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The secret to a vibrant workplace? Good design.

Here are five steps toward building a better office space

The secret to a vibrant workplace? Good design.
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In recent years, the corporate workplace has gotten a much-needed facelift. In most modern offices, bland cubicles and austere conference rooms have given way to airy, modular spaces that give employees more options for working, socializing, and collaborating.

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The changes aren’t all cosmetic: Capital One’s annual Work Environment Survey shows that employees respond to well-designed office spaces, believing they drive better performance and creativity, and foster a greater sense of well-being. In fact, an appealing workplace can even serve as a powerful recruitment tool: 70% of employees say a prospective employer’s workplace design is important when weighing a new job offer.

But what does good workplace design actually look like? Is it enough to clear out the cubicles and splash vibrant colors on the walls? And in the age of COVID-19, what design changes are necessary to keep employees safe and productive? For many companies, the answers to these questions go beyond simple aesthetics. Here are five ways firms can tackle office redesigns that support and engage their employees.

  1. Focus on safety.

These days, companies need to consider how to adapt the workplace—with a focus on safety—as employees migrate back to the office. Nearly two-thirds of professionals expect their employers to make long-term changes to their office layouts as a result of COVID-19. But as public health directives and employee preferences continue to shift, Stefanie Spurlin, vice president of workplace solutions at Capital One, emphasizes that companies will need to remain flexible. “Companies need to stay nimble and adaptable as things change in this environment and as employees collaborate and work in new ways,” she says.

Yongyeon Cho, an assistant professor of interior design at Iowa State University, suggests that companies take a page from healthcare organizations that have based their designs on controlling infection. That may mean prioritizing HVAC systems that can effectively circulate air, as well as seeking out touchless technologies—from garbage cans to doors—to minimize high-touch areas.

  1. Be flexible.

The shift away from cubicles picked up steam in the 1990s. Cho, who specializes in workplace design, notes that the post-cubicle office was cemented in the 2000s as emerging technologies such as Wi-Fi untethered employees from their desks. “This kind of non-territorial office made it possible for employees to work from any location they wished to work,” he says.

More recently, companies have relied on thoughtful layouts to support employees’ need for mobility. Quieter spaces with more calming color tones may be just what a programmer needs to focus on a challenging coding issue. A social zone with modular furniture can cater to small break-out groups or larger team meetings. “You have to have the right zones and layouts so that users can move intuitively throughout the space,” says Ginny Johnston, manager of workplace strategy at Capital One. “It’s a more humanistic approach to workplace design.”

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  1. Cater to the individual.

A workplace redesign shouldn’t be a top-down effort. Instead, Spurlin says companies need to find out what their teams truly need to do their best work. “There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to good workplace design,” she says. “At the end of the day, you want functional spaces that are going to support the company culture and the way work actually gets done.”

At Capital One, capturing the voice of the employee is critical to developing workplace design strategy. According to Johnston, the firm employs a variety of approaches to identify how to support individual teams through good workplace design. “We may bring together a focus group or interview teams to get their perspective on how they work together,” she says. “Do they like to meet in a more formal way, or do they like the cadence of standing meetings or coming together in a more ad-hoc way?”

  1. Support wellness.

In recent years, companies have paid more attention to employees’ well-being—including their mental health. That’s led to a raft of workplace benefits and initiatives aimed at supporting healthier habits, happier workplace environments, and more. Most professionals expect this support: 83% of employees say it’s important for their employer to create spaces and programs that address employees’ mental health. Flexible scheduling—whether in the office or for remote work—continues to top the list of benefits employees want to see. Workplace design elements such as quiet spaces in the office and access to natural light also are among employees’ top five requests for wellness support. Lighting, says Cho, is a crucial design element that companies shouldn’t ignore: “Yes, it’s aesthetic, but there’s a real function there, too,” he says. “Lighting is very important for productivity and it can even change [employees’] moods.”

  1. Make connections.

It’s anyone’s guess when employees will return to the office full time. In the interim, companies need to integrate technology more fully into their workplace designs. From video conferencing to digital whiteboard platforms, technologies can help on-site workers seamlessly connect and collaborate with their remote colleagues. “This will all continue to evolve,” Johnston says. “But it’s imperative to think about how we can adapt to this changing workforce today and in the future.”

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