Reimagining the workspaces of tomorrow

As offices get a redesign, equity of experience may play a larger role than ever before.

By Russ Banham

An industry that once considered filing cabinets to be revolutionary now features Zoom rooms, privacy pods and holographic meeting participants. Remarkably, one company has been there for the last century and is still making strides. Steelcase is a designer and maker of office furniture and since 1912, has kept pace with the evolution in how people work. According to the industry leader, workplaces are undergoing a transformation that mimics the larger world, and it’s big news for people headed back to the office.

Even before the pandemic altered work paradigms, Grand Rapids, Michigan-based Steelcase’s WorkSpace Futures research group was conjuring up the office of the future. “COVID-19 just accelerated the trends that were already underway,” says Beatriz Arantes, WorkSpace Futures manager. “Every company is on a journey to create a workplace that makes sense for people to accomplish their goals.”

Unlike yesteryear’s duplicative layouts with cubicles and rooms reserved for executives, design firms emphasize there is no one-size-fits-all workplace design.

“What’s important is to design a place that supports the company’s culture, encouraging employee interactions, collaborations and health and well-being,” says David Galullo, CEO and CCO of San Francisco-based Rapt Studio.

The firms are in the initial stages of understanding today’s evolving work paradigms to address their clients’ space needs, configurations and challenges. As Galullo put it, “A lot of our big tech clients are searching for the right space. We tell them they need to keep an experimental mindset.”

Here are some of the more interesting experiments.

Finding cohesion in a fragmented environment

Steelcase sees today’s “workplace” as an independent ecosystem of multiple spaces and technologies designed for diverse modes of creative work. Depending on this work, spaces are designed for large gatherings of people, smaller teams or a single person in a quiet place.

“Some companies might want a space set aside for assigned and non-assigned shared desks, while others might still want cubicles and private offices designated for particular individuals,” says Arantes. “Each space is hinged to the client’s culture in terms of work behaviors and the evolving purpose and nature of work, which we apply to the design of the space.”

Photo courtesy of Steelcase

Arantes’ academic background is in environmental psychology, a subject she taught at the Federal University of Santa Catarina in her native Brazil. “I ask questions of the client like: What is the space about, what is the work being done in it, how do people organize themselves and how can technology support them?” she says. “The answers coalesce in the design.”

The WorkSpace Futures team studies people’s collaborations across the physical and virtual spheres. “Today, there’s a mix of people working remotely and at the traditional workplace, as opposed to the past year and one-half when everybody was remote,” says Arantes. “The people working remotely need to have equal ability to be seen and heard in collaborations with colleagues gathered in a physical space.”

That’s a challenge, as employees in a meeting room often talk among themselves, whereas remote workers are physically alone. “It’s not uncommon for remote workers to see someone get up in the physical space and write something on a whiteboard; the problem is you can’t see what they’re writing,” she continues. The solution is to design an enclosed space where remote workers feel they can “jump into the conversation”—to be seen and heard along the same lines as those physically in the room, Arantes adds.

Every company is on a journey to create a workplace that makes sense for people to accomplish their goals.

—Beatriz Arantes, WorkSpace Futures manager

In this regard, proximity—the relationship between people, content, displays and cameras—is important. “The physical space needs to be created with a designated camera focused on the whiteboard for remote workers to have the same experience (as those in the room).”

WorkSpace Futures incorporate video technology and cameras positioned around tables, seats and whiteboards into a space, depending on its purpose. The firm encourages the use of shared devices over individual devices. In several designs, a large monitor can be found with the size of people’s faces approximating the size of colleagues in the workspace. “The goal is to encourage equity and inclusion, even though everyone is not physically co-located,” Arantes says.

Delivering equity of experience

A similar design methodology is in scope at Rapt Studio. To create physical spaces that make remote workers feel “not left out,” says Galullo, the firm’s designs promote “equity of experience.”

“You have six people in a conference room with not the best acoustics and eight people in tiny squares on everyone’s tablet,” he explains. “The goal is to make everyone feel their contributions are equal, which is not easy when some faces are 3-inches tall and other faces are normal-sized.”

In this regard, Rapt Studio is investigating telepresence—the use of virtual reality (VR) technology to create the visual and aural sense that people are together in the same space, irrespective of their physical presence. VR headsets can be worn by team members in the physical space to provide a more immersive way to meet with remote colleagues.

Sketch courtesy of Rapt Studio

Another otherworldly idea is the use of holograms to represent remote workers in the physical space. “We’re experimenting with these concepts and are eager to see what the responses to them will be,” Galullo says.

After more than 18 months of working almost exclusively at home, many people long to engage personally with their fellow workers, “to see them smile,” Galullo continues. “There’s no substitution for the socializing effects of people gathered together physically. We know that. Nevertheless, remote work is not going away, requiring a reappraisal of the physical workspace to equitably accommodate everyone.”

Meaningful encounters

TPG Architecture, a New York-based design firm, also has shifted its workspace designs to bring people together in “more meaningful ways,” says Mavis Wiggins, TPG Architecture managing executive/studio creative designer.

“As we have become more accustomed to working from home, we see comfort and choice of work settings taking on a larger role,” Wiggins says. “Some spaces allow for communal and team gatherings, such as enclosed scrum rooms or more open-floor settings. Other spaces include four-person distributed meeting rooms and zoom rooms that are appropriately furnished and lit.”

TPG’s Strategy and Innovation Studio integrates classic design principles with behavioral research to develop workspace designs that address business goals, operations and people. “Our modular solutions are designed with adaptability, agility, flexibility, mobility, and health and wellness in mind,” Wiggins says. “The physical and technological environment has the potential to enhance [employee] performance.”

The Strategy and Innovation Studio is also studying the use of telepresence technologies to ensure the delivery of equitable work experiences. “It’s important for people in remote locations to feel or appear like they are `present’ at the table or in the room, helping everyone collaborate, converse and stay engaged,” she says.

No going back

Each of the design firms attests that a future of flexible work locations requires outside-the-box thinking. In addition to working from home, many employees also convene at so-called “third spaces” like a hotel, public park, café or co-working place, in addition to the traditional office (the first space) and home (the second space).

“Remote work is here to stay; the genie is out of the bottle,” says Wiggins. “People have demonstrated the ability to be productive working remotely. What we miss, however, is the real-time human connections and spontaneity, as well as the ability to mentor with ease.”

We are designing places that embody a company’s mission and culture, places that people want to go to instead of staying at home, and places where people feel they have equal voice and equity of experience.

—David Galullo, CEO and CCO of Rapt Studio

Galullo shares this perspective: “Two decades ago, big tech companies tried to make the office look and feel like an extension of the home by setting up foosball tables and creating rooms for yoga and meditation, but that felt like `home’ to only a percentage of workers.” Rapt Studio’s designs seek instead to “associate emotionally with how people feel about `home’ as a place of belonging,” Galullo adds.

WorkSpace Futures’ designs evoke similar feelings. Arantes says that when people click out of their zoom meetings at home, they have the ability to take time off in private—something not easy to do at the traditional office. To replicate this personal space, the design team created a series of Pod Tents small enough for one person to relax in private, with enough room to house cameras, speakers and a Lume Cube broadcasting lighting if they decide to work or collaborate with colleagues.

Experimentation is the name of the game in redesigning tomorrow’s first space. “It’s still too early to say what the `office of the future’ will look like,” says Galullo, “but we are designing places that embody a company’s mission and culture, places that people want to go to instead of staying at home, and places where people feel they have equal voice and equity of experience.”

Lead photo courtesy of Steelcase