What Makes an Effective Work Ecosystem?

With the future of the physical workplace in question, a Think Tank Panel ponders how design can create an environment where employees are empowered to thrive.

National Parks Foundation Evan Thomas
HKS designed a new office for the National Parks Foundation. Courtesy Evan Thomas

In the media and among consultants of all stripes, the term “work ecosystem” is gaining currency as we consider the post-COVID-19 workplace. For a Think Tank discussion on April 15, titled: “Designing an Effective Work Ecosystem,” four professionals in design and real estate took turns with the term, discussing how it and other factors might define home and office work going forward. The discussion was moderated by Avinash Rajagopal, editor in chief of Metropolis, and hosted by HKS.

“A beautiful ecosystem is where we’re all connected,” said Whitney Austin Gray, senior vice president, International WELL Building Institute. “We thrive in connection. Employees are saying that in order to do the best work I can, I need to be connected to my family, my friends, my community. I don’t want to work in a cubicle or in a beige-on-beige-on-beige office.”

Daniel J. Nikitas, principal at Avison Young, a global real estate advisory, averred that “We didn’t choose the past year; we were forced to live the past year. For me, ecosystem means physical, emotional and spiritual health.” Picking up on the idea of a healthy workplace, Kate Davis, principal, director of commercial interiors, HKS, said that an ecosystem is “knowing you’re going to a place that makes you healthier.” And finally, Heidi McClenahan, senior director, CBRE, spoke of ecosystem as “an activity-based work environment; the office should be a critical place to have meaningful connections and spontaneous encounters.”

The idea of a “healthy building” pervaded the discussion. “This is a pivotal time in history,” said Gray. “Designers can make occupants feel safe in their space.” Davis added: “Getting a WELL certification is a step in the right direction. We’re getting more fresh air into spaces, reducing the number of particulates in the air.”

On a larger, COVID-related note, Rajagopal commented on the shift in power between employer and employee: “The tables have turned. Employees have been empowered by this pandemic. They have leverage over their employers.” This transition is manifesting itself in various ways. For Gray, it’s that “life doesn’t end when people come into the office. No more can employers say, ‘I need you in the office at nine, sharp. I need you to give up your life and vitality.’” For Davis, it means that “we’re not just going to the office to do our heads-down work. We’re coming to collaborate.” And Nikitas repeated the well-known prediction that “100 percent of the people won’t want to return full time to the office.”

But all of this power-to-the-people has its limits.

“You’ve got to create a culture of leadership and accountability,” said Davis. “My contribution is not set by a nameplate; my contribution should be represented by my output, by what I give back to the organization. We’ve had a lot of conversations about professional trust. If you’re working from home and I can’t see you, I’ve got to trust that you’re doing your work.”

Rajagopal ended with a metaphor on leadership: “If there’s no conductor to make the ensemble work, how are you going to make music?”

The Think Tank discussions were held on April 1, 8, and 15. The conversations were presented in partnership with GROHE, International WELL Building Institute, Mannington Commercial, Material Bank, National, Sunbrella, and Trendway.

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