Breaking News: the (fill in the blank) office layout isn’t right for everyone!
The right design strategy comes down to each individual client—their culture, their employees, and the current and future needs of their business and processes. Like the Hermès Birkin bag, made to order and worth the wait. However, whether talking accessories or workplace, there are certain fundamentals that are equally critical for rave reviews. Let’s dive into the 10 Moments of Truth that are essential for creating workplace environments where both people and place can perform at their best… spaces that enrich the user experience and encourage the cultural intangibles that go hand-in-hand with attracting and retaining talented, happy people.
1. First Impressions
On a recent business trip, I was looking forward to checking into a boutique hotel about which I’d heard great reviews. Architecture on point, lobby design spot-on. The intention had clearly been for a personal and interactive check-in experience, given the low-key reception area and comfy chairs arranged before a concierge-style desk. But it was after 11pm and there was no one there to greet me, not even a sign saying, “ring bell for service.” Somehow, flawless design and a great idea no longer mattered.
With so many factors shaping the first impression, we like to use the acronym FUMIFU (First Use Must Inspire Future Use) as a guideline for ourselves and our clients. In other words, if someone’s first experience of something is great, they are likely to come back for more. Along with excellent design and thoughtful signage, immediate acknowledgment by another human goes a long way to creating the sort of arrival experience that will inform first impressions and increase the likelihood of a return visit.
2. Feeling Grounded in the Space
Once a visitor gets all the FUMIFU feels, it’s time to ensure that they feel grounded in the space. Whether it’s a hotel lobby or a creative workplace, the environment should reflect the client’s brand, culture, and values. This is where designers have the opportunity to interpret the corporate ethos—or in some cases, develop it from scratch—to create unique, memorable, and high-performing spaces. Case in point, at the ZGF Los Angeles office, employees and guests are greeted at reception and are immediately immersed in the action in our great room-style communal area. Multiple furniture settings offer varied, comfortable seating options in proximity to the lively pantry and our “super-automatic” La Cimbali espresso machine. Our business runs on intellectual collision and this is ground zero!
We spend our days connected to WiFi, but it’s important to stay logged into nature too. The many benefits of biophilic design—increased focus and productivity, reduced feelings of stress—are undeniable advantages when it comes to wellness in the built environment. However, before sticking a plant in the corner and high-fiving your neighbor “because biophilia,” it’s important to point out that biophilic design thinking applies to the entire setting, not just a natural element here or there. Direct and indirect experiences of nature all come into play. A full-spectrum palette for workplace well-being could include living walls, access to natural light and/or a circadian lighting program that mimics daylighting, operable windows for fresh air, and natural materials, shapes, and forms.
4. Where’s the Food? (And More Coffee!)
The old windowless “kitchen” in which to store your lunch and maybe burn some popcorn has thankfully been replaced by open and inviting café-style spaces. Designing a space that will encourage employees to get away from their desks, stick around, and make connections is a key contributor to fostering a positive office culture. In the design phase of almost every project, we hear the client say, “most people eat at their desks, we don’t need a big café space.” Nevertheless, we persist and it’s always the new café that draws rave reviews for activity and collaboration well beyond the lunch hour.
5. Taking the Scenic Route
We have all heard the hype around skipping the elevator, taking the stairs, getting our 10,000 steps in. While working movement into your day is essential for wellness, that’s not the only reason “alternate routes” are trending in workplace design. The Escher-inspired stairs at Expensify Portland or the dramatic, ramped boardwalk at Google’s Spruce Goose in LA, encourage serendipitous encounters, enable meetings-on-the-go, and super-charge contact and connectivity with the rest of the office. If in doubt, go the scenic route!
6. Places for Collaborative Work
Open or enclosed, an office without alternative spaces for collaborative work is like a cocktail party with no bar: duh, what are we even doing here? Providing bright, airy, inspiring zones for heads-together work fosters a supportive, team-focused environment and increased opportunities for the development of new ideas. The best collaborative spaces also allow for alone-together focused work. In a digital age where most employees could do their job working remotely, the sense of community and the benefits of collaboration are key factors keeping the workplace relevant.
7. A Place to Get Away
A packed schedule, a nosey coworker, a demanding boss. Inevitably, there will be times when team members—and the quality of their work—will benefit from a little distance. Open floor plans create environments that are fantastic for collaborative work but don’t always provide places to get a little headspace. Sound-proofed nap pods, phone rooms, semi-private nooks, and “quiet car”-style shared spaces offer pockets of calm and respite for those who need to decompress and refocus.
9. Tech Support
Bottom line, when the tech is working seamlessly, everything is great. But if it isn’t, all the bells and whistles of your award-winning, professionally photographed and published workplace fly out the window. So, too, does all sense of calm and productivity. Designing with a comprehensive understanding of a client’s technology needs is essential to creating spaces that will continue to perform and impress long after the honeymoon period is over. Small details such as ample and readily accessible power outlets and USB charging ports are, frankly, compulsory. From desks to conference tables, and even soft sofas, we specify furniture with built-in power connectivity wherever possible. We also pay close attention to integrated presentation tools, such as one-click wireless sharing of content in team rooms and conference rooms, and intuitive systems for initiating video conferences. Finally, taking a page (and some liberties) from “Mommie Dearest”, let’s not forget the most important tech note of all…no exposed cables, EVER!
9. My Desk
When it comes to workplace strategy and desking layouts, we always “build for day one, plan for day two.” At every stage, office layouts and density should be functional, conducive to productivity, and keep team members in proximity with one another. To ensure flexibility, longevity, and preservation of the overall design quality of the environment, I like to start by drawing the densest condition first, so that Day One is more about erasing and Day Two is more like maturing gracefully (no Botox required). My prediction for the future of workplace design is that clients will expect us to do for the desk what we’ve been doing with ancillary and amenity spaces over the last 10 years—it’s time to make desk space as interesting and engaging as the café space!
10. Um, Where’s the Bathroom?
It’s last on the list, but perhaps it shouldn’t be. The bathroom! It’s one of the two spaces that drive residential resale value and I would argue it’s THE space that many people use to judge a hotel room, hot new restaurant, or even an airport. Ironically, in workplace design, this space is often ignored, under-designed, and value-engineered, yet it is the one room that most visitors and every employee will visit daily. Think about the last time you saw a thoughtfully designed restroom and how that affected your overall impression of the place. A memorable workplace restroom doesn’t have to be over the top or even incredibly expensive. A little bit of color, thoughtful material or pattern choices, flattering lighting, and great mirrors usually do the trick. A number of new cubicle partition products are expanding the options for restroom design, too. And please, don’t forget about the ceilings! If your workplace restroom is otherwise Instagram-worthy, don’t ruin it with acoustical tiles.
With a career in architecture spanning 28 years, James Woolum has significant experience designing corporate, healthcare, research, and institutional environments. His design approach leads to honest, authentic, and user-focused solutions deeply rooted in the unique culture, process, and community of each client. James has led design and workplace strategy efforts for a variety of media, technology, and financial services clients, such as Google, Publishers Clearing House, and California Air Resources Board. James is a member of both the American Institute of Architects and the Commercial Interior Design Association. He holds a Bachelor of Architecture from the University of Southern California.