The Magic Bullet of Workplace Design?

A closer look at the intersection of the office and the home, what employees are looking for from their workspaces, and how design can facilitate a work-life balance

The WeWork Galactic Headquarters in New York City, with its open staircases, and collaborative workstations, is a prime example of the changes happening in workplace design.

 Photography Courtesy WeWork, © Lauren Kallen

Every year in June, Metropolis devotes an issue to the exploration of workplace design. We focus on the subject continually throughout the year as well, examining where the state of the office is now, where it was ten, fifteen years ago, and where it’s going in the next ten years. With the tech world—particularly startups and emerging businesses—dramatically reinventing ways that work is done across industries, it’s no surprise that office design continues to be a pervasive issue.

On April 19, senior editor Avinash Rajagopal moderated a panel on the intersection of the office and the home, what employees are looking for from their workspaces, and how design can facilitate a work-life balance. The panelists, Suraj Bhatia, design director, HLW; Nicole Gaynor, retail market manager, Business Interiors, Room & Board; Jonathan Puleio, director of consulting/ergonomist, Humanscale; and Devin Vermeulen, creative director of physical product, WeWork, sat in a row on stools in front of the audience on the second floor of the sweeping Room & Board showroom in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York.

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Rajagopal launched the conversation by asking all those present to share one thing they would love to add to their office. Audience members raised their hands and announced: “greenspace”, “outdoor tables”, “open staircases”, “lactation room”, “nap room”, “a shadowboxing studio”. The answers were diverse and specific, emblematic of the increasing expectations employees have for their offices today.

Rajagopal explained that “we’ve moved beyond slight changes in the workplace”, and are now facing the opportunity for drastic implementations of new intersections between home and personal lives. The request for lactation rooms, for example, shows the new context within which the workplace is functioning. Empowering women in the workplace has become a growing concern among many businesses and employers, and lactation rooms are one way to address a woman’s needs specifically. “How are we going to [empower women] if we don’t empower them during some of the most challenging times in their lives?” Rajagopal commented.

The panelists of the April 19th At Home in the Office event at the Room & Board showroom. From left to right: Avinash Rajagopal, senior editor, Metropolis; Devin Vermeulen, creative director of physical product, WeWork; Suraj Bhatia, design director, HLW; Jonathan Puleio, director of consulting/ergonomist, Humanscale; and Nicole Gaynor, retail market manager, Business Interiors, Room & Board.

Photography Courtesy Madeline Kennedy

More and more, employees are looking for wellness-related office amenities as they trend toward working longer hours. Being in the office upwards of twelve hours, in some cases, means that workers may not have extra time to spend tending to their own wellbeing, and companies are making an effort to compensate for that. Suraj Bhatia sees those kinds of requests from most businesses he works with: “Massage chairs, nap rooms, or even doctor visits, are a lot of what I hear about from companies, whether they’re large or small scale.”

Jonathan Puleio deals with the similar question of how to incorporate wellness into the workspace and quantifies the importance of an office that is wellness-oriented. He in fact measures the  productivity time lost for those employees leaving work to seek treatment for musculoskeletal ailments.

“If we start to understand the amount of time lost on a weekly basis per employee and then correlate that to salary data we can have a very good sense of what discomfort is costing an organization,” Puleio describes.

Comfort is something that Nicole Gaynor of Room & Board has been able to deliver by transitioning residential furniture into the workspace. While at times the products need rethinking in order to work in this new context, the baseline of comfort the pieces are able to offer is higher than most contract furniture. “These pieces were made to be in your home, so it’s all about comfort,” says Gaynor.

The Rand Desk, from Room & Board. One piece of furniture that has contributed to the blurring of the line between residential design and workplace design.

 Photograph Courtesy Room & Board

The design and offerings of workplaces now have heightened stakes: not just drawing employees to the business, but retaining them. As Bhatia notes from his experience with clients and their employees, “a lot of organizations are competing for the same talent, even if they don’t do the same thing.” So in order to set themselves apart, and attract workers, Bhatia states that companies have to begin “offering the same things [as competitors], but then offering something different, more specific to the organization.”

Audience member Michael Nelson Bent, interior and graphic designer at New York firm IA Interior Architects tweeted snippets of the discussion as it happened.

Unfortunately, there is no magic bullet for finding what will make a workspace, well, work. Devin Vermeulen of WeWork has had people tell him they want to “WeWork-ify” their own offices. While he is flattered, he ultimately warns that applying the exact thinking of “whatever is hot and popular” is not the answer.

Employees are expecting more, and asking more of their workplace than they ever have before. They’re looking for more and more from their employers, as they’re spending more time at the office each day, and as they’re taking work home with them in ways they didn’t, and couldn’t, twenty years ago. It’s crucial for organizations to take inventory of themselves, of what drives them. The panelists of the At Home in the Office discussion were in complete agreement: allowing office culture to drive the design of the environment is as close to a magic bullet as possible.

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