Harnessing Company Culture and Wellness for Workplace Design

A Think Tank talk, hosted at HOK’s Los Angeles office, challenged the assumptions behind common workplace paradigms, like plunking a café or gym in an office.

Think Tank HOK los angeles workplace
HOk’s renovation of Caltech’s Linde Hall of Math and Physics features brightly colored fabrics and massive chalkboards. Courtesy Eric Laignel

For the past year, the workplace incubator of global architecture firm HOK has been working on an idea it calls “space fusion.” That isn’t quite the casual neologism it might initially appear to be: The concept is being shepherded at HOK by senior associate Lisa Krutky Reed, a veteran restaurant and hotel designer who has long pondered the mysteries of prep stations and concierge desks. In recent years she has sensed a shift taking place, where the back-and front-of-house have begun to blur. Could the same thing happen in an office environment?

Of course, workplace design is already flush with similar crossover concepts. But as a recent Think Tank panel showed, there’s more to space fusion than just plunking down a lobby café or fitness room. The talk, which was hosted at HOK’s Los Angeles office, challenged the design assumptions of today’s workplace paradigm by calling into question this kind of industry benchmarking.

Designers should push back when clients look to emulate other workspaces. “There’s nothing innovative about seeing what others are doing” and replicating it, said Krutky Reed. Instead, she added, “the objective always should be to elevate the experience. Is it more cultured and sophisticated?”

Chalk it up to taste. If space fusion entails a commingling of “ingredients” sourced from different typologies (e.g., hospitality), it shouldn’t be thought of as a recipe to be followed to a T. Spontaneity can be a productive thing, so long as it comes from a place of organizational understanding, Krutky Reed added. “If you don’t understand the culture or the drivers or the company you’re designing for, that cafeteria may sit empty.” So whereas an in-house “milk bar” is appropriate for the Dairy Farmers of America headquarters (designed by HOK) in Kansas City, Kansas, it wouldn’t be for others.

Think Tank HOK los angeles workplace
(From left to right) Avinash Rajagopal, Metropolis editor in chief; Kristin Christopher, HR and recruitment manager, Respawn Entertainment/ Electronic Arts; Brian Tolman, SVP of design and construction, Convene; Lisa Krutky Reed, senior associate and project manager, HOK; and Ryan Smith, EVP of investments, Hackman Capital Partners Courtesy Sysouk Vongphasouk

Get the ingredients right, however, and it’s just a matter of striking the right balance, suggested Brian Tolman of the office provider Convene. He opined that the spheres of “work” and “home” can flex in a manner where both benefit, as he has witnessed through tools such as Convene’s concierge app. Developed for its members, the program allows users to “book a class in the wellness studio, a spot for bike storage, or a window seat.” For some, at-work dry cleaning and yoga classes might make for an awkward blending of domesticity and work. But as Ryan Smith of Hackman Capital Partners noted, “Having all this stuff at work means I don’t have all these other trips preventing me from getting home to my family.”

At the end of the day, a company’s culture is the most likely conduit for attitudes and behaviors within an office. Still, design elements (and embedded technologies) have a role to play in enhancing feelings of well-being, which is in turn reflected in employee retention and other metrics. To this end, moderator and Metropolis editor in chief Avinash Rajagopal aimed to differentiate between “key operational spaces” and “bells and whistles.” It depends on the scenario, but it’s likely that game rooms, ball pits, and yurts fall into the latter category. At any rate, they don’t meet Krutky Reed’s criteria for cultural sophistication.

The Think Tank discussions were held on December 5 and 6, 2018, in Los Angeles. The conversations were presented in partnership with DXV/GROHE, DWR Contract, Lutron, Sunbrella Contract, Visa Lighting, and Wilsonart.

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