interior of an office
Courtesy DLR Group

How Do We Design for Work/Life Balance?

A recent METROPOLIS Think Tank Panel hosted by DLR Group wrestles with the role of research in work/life design.

Hybrid work is here to stay, but how does a company implement a hybrid work model? Read tea leaves? Spin a wheel? No—research offers an empirical way to set standards and policies. In a recent Think Tank discussion, hosted by DLR Group, panelists wrestled with research’s role in work/life design. Joining moderator Avinash Rajagopal, were B Sanborn, the design research leader at DLR and a principal at the firm; Eunhwa Yang, assistant professor and director of the Workplace Ecology Lab in the School of Building Construction at the Georgia Institute of Technology; and Gretchen Wahab, national workplace strategist and also a principal at DLR.

“Establishing a framework, considering the company profile will be the first step,” said Yang. “You’ve got to look at the firm’s real estate portfolio, the nature of the work and the team dynamics. For instance, we can use a natural observation type research approach in terms of space utilization. So you’re not really mandating people showing up three days a week or which days to work from home. By observing what employees naturally prefer maintains their perceived control and workplace flexibility. But it must be a data driven decision to ensure the confidence to say, ‘OK, this is the time to reduce that amount of space. . .’ ”

exterior of an office
Courtesy DLR Group

Rajagopal posed a question to Wahab: “Gretchen, as a workplace strategist navigating workplace design at this moment, what are some of the things you’re seeking answers to?” Wahab responded: “You’ve got the intersection of people, place, and policy. The more we can engage research from the very early conversations with clients and identify key objectives and outcomes we want to measure, we can create a baseline of where they are today in their work environment, and then we measure the outcomes of a designed environment.”

Sanborn piped in: “I think it’s a really ripe time for new research questions. I don’t think the dust has settled, but as a researcher I’m the kind of guy who thinks the dust never really settles. There’s always something next. We are going to be working and living in slightly more volatile ecosystems for a while.”

He had two notes of caution: One, that in the workplace research business there is always the danger of “survey fatigue,” wearing out employees with endless questions about their workplace and hybrid preferences. “People have simply received an unprecedented avalanche of surveys from their employers.” Secondly, be mindful of marginalized groups who may not be as willing to share their opinions in group sessions. “I think it’s always important to have some loose time after a focus group. There are people who may express privately what they are not comfortable speaking publicly.”

As the conversation winded down, Rajagopal synopsized it by saying: “Make sure you know what your research goals are and figure out what it is you want to learn. Secondly, reframe your relationship with the people you’re doing research with. What we’re getting for all this is people being happier, healthier, and more comfortable.”

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