Six Regional Impacts on Workplace Design

What regional factors are influencing current commercial office designs? Metropolis convened a panel of experts to find out.

Hosted by Innovant, 19 Chicago architects and interior designers gathered around the table to explore throughline observations in regional markets. Six major themes emerged at the Regional Impacts on Commercial Interior Design Roundtable, held in Chicago at the Merchandise Mart.

The future of the workplace continues to spin in the limbo of post-traumatic growth uncertainty. Resilient cities allow for companies to return to work at higher rates, and some human-centered designs offer opportunities for 24/7 workplaces. Cities with infrastructure support out-of-office interaction and socialization, while organizations outside of mixed-use neighborhoods require amenities within the shared physical space. For the time being, Midwestern values have replaced the strategy-driven and experimental cultures of the coasts. The mind shift among progressive organizations, safe cities, and successful commercial projects takes a holistic approach and reframes uncertainty as creativity.

a group of architects and designers around a table at the Innovant Showroom
Avinash Rajagopal, editor in chief of Metropolis, led a group of architects, designers, and workplace experts in a roundtable discussion at Innovant’s Chicago showroom on April 4.

Corporations Are Adopting a Midwestern Mentality for Back-to-Work

Prior to the pandemic, design decisions migrated from the coasts inward to the Midwest; now our panel observes that when faced with post-pandemic uncertainty, many large organizations are turning to the Midwest’s return-to-work ethos for their back-to-the-office playbook. West coast cities still working remotely are struggling to get over the return-to-work speed hump of an unsavory commute and desolate city centers. Clients in east coast markets are banking on strategic locations in the urban core that are accessible to safe public transportation and attractive to new top talent. While the coasts flounder and strategize, corporations have chosen to flip the script and take design directives from Midwest leadership.

As much as large corporations are leaning on the Midwest for back-to-work, creating culture and commute-worthy experiences should be abdicated to the people who are expected to work in the space. The panel suggested that best practice in corporate design offers guidelines that deeply respect and allow local flavor to flow. People who work in the space are voicing a desire to take local design liberties according to what matters to them. Beyond a token artists’ mural, or local food item stocked in the cafeteria, our panel is fielding requests to support women- and minority-owned local businesses, and source sustainable, regional materials and furniture that express an authentic sense of place.

The Safety and Security of Employees Come First

Developers, corporations, and portfolio holders are evaluating where to buy, locate, and invest in real estate from the perspective of safety first: ‘are my workers safe on the commute to and from the office, during lunch hours and breaks, before and after business hours?’

Post pandemic, more resilient cities like Chicago and Boston are up to 78 percent back to the office some weekdays; however, at companies in downtown Seattle and San Francisco, employees cannot reconcile lengthy commutes and unsafe public transportation. The days of resimercial design are behind us, observed the panelists, and clients view buildings and amenities as invisible security systems, including safety personnel that have become outfitted more like secret service agents than hospitality workers.

Businesses Are Wooing Workers with Amenities

Large cities like New York and Chicago and well-planned secondary markets in the Smile Cities (Atlanta, Austin, Charlotte) boast myriad options for outside amenity spaces shared and patronized by neighboring businesses and residents. Bustling cafés, restaurants, and even ball parks within an arm’s reach encourage out-of-office social connection, trust-building, and corporate culture with an authentic local flavor.

Tech companies incentivized to flee their west coast offices for Atlanta, Charlotte, Ohio, and Texas, left portfolio holders with real estate sorely lacking in appropriate amenity spaces suitable to new tenants trying to attract quality talent. Especially where it’s been challenging to convince workers to go back to an office, commute-worthy experiences and amenity spaces allow employees to stay “on-campus,” focused and engaged in hard work.

In growing secondary markets such as Atlanta, Charlotte, Ohio, and Texas, successful projects integrate outward-facing, community amenities, including auditoriums, cafeterias, coffee shops, and informal gathering spaces. Spaces directed at the community encourage a building to be utilized 24-7, but a desire to serve the local community needs to be executed with more precision, research, and refinement, stressed the panelists.

Flexible Design May Not Be the Best Strategy

Flexibility is an emotional response across markets. Our panel connected the dots between the of fear of uncertainty driving the flexibility phenomenon. Demountable walls and reconfigurable furniture mitigate that anxiety; however, it rarely works in practice, because they require designated operations personnel, man hours, and effort to reconfigure, while facility people are in short supply.

Flexibility also requires solving for technology; specifically, powering devices. In a dynamic office landscape that offers workers multiple options for task-driven settings, providing enough power-on-demand has eluded designers and facility managers. Now, even ancillary furniture is expected to provide a comfortable, functional task perch. The entire panel agreed that there is a need for more beautiful, portable battery design, as furniture with USBs and power outlets are still coveted.

The flexibility that hoteling, benching, and unassigned seating provides may not be the best strategy for post-traumatic growth or hybrid-first policies warns our panel; in fact, one of the most impactful ways to help employees feel grounded in uncertain times is by providing a designated place to land when they arrive.

Footprints Are Shrinking in Big Cities

Organizations with offices or headquarters in costly primary markets are investing in suburban hubs, or opening offices in second-city markets that are more resilient, thriving, and attractive to new college grads.

Companies in dense northeast cities are minimizing square foot per person by being precise about calculating occupancy rates to achieve higher quality, more refined heads-down workspaces. Progressive organizations across regions are making the cultural shift to support a holistic view of the employee experience; this might look like luxurious amenities, or access to facilities 24/7.

Even when shrinking personal footprints, our panel suggested providing a neighborhood-style landscape that offers distinct topographies and several choices of where to work effectively. Companies can enhance the employee experience by clustering mixed floorplates of private offices, conference rooms, informal gathering niches, and functional phone booths near one’s designated workspace.

The Desire for the 10-Minute City Is at an All-Time High

Companies in primary markets like Seattle and San Diego struggle to recruit young people because they cannot afford to live anywhere near the city, and they may face upwards of 2.5-hour commutes, which is unsustainable. Secondary markets—like Austin and Charlotte that came equipped with infrastructure and amenities that attracted new companies, young workers, and subsequently tech companies—have now grown congested and overpriced, observed our panelists.

Fulton Market in Chicago is also a shining example of a place where people can live, work, play, and shop within a 20-minute loop. But generally, downtown Chicago and California urban cores lack residential towers and mixed-use neighborhoods. Looking ahead, watch for new, office-to-residential tower conversions trying to achieve what other live-work-play cities have blended to attract demographics that want to be in the thick of things.

The discussion was sponsored by Innovant and took place on April 4 at the Innovant showroom in the Merchandise Mart in Chicago. Roundtable participants included Mel Chotiner, director, Eastlake Studio; Peter Randolph, director, Eastlake Studio; Elizabeth Fallon, studio practice leader, HKS; Emily Merck, interior designer, HKS; Deborah Nemeth, designer leader, SmithGroup; Anne Gibson, principal, Nelson Worldwide; Kristin Cerutti, designer leader, Nelson Worldwide; Enza Parrella, principal, AECOM; Matt Rebbe, AECOM; Heather Cain, associate principal, Perkins Eastman; Madona L. Cumare-Malhotra, senior associate, Perkins Eastman; Neil Schneider, design director, IA Interior Architects; Erin Dayrit, senior designer, IA Interior Architects; Andrew Volckens, principal of the Chicago office, Huntsman; Julie Michiels, interior studio leader, SOM; Emily Frazer-Smith, Corgan; Sheyla Conforte, interiors executive director, Solomon Cordwell Buenz; Andrew Monaghan, design director, Solomon Cordwell Buenz; and Dane Rausch, interior design principal, HDR.

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