settings also help employees unwind and restore creative juices. In the Elgin Street location in Ottawa, Ontario, for instance, there’s a 1920s speakeasy-style library defined by a dark moody palette, an outdoorsy floor with cedar-and- copper “tents,” and a sauna-inspired meeting room with multilevel seating platforms of slatted wood.

Workplace of the Future?

Gazing into the workplace crystal ball, Eagle, Ferguson, Reeves, and Mical agree that the flexible office isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. And for that reason, walls probably won’t make a comeback in the near future. Although, notes Ferguson, “For some of our clients, the walls never left. Not all work typologies are geared for open concept—and information sensitivity plays a large role.” In such cases, Linebox Studio encourages clients to pursue a balance of both privacy and openness.

Ferguson makes one intriguing prediction: “I think the line between work and home may bleed further into one another and companies will explore elevated campus-style living accommodations and temporary-stay units for traveling employees.” This doesn’t seem so far-fetched considering there already is a project in Europe exploring this. Called Station F, the new Paris incubator is constructing a housing project—a mere 10 minutes away by bicycle—with co-living accommodations for up to 600 of Station F’s entrepreneur members. Flexible short-term leases enable visiting entrepreneurs to take advantage.

Eagle believes there will be more agile working “as industries recognize the benefits of efficiency, workplace effectiveness, and employee empowerment that this program creates.” He also predicts we will see a resurgence of the “Free Agent Nation” that Daniel H. Pink proclaimed in Fast Company more than 20 years ago, and that will lead to growth of coworking offices.

Mical suggests, “We’ll continue to see emphasis on flexibility as it relates to both physical workspaces and hours, experience-driven offices that put people first, and an increased ability for employees to customize their own workspaces through connectivity in devices and everyday objects.”

With technology constantly advancing and improving on keeping people— especially telecommuters—connected, will any of this matter? All four design leaders believe the physical office will not become extinct. “Regardless of industry, every company has the need for some level of collaboration, face- to-face interaction, and personal connection as part of the delivery of their work,” says Eagle.

Linebox’s Reeves adds, “Even if workers can connect remotely, there is something important about being physically present with other people. Being with others in the same space fosters a real sense of connectedness and community—and leads to a strong sense of company culture.”