After a year and a half of working from home, we’ve all grown accustomed to personalized workspaces and the ability to work from anywhere. While many of us crave the option to work in a professional setting—away from children, partners, and other everyday distractions—the ability to choose one’s workplace has become paramount in the minds of today’s workforce. In its summer/fall 2020 workplace surveys, Gensler found that just over half of U.S. workers and two-thirds of U.K. workers prefer a hybrid model, with respondents indicating that they choose the office for productivity, but prefer home for its convenience and safety—and want the benefits of both.
This widespread refusal to return to pre-pandemic office standards can be largely attributed to the failures of the open-office concept, which was designed to foster more collaboration and socialization across company departments, but gave little consideration to the variety of working environments necessary for a comfortable, productive workplace. In 2019, Harvard Business Review tracked both face-to-face and digital interactions at the headquarters of two Fortune 500 companies and found that face-to-face interactions actually dropped by about 70% after open offices were implemented, while online interactions increased. The result? An unhappy workforce in factory rows, increased sick days, and an overall lack of productivity.
Compounding the issue is the fact that the cost of fixed construction is high, and it now comes with obstacles to creating the adaptable, flexible workspaces that companies need moving forward. As a result, companies are turning to the concept of a third workplace, which fits well into the hybrid work model—allowing employees to choose a dynamic space that provides perks, amenities, and designated areas for focus work and socialization not often found at home or in the traditional office. Third workplaces fill the gap at an individual level as the place you choose to do your best work.
One very well-known type of third workplace is the coworking space. However, rather than simply offering bench-style seating in open floor plans as many early iterations of coworking spaces did, third workplaces today are evolving with the needs of individuals to encompass a crucial variety of curated environments that support different levels of productivity and break space.
NeueHouse in Manhattan recently unveiled The Gallery, a communal social club offering its beautifully designed workspaces as before, but now with an all-day eatery and bar for visitors working morning until night; art installations spotlighting creators from various galleries and foundations; and a retail shop of curated lifestyle goods for today’s entrepreneurs. Department Store Studios in London provides a mix of workspaces, including private studios for the artists and designers who frequent the space; a communal terrace; a basement screening room; bike storage; lockers; showers; and changing areas.
The third workplace is helping to bridge a gap that many employees are feeling when it comes to settling on an ideal working environment. However, the exact location of the third workplace is up for interpretation. Regardless of square footage or remote-work policies, the office of tomorrow will need to come with different levels of openness, depending on the type of company inhabiting it. The draw of the third workplace really boils down to its dynamic structure and the offer of multiple working environments in one space—which can be easily replicated within the office itself.
Through both my years spent designing many client workspaces across the world, and the experiences of the many architects, engineers, and product designers that I work alongside, we have found a specific way of space planning to create a truly dynamic workplace. It contains six main categories of space types, which are purposefully created for different types of activities: community, collaboration, meet, team, solo work, and well-being. Keeping in mind that the ratios of which must be adjusted based on business type and operational needs, structuring the ideal office ecosystem begins with the following formula:
- Community spaces should cover 25% of square footage in an office. These are high-energy atmospheres that serve as hubs for human connection and informal workspaces—such as lobbies, cafes, and snack bars—and therefore, can have a variety of seating for different levels of comfort.
- A team “home” space also gets 25%. This area gives office inhabitants a sense of belonging and comfort in which to ground themselves and routinely find their colleagues. While these home areas do feature workstations and are equipped with everything specific teams need, they also house a greater number of informal seating options, as well as personal lockers.
- Meeting areas would take 20%. Conference and huddle rooms ranging in size should accommodate productivity and have designated spaces within them to write, present, and video conference, along with a large degree of formality and privacy.
- Collaborative spaces should get 10%. These can be open nooks, creative corners, and open spaces for agile working and touching bases with teams before or after meetings—offering high-backed seating or booths to give visual privacy.
- Solo spaces should be spread across 10% of the space. They provide an environment in which to focus, and should ideally be soundproofed, allowing employees to engage in rich, productive thought or conduct private calls; in a balanced office ecosystem, there should be one private space for every eight employees. These can be focus rooms, phone booths, or hot desks, as long as they’re removed from the shared-work environment.
- Well-being spaces should cover 5% of the office, but are particularly crucial, as workspaces should be designed in such a way that they have a positive impact on people’s mental and physical well-being. Much of this relates to indoor climate and experience: acoustics, daylight access, air quality, and thermal comfort. Examples of these spaces could be a “relax and recharge” station with comfortable seating, warm light, textiles, plants, and bookshelves; meditation rooms; and a mother’s room.
- Supportive spaces, such as bathrooms, printing rooms, and hallways, take the remaining 5%.
Ultimately, the new frontier of workspace will borrow characteristics from all the different types of satellite spaces that have been proven to work for people, not just the home. The communal areas could resemble our favorite coffee shop—music in the background, the smell of fresh espresso, and the buzz and movement of people coming in and out. The areas for focused work could potentially borrow characteristics from a library, with comfortable seating, great lighting, and very few distractions. A lobby can become much more than just a transitional space—it will pay homage to a hotel lobby or a coworking space by offering a variety of seating options. By implementing multiple space types into one work environment, we give choice back to the people inhabiting that space—supporting each individual’s needs, work style, and personality.
At the end of the day, an office should be designed to inspire, and should be a magnetic space that catalyzes the creation of great work, but also connection, creativity, and energy. This can all easily be achieved by simply rethinking our fixed workspace layout to be agile and dynamic, so companies can ensure that their workplaces evolve with their people.
Alejandra Albarran is vice president of workplace design at ROOM.