In this Q+A, one of six in ARCHITECT's 2021 "What's Next" series on post-vaccine architecture, contributor Gideon Fink Shapiro speaks with two leaders in corporate and commercial office design at the international firm Gensler. Janet Pogue McLaurin, AIA, is the firm's global workplace research leader and a Washington, D.C.–based principal with 40 years of experience, 38 of which have been at Gensler. Joseph Joseph, Assoc. AIA, is the firm's global director of design technology and a Los Angeles–based principal with 26 years of experience, four of which have been at Gensler.

The two of you co-authored a post last October on the "new hybrid workplace.” How is office design evolving?
Pogue McLaurin: Prior to the pandemic, office design had become more open and very dense, and unassigned seating was on the rise. When Gensler released our annual U.S. Workplace Survey in January 2020, we saw workplace effectiveness drop for the first time since we began measuring it in 2008. And those in unassigned seating were struggling the most.

What is the antidote to excessively open offices?
Pogue McLaurin: People want choice and variety. Pre-pandemic, employers were giving them that choice and variety from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays at the office. Home was not a part of the choice offering. When the pandemic hit, we all proved that individual focus work can be productive from home. In Gensler’s survey of office workers last summer, people reported that they still preferred going to the office for group work, for collaborating, for socializing with their colleagues, and for being part of a community. When we conducted another survey in the fall, office workers increasingly preferred a new hybrid work model. They wanted the ability to alternate between working remotely, whether from home or somewhere else, and working at the office.

courtesy Gensler
courtesy Gensler

Will Gensler adopt a hybrid workspace model post-pandemic?
Joseph: Yes, and it’s in our DNA. It is critically important to innovation that creative organizations rethink our approach to co-creation under the ethos of a hybrid workspace. The technologies and processes will be figured out. The foundation of a successful workplace is culture. Culture keeps everyone emotionally connected across various physical locations.

Pogue McLaurin: There's a renewed awareness that we all work differently. Some people thrive when working from home; other people can't wait to get back to the office. A hybrid work model combines the best of both worlds. The challenge is how to make it all seamlessly work for each unique organization.

How do you translate a hybrid work model into design strategies?
Pogue McLaurin: We need to understand first how individuals and teams work best, and then we can script an experience around each of them. It starts with asking the right questions. How do they work throughout the day? When do they need quiet focus and how do they collaborate? Where do you want to bring different teams together to connect ideas? How do you engage with visitors and guests?

Joseph: Technology is part of our strategy as well. Two years ago, when the industry was hyperfocused on automation, we focused instead on developing our design tools, processes, platforms, and intellectual property to give our designers and clients the ability to visualize options and solutions based on data. We've developed GBlox, a software tool for urban development and designing at the block level for exterior architecture. Key client metrics are embedded as a heads-up display to make agile decisions. We also have GFloorz, a data-rich, algorithmic design tool for workplace interiors.

When you think about the future of user experience in the workplace, who are the users, what spaces, furniture, and devices are they using, and what is their experience?
Pogue McLaurin: The longer we work from home, the more the role of the workplace becomes bringing people together in intentional ways. We’re starting to think about user experience from the perspectives of both individuals and teams. There may be different levels of workplace mobility and choice. Some employees may come in five days a week, others only five days a month or five days a year. The office experience can be different for teams that need to have an extended stay versus teams that come together sporadically. To make workplaces more flexible and responsive, we are exploring new ways to zone floors differently and to specify or design furniture that people can pull together or push apart to work as a team or independently.

Are clients looking for different things from you now than they were before the pandemic?
Pogue McLaurin: Workplace design is not only about efficiency and how many people we can fit in a space. Companies are asking, “How do we attract and leverage our people? How do we help motivate and connect them?” Those soft issues—the intangibles—are the hardest to design. We are now working directly with human resources officers, not only facility and corporate real estate managers. In this far-flung and virtual world, we can use the physical workplace as a tangible asset to bring everybody back together.

Joseph: Employers, investors, facility managers, and developers are asking, “What differentiates us?” Our job, as designers, is to curate a “wow” experience to attract employees and tenants, to position our clients for success when the pandemic is over.

Source: Gensler U.S. Workplace Survey Summer/Fall 2020
Source: Gensler Research Institute U.S. Work from Home Survey 2020

How will smart building systems and apps affect the work environment?
Pogue McLaurin: The pandemic has accelerated the development of touchless environments and the responsiveness of building technologies. We’re not far from being able to walk up to a building that scans your eyes and clears you through security. Based on your calendar, elevators will know what floor to take you to, and you’ll arrive without touching a button. Occupancy sensors will allow us to respond to users’ needs in real time, as well as monitor energy usage. We already have apps that allow us to order lunch, access building or neighborhood amenities, and reserve conference rooms.

Do you anticipate a greater emphasis on renovations and retrofits in the coming years?
Pogue McLaurin: Absolutely, because developers need to increase the value of their portfolios. And from a resilience standpoint, we need to explore repurposing existing buildings, before automatically assuming we need to design a new one. We also see renovations and retrofits as a huge opportunity for architects to create more equitable and more resilient communities.

Source: Gensler Research Institute U.S. Work from Home Survey 2020

Will the need to upgrade air handling systems affect your design strategy in any way?
Pogue McLaurin: This is a rapidly developing area where more research and testing is required. We’re exploring whether creating smaller zones to condition and purify the air is more effective than allowing air to move across an entire floor plate. That also ties into how we’re thinking about team spaces, since smaller zones can help define work areas and help with acoustics. So we’re looking at ventilation as a holistic framework of health and other factors. Wouldn’t it be amazing if everyone left the office feeling healthier at the end of the day?

What new technologies will be important to collaboration and productivity in the new hybrid workplace?
Joseph: Organizations have to be very selective in what types of technology they are investing, so that it’s serving their needs in this new hybrid work environment and not getting in the way of collaboration. As a technology enabler and strategist for our creatives and clients, I maintain that simplicity is key.

Will teams be writing, sketching, and swiping in the air or communicating through virtual reality?
Joseph: The vision isn’t for us to be in The Matrix. Collaborative technology in hardware and software are advancing significantly, and firms are showing more appetite for investment in these technologies and their associated processes. We’re also seeing vendors heavily investing in collaborative technology to support the new hybrid work environment.

You asked about VR. What interests me is not putting on a helmet and going into your own immersive and siloed world, but harnessing the power of advanced rendering engines and collaborative platforms to span physical office, remote, and digital spaces where important decisions are still driven by human interactions of eye-to-eye contact and facial expressions. VR environments should be ubiquitous and democratic, so that people at home, on public transportation, or an office building can co-experience them.

The pandemic has highlighted many disparities in health and well-being. How are you promoting equity through design?
Joseph: Our firm is fully committed to fighting racism with actionable strategies. In December, we hired Monica Parker, our first director of diversity, equity, and inclusion, and we established five strategies to fight racism. One of those is to pursue equitable design solutions in our cities and communities. We’ve been going on listening tours through our Design Synergy organization and engaging with clients, universities, and our employees. As architects and co-creators of our future, we have been focused on designing with our communities rather than for them. It is our civic responsibility.

Pogue McLaurin: Inclusive design is at the heart of what we're trying to instill in all of our projects. We strive to make them open, equitable, and safe and we want to use this crisis to reimagine the future and drive meaningful social change. Social equity and the climate crisis should be top priorities for our profession.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.