Designing Richer Workplaces—for Humans, of all People

For most knowledge workers today, it’s possible (though maybe not desirable) to get through the work day without looking up from a laptop screen, save for a few quick breaks. A typical day can be filled with hours staring at spreadsheets, doing triage on an email inbox and trying to decipher the tone of a colleague’s hastily typed instant message (was that sarcasm or is she irritated?). So when we tear our eyes from the glow of the screen, we’re looking for comfortable places to connect with colleagues and clients, convenient access to refreshments and beautiful spaces that bring life to the work environment.

We are craving humanity, in a technology-overloaded world.

This human desire for in-person contact is driving changes in office design. Many companies recognize face-to-face connections, chance meetings and immersion in company culture can’t happen when employees are tethered to laptops, whether in a cubicle or at home. Thoughtful planning and aesthetics can improve employee engagement, foster connections and create an authentic environment that provides a break from the virtual world where we spend so much time.

Map out opportunities to connect

Whether renovating or building a new office, a critical first step is to examine how your company works and clearly identify the type of activities your space needs to facilitate. A well-designed modern workplace provides multiple types of well-defined spaces for group collaboration and individual work, both in open and enclosed environments.

Visual cues can help articulate the purpose of the space. For example, vibrant colors can bring energy to an area intended for brainstorming and active dialogue, while a subtler color palette might be used in a space intended for heads-down work requiring concentration.

The flow between spaces is equally important. During the workday, opportunities for interaction are created as people move throughout the workplace. It starts when they walk in the door, and continues through multiple gateways – from the coffee station where small groups chat to areas more suited for one-on-one discussions. Laying out your office in a way that maximizes opportunities for chance encounters creates a greater sense of community.

Master the art of caring for employees
When architecture firms create concepts for a new office, more frequently we are looping in team members who have designed hotels, restaurants and residential buildings. Why? The hospitality industry has mastered the concept of making people feel welcomed, an atmosphere today’s corporate leaders hope to evoke in their spaces. Common areas are now designed to make employees, clients and other visitors feel comfortable to sit and have a dialogue.

Corporations are also building more comprehensive food programs, expanding their services beyond what workers would have imagine 20 or even 10 years ago. The water cooler and vending machine filled with junk food have been replaced with infused water stations and healthy vending options. And the corporate cafeteria is getting a facelift, offering gourmet food in a setting where people are encouraged to linger and socialize. In turn, employees feel cared for, boosting their loyalty to the company.

Create a common sense of purpose and belonging

Multiple studies have demonstrated the business benefits of having a strong mission or sense of purpose. When employees feel they own the mission of their company, they do more and better work. But are corporate leaders doing all they can to communicate their shared purpose? According to a Gallup survey, only 41 percent of employees know what their company stands for and how their brand is differentiated. The workplace provides a prime opportunity to help close that gap.

At the most fundamental level, a brand can be infused throughout a space with color palettes, finishes and graphic treatments that reinforce messages and the organization’s identity. Truly inspired workplaces also encourage behavior that is consistent with the brand in more subtle ways. A company that prioritizes innovation, for example, will provide appropriate spaces to encourage creative thinking and collaboration. And to demonstrate a commitment to health and wellness, an organization can design the infrastructure of a building to encourage more activity and movement in employees’ work days.

A workplace should be a place to immerse oneself in the company culture, but it also needs to be authentic. Above all else, a workplace should provide employees place to look another person in the eyes, feel connected and share an experience – and that’s something that can’t be replicated in the digital world.

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