From the cube farm to the open plan, the conversation around office design has long focused on extremes. But there's an advantage to finding middle ground, according to Gensler's U.S. Workplace Survey 2016, which polled more than 4,000 workers across 11 industries from companies that the firm has deemed to be leaders in their respective fields. The results relate the “quality and functional make-up of the workplace and the level of innovation employees ascribe to their organization,” according to the firm.
In other words, workplaces that are designed to accommodate the different ways people like (or need) to work tend to be deemed more effective (and thus, by extension, more innovative in their outcomes) by those inside and outside of the company. To understand what that means for office design today, we talked with Gensler principal Janet Pogue McLaurin, AIA, who leads the firm's workplace division from its Washington, D.C., office.
ARCHITECT: The Workplace Survey draws connections between one’s work environment and their propensity for innovation. Your team found that the best workers often left their primary work spaces to complete tasks elsewhere. Not all office jobs afford that flexibility—for example, that of an accountant or a spec writer. How does the study address the design impact of a space in that case?
JPM: Our survey asks questions about individual performance, particularly how the physical work environment may support or hinder it. If you think about accountants or spec writers, they don’t really spend eight hours a day in intense focus, as we might think. They’re also collaborating, learning, and socializing with their colleagues. Those roles still demand creativity. On average, we spend about half of our time doing focus work, and the rest of that time spent on virtual or face-to-face collaboration, building social capital with others in our organization. A spec writer, for example, is reaching out to designers, architects, and manufacturers and making sure that what they’re writing is going to be the best product for that purpose.
OK, so how are these jobs—which, on paper, tend to be categorized as less creative compared to something like design or media—addressed when work spaces are designed or renovated for clients that want to promote collaboration and creativity?
We’re starting to understand the different typologies of workers. Oftentimes, it’s the way they collaborate that’s the unique difference. We’re able to apply this in even greater detail with our clients through the Workplace Performance Index (WPI), which identifies patterns across an organization. With Capital One, we found about five different work typologies across its various job functions, and it wasn’t necessarily how employees were working individually—that was more consistent—but rather how teams came together. Some teams have scheduled meetings, for others it’s a fast-paced shift between individual work and impromptu meetings.
Are there specific industries or companies that are doing a better job of designing spaces based around these different worker typologies?
There’s this common misconception that it’s the tech companies that are the most creative and innovative. Many of our clients that are planning new corporate headquarters want to see what the Googles, Facebooks, and Apples are doing. We looked at the [WPI] as it related to 12 industries and found that each had close innovation scores—government was slightly below and technology was slightly above—but there were stark differences between the most innovative and least innovative group [of workers], regardless of industry.
We found that innovators collaborate, learn, and socialize more, and they spend less time in focus work. They also spend more time away from their desk, in and out of the office. The sweet spot for innovators was three-and-a-half days working at the office, while the least innovative group either spends all or none of their time in the office.
What are some of the biggest mistakes architects are making when designing offices?
They’re trying a one-size-fits-all approach embedding the latest trends, which may not be appropriate for that organization. Another mistake is designing a space without really involving the organization. Senior leadership [at the client] may say, ‘We want to break down the silos, we want to open up the space,’ and so we design a new work environment without educating and bringing the end users along. And so they move into that space and bring their old behaviors and culture with them and there could be a rub. The best designers work with the end-users to prepare them for new ways of working.
I think you see that "one-size-fits-all approach" with the open-plan office being applied as a blanket solution where it may not necessarily be the best fit. Has that mindset changed?
I’m not sure that companies are necessarily asking for different things as much as we’ve seen in our research all along that you need diversity of spaces—not just open office, or completely unassigned. It’s about providing the right mix for that organization. So if you are providing more open-plan space, often there needs to be some degree of enclosure. One of the most fascinating things we found in the survey is that the best open-plan space—if you solve for attributes like noise management and access to people and resources—can be just as effective as a private office. Similarly, unassigned offices can be as effective as assigned offices.
What role has technology played in the choice and diversity of work spaces?
If you think back to desks for typing when we had the typewriter, to large workstations where you had that corner surface to accommodate the earliest generations of computers with large monitors, and then to smaller workstations because flat screens became commercially available, and now to thinking about unassigned spaces because we have mobile, cloud-based technology. The work is shifting from the desk as the primary work space to the entire building or campus as a work space. It’s a big shift. Architects have this incredible opportunity to impact not only space but also policies and even technology, because those three things have to work together.
With the opportunity to work anywhere, will people continue to use the office?
We have this ability to work anywhere and everywhere, but I believe that space still matters and in fact it may actually matter more. One of the things we saw in our 2013 and 2016 [Workplace] surveys is that even though office workers are mobile, more than 70 percent of them still prefer to work at the office—they’re willing to follow the traffic and long commutes and come into the office to actually work. That’s their desired work space. We have an innate desire to be with other people, and so even though as employees we may not want to be there every day, how we design space to support coming together becomes even more crucial.
This interview has been edited and condensed.