Smiling group of diverse businessmen working together on a project in a meeting pod in the lobby of a modern office

5 Workplace Design Opportunities from ThinkLab

Will recent office policy and preference changes trigger a hybrid-work butterfly effect?

Eight years ago, in an article for The Huffington Post titled “Work Is a Verb,” I wrote: “Work is no longer just some place we go, but something we do and something we do in many different places that is hard to put a neat box around.” This transformation has long been under way, but the past two years have accelerated the adoption of emerging ideas like hybrid work

ThinkLab recently spoke with Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics, and Dagnall Folger, cofounder of design firm A+I, and asked them five questions that we think represent the biggest opportunities for exploration in workplace design: 

01 What is the right balance between collaboration and individual work?

While many are discussing “the Great Resignation,” Lister urges us to think of it as “the Great Reevaluation.” People don’t want to give up the work-life balance and flexibility they gained over the past two years. “I don’t know if [this level of hybrid work would remain] if we weren’t in a talent crisis, but for now the employee is in the driver’s seat and they want choice,” Lister says.

The balance may be different for each company, but ThinkLab experts suggest that in the next few years, offices will favor collaborative over heads-down space. “We miss community, and we don’t know how to effectively create that remotely. So we still need physical space to connect,” Lister says. Her prediction? Coming out of the pandemic, 25 to 30 percent of the workforce will work remotely at least part of the week. 

02 How might physical space layouts better foster trust and autonomy and create community? 

“Hybrid [work] has everything to do with trust—it’s a whole new path,” Folger says. Under this model, managers must rely on evaluating output when their employees are out of sight. The key to future success will be redesigning the office away from “management by eyeball.” We’ll need to grant the worker autonomy, with seamless transitions between home and the workplace. 

“We are ready to create new ways of coming together,” Folger says. Going to the office has never been just about work—it’s about the connections, socialization, trust, and innovation that happens as you work. And we need to develop spatial vocabulary that encourages even more of that. 

03 How might meeting space evolve? 

“A conference room is a broken model that enforces a power structure,” Folger says. And with remote employees joining in-person meetings virtually, this imbalance is becoming more pronounced. So while we eagerly await technology that connects us in a less awkward way, we need to take steps to adapt physical spaces.

Some have recently suggested the idea of flipping how we use open and enclosed spaces: Meetings could be held in open spaces, using flexible space separators, attention to acoustics, and analog tools like whiteboards, while individual work would happen more in enclosed pods. 

04 How might “measures of success” evolve to focus on effectiveness over efficiency? 

“Somehow, we have to infuse the physical and virtual space with purpose,” Lister says. “Why are we here? What’s in it for me? That’s what space needs to answer.” Now is the time to explore how we can help our employees work when, where, and how they do best.

Folger adds, “I think this new model and the opportunities in front of us can produce two things that were historically not able to be combined: higher performance and higher happiness.” 

05 How might we design physical space to be flexible and evolve with us in an era of disruptions? 

As the rise of coworking and shared tenant amenities shows, sometimes flexibility is not developed within one space but through the connection of multiple spaces. “The blind spot we are uncovering is that, especially in mixed use, the expertise by space is siloed, but there is no one who is master-planning the experience through all of those connected pieces,” Folger says. 

Many of our “best practices” in workplace design no longer apply. “People are realizing that we can’t bring people back to the old model, and we need to align our physical space with how we want to see the world,” Folger says. “And those who are embracing that thinking are raising the bar across the corporate globe.” 


Amanda Schneider is president of ThinkLab, the research division of SANDOW Design Group. Join in to explore what’s next at thinklab.design/join-in.

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