Performance Review: Three design leaders size up the workplace

The way we work is changing. Can office design keep pace?​

JTI Headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. Photo © Hufton + Crow

Many of us spend more time at work than anywhere else. Today, some basic assumptions about the workplace are changing. New technology and the evolution of knowledge worker environments are driving these changes, along with a generational shift: millennials now make up the largest share of the workforce. There’s also greater awareness of how design affects health and well-being. As organizations compete for top talent and strive for innovation as a driver of growth, performance, and valuation in a highly competitive global economy, companies are embracing the idea that a well-designed work environment can improve the bottom line.

To look at where workplace design is headed, we spoke with three leaders of SOM’s Interior Design practice: Lois Wellwood, Jeannette Lenear Peruchini, and Susan Orlandi. They respectively head up design teams in New York/Washington, D.C., Chicago, and San Francisco/Los Angeles.

Let’s start with a fundamental question: How would you describe the relationship between a company’s workplace and its culture?

Lois: The design of a space has significant and lasting impact on the culture of an organization. On a subtle but complex level, the workplace forms an impression of what people think about a company. It’s the embodiment of culture, brand, and vision. If the culture is tangible through the environment, people connect to it, identify with it, and take ownership of it. This, in turn, fosters loyalty and commitment — all of which are fundamental to a healthy corporate culture.

JTI Headquarters. Photo © Hufton + Crow

Jeannette: A corporate culture is made up of a number of things: the company’s vision, the values, behaviors, and mindsets they are setting out to achieve, the people who use that space, and the story they’re trying to tell. Place is a huge component — it really shapes that culture and brings it all together.

Susan: When you walk into a space, the company’s culture is usually pretty evident. Is there a clear hierarchy? Is it an open culture, with more connections to people, with shared spaces? Are there places where people can work together in teams?

Workplace amenities, like this cafe at JTI Headquarters, contribute to employees’ well-being. Photo © Hufton + Crow

Jeannette: It’s important to note that the space can help support the culture, but completely redesigning the space is not going to fix everything. The office space is a vessel to support your culture — to create an environment that reinforces the values you believe in. That said, design can be a key component in efforts to facilitate organizational change by making change visible. It is one thing to talk about organizational change, but making a physical commitment to a new way of working is an important step in bringing about real and lasting change.

Redesigning a workspace is a major commitment. How do you help companies anticipate what they will need years from now?

Jeannette: I think the best way to anticipate future needs is to have flexibility as the guiding principle. It’s important to be well versed in current trends, but basing decisions on them is not going to guarantee a space will meet your needs in five, ten, 20 years. We know that technology will continue to fundamentally reshape how and where we work, and that cultural changes will require organizations to constantly evolve to attract and retain the best talent. We owe it to our clients to not only create spaces that reflect the direction their culture is heading, but to also provide them with the flexibility to adjust to the future as it happens.

UI Labs, in Chicago, supports collaboration between industry, university, and government partners. Photo © Christopher Barrett

Lois: To me, the concept of “current trends” is a risky endeavor. Trends are often based on the latest craze or fad, and these can change on a whim. For instance, an organization seeking to rebrand or redefine itself might say, “Let’s Google-ize the office, it worked really well for them.” Well, guess what: it may not work for every other company, because they’re not Google!

It used to be said that technology would change every 18 months — now it seems like it’s happening every six months. An organization renovates its headquarters once every ten years, which usually coincides with its lease renewal. We sometimes don’t even address a building’s infrastructure — and whether or not it matches what’s going on in the workplace — in a cycle of 40 years, possibly longer. The built environment is not keeping pace with changes in the workplace. But, I think that trends, at their worst, can be a sort of flavor-of-the-month. If it’s rooted in a sea change or a real shift in thinking around what people are doing, then it tells us something about the future, and we need to pay attention to that.

UI Labs. Photo © Christopher Barrett

I would like to suggest that we consider what is happening in education — that we take a closer look at how our schools, universities, and colleges are evolving. I add this because these graduating classes are the people that will shape the future workplace. The classrooms, hallways, cafes, and libraries have changed substantially, and the natural evolution of these spaces is a direct response to the ways in which people learn, engage, and collaborate.

Having worked on several education projects, it was fascinating to hear what the students and faculty really wanted in a space. That led me to wonder what really guides change in an organization. Yes, you have to talk to the CEO and the CFO and the senior executives, but if you really want to know what’s going on in an organization, talk to the managers, because they are in touch with the teams and the individuals. Leadership sets strategies and vision, but managers throughout the organization are the ones getting things done, and they know what’s really going on.

Understanding how students work today can help companies prepare for the future. University Center at the New School, New York. Photos © James Ewing | OTTO

When you’re working with a new client, where do you begin?

Jeannette: I always like to start with the dream. I don’t like to start with the budget or focus too much on what they have today. If you ask a client what they need, they often revert to what they have today rather than think about what they really need for tomorrow. It can be hard for clients to think outside the box. So you have to start with the bigger questions and then use laddering questions to get to the essence of what’s really important.

You change the question to remove the client from their everyday activities, habits, and assumptions, which gets them thinking about possibilities and the future.

Lois: I like to start off with a visioning session or workshop as the vehicle to explore possibilities, without the filter of “what we do now.” It helps to frame the questions a little bit differently. Instead of saying, “Do you need these things for your office?” we might ask, “What do you need to do the work you undertake each day, and what is the ideal setting?” You change the question to remove the client from their everyday activities, habits, and assumptions, which gets them thinking about possibilities and the future.

Library at Penske Media Corporation. Photo © Rafael Gamo

Jeannette: We use the word “why” a lot. Once you start asking, “Why do you need that?” or “What does that mean to you?”, then you start to get to the real needs.

Susan: Clients will always have a wish list, but it’s also really important to understand their workflow and behaviors. For instance, with a major planning project we’re working on right now, the company is very paper-intensive but they’re planning to go cloud-based and digital by the time they move in. What we’re designing is not for what they have today — it’s for 2019, when they move in, and beyond. We need to understand their current workflow, while looking ahead.

What are some of the major shifts you’re seeing in the workplace today?

Entry to Penske Media Corporation. Photo © Rafael Gamo

Lois: The workplace is accommodating a lot more than just work. Also, people are spending a lot longer at work — they might be focused on their geographic location during the core hours, and then spend long into the evening to connect with people in other locations around the world. They may have to constantly balance focused, heads-down work with team collaboration. They may not need to be at the office all the time. So, we need to think about how to make it flexible, adaptable and elastic, to anticipate what’s occurring now as well as in the future.

Susan: People are also working anywhere and everywhere. You’re not always tethered to a desk. I think people want the choice to work where they please — perhaps from home — to have the right balance. Mobile work is having a huge impact on the current and future workplace.

Open-plan offices at Penske Media Corporation. Photo © Rafael Gamo

Jeannette: In 2015, millennials became the largest generation in the workforce. It really is having an impact on our design. This applies to any type of company — whether it’s a tech firm, or a law firm, or a corporate office — you really need to provide a variety of spaces.

Historically, everyone used the same type of desk — it’s cheaper and easier from a facilities standpoint. But today, that’s not how we work. We need to allow people to work the way they want, because everyone works differently, especially from generation to generation.

BBVA Bancomer Operations Center, in Mexico City, features a rooftop terrace where employees and guests can gather. Photos © Rafael Gamo

Lois: The human element in the workplace is finally being valued. As much as an organization’s leadership looks at the cost of real estate and operating costs such as furniture and the impact to the bottom line, the most significant cost — approximately 85 percent — is your people costs. We are seeing and hearing a shift in this cost evaluation model, and it is moving toward people.

Providing a better experience for the individual will always give companies better results.

In the “war for talent,” anywhere from 50 to 200 percent of a person’s salary is spent on recruiting and onboarding. If that person walks out the door, a significant investment was just lost — and the organization has probably lost a lot of knowledge, too. So, the focus on the individual is not about “coddling the millennial,” as it may be easy to assume. It’s about respecting the people that work for the organization. The idea is not “Let’s get them to be more productive.” Rather, I think it’s “Let’s get them to want to be here, engage them, and help them to perform at their best.” Providing a better experience for the individual will always give companies better results.

Susan: Amenity-driven spaces are engineered for higher productivity and employee satisfaction at work. It helps with hiring and retaining talent as well.

In Los Angeles, a former automobile showroom was transformed into the Desmond, a creative workspace. Photo © David Lena

What else in interior design most excites you right now?

Lois: There’s been a shift toward a more data-driven approach. Our clients are very knowledgeable. They have opinions and insights about the workplace, and often they want proof about what you’re developing for them — proof that’s driven by data. Companies like Google or Microsoft will evaluate your data, so it has to be of the highest caliber. Now, we have students and recent architectural grads writing code. Using parametric design, they’re developing custom algorithms to test things like the quality of light, access to views, and visual connectivity in the workplace, while we are designing buildings and developing interior environments. The data-driven analysis of space is a fascinating area of development in our industry.

A well-designed space is no longer good enough — it must be healthy, too.

Susan: Sustainability is also critical. I remember even 15 years ago when we talked about LEED, a developer said, “LEED-schmeed, do you know how much that costs?” Now he has LEED Gold and Platinum plaques on every one of his buildings. There’s an understanding now that it’s about people and how they work, feel, and behave inside a building.

Jeannette: Yes, well-being is a major focus. A well-designed space is no longer good enough — it must be healthy, too. We are beginning to incorporate circadian lighting to help your body adjust throughout the day, so you’re more awake when you should be, and when you get home you can actually have a great night’s sleep. This thinking not only enables people to be more effective and productive, but also has a positive effect on their overall health.

Central stairways at JTI Headquarters connect work areas and encourage physical activity. Photo © Hufton + Crow

Fitness is a part of this, too. Features like interconnecting stairs and more spaces where people can be active and interact will become standard. Design that encourages regular activity is going to become increasingly important as more people understand the value of a healthy workplace.

Lois: Across our practice, we are seeing that people are more conscious of the environment they work in, and they are far more enlightened about the possibilities of health and well-being. They’re aware that their workspaces can — and should — be better. This awareness alone will be a powerful driver of change.


Read another perspective on where office design may be headed, and a profile on the partner in charge of SOM’s interior design studio:

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