When the pandemic sent everyone fleeing from offices, the ways and environments in which people worked shifted. Employees realized they could create their own workplace, their own schedule and work from many different spaces—including those which energized them to do their best work.
Michael Plitkins is cofounder and CTO of Spatial. Founded in 2017, Spatial's virtual soundscapes are redefining the human experience.
With this reality, and with many companies requiring employees to return to work at least part time, a unique opportunity has presented itself to reset what the future of the workplace will be. Savvy companies are beginning to take new approaches, whether it be through added flexibility or enhanced benefits to redesigned spaces and experiences that make them want to come back to the office.
In this article, I will look at how companies can rethink their office space as we evolve our workspaces.
Workplace innovation teams have to balance important areas of focus and collaboration as they welcome employees back to the office. They are looking to add flexibility, polling employees to hear what is important to them, evaluating existing spaces and what changes might need to be made and exploring new technologies that can be layered into the work environment.
Many companies are also creating a Work Place Value Proposition: a collection of values, incentives and well-being initiatives that make physical workspaces appealing to employees. Employers need to make intentional changes to spaces offering more human-centric designed workspaces.
Several companies, such as LinkedIn, have already made the effort to create unique workspaces that foster collaboration. The focus so far has been more on aesthetics and design. While the latter are definitely important building blocks for a human-centric design, there are other areas such as sound, light and shared experiences that are being explored. Although early in this process, there are a variety of ways these intentional changes are coming to life in the workplace. These include two types of defined spaces:
• Collaboration and shared activity spaces.
• Focus and stress-free rooms.
In many workplaces, companies are defining privacy at work and how to balance the collaboration and focus spaces. In 2014, Harvard Business Review defined workspaces focus on:
1. Acoustical (Can we hear each other?).
2. Visual (Can we see each other?).
3. Territorial (Do I have a place that’s just for me?).
Let's look at how these three workspace factors have been updated for the "Office Reset."
Noise levels are the principal driver of a negative response on personal productivity. In a recent survey, Leesman found that only 28% of employees were satisfied with the noise levels in their offices in 2013. This increased to only 36% in 2022 showing that acoustics needs to improve.
One study performed by University of California at Irvine found that it takes 23 minutes to get back on task after an interruption. The data suggests that people compensate for interruptions by working faster, but this comes at a price: experiencing more stress, higher frustration, time pressure and effort.
It is important for companies to create workspaces that nurture employee auditory needs by finding the balance between public and private workspaces. Open office spaces often result in unwanted auditory distractions. One such technology that is being implemented in workspaces today is the introduction of a low-level, ambient background soundscape.
By harnessing the therapeutic qualities of sound, soundscapes can mask disruptive sounds that can divert our attention. This masking effect is particularly effective in open office setups where multiple conversations and activities are happening simultaneously. By minimizing the intelligibility of these sounds, sound masking tunes out the distractions and can help by reducing stress, promoting relaxation and positively impacting the mood of people in these spaces.
Traditionally designed workspace with the intent to reduce unwanted visual distractions led to the introduction of the cubicle. According to the Harvard Business Review article cited above, “cubicles still dominate the North American office landscape, and more real estate is allocated for individual workspaces than for collaboration activities.” This leaves little opportunity for the office reset to create spaces that allow employees to choose their working environment.
According to a recent Gensler report, Returning to the Office, organizations must provide an ecosystem of diverse spaces to support a desirable new mix of experiences. Workplaces which are both effective and offer a great experience offer a range of work settings from quiet zones and focus rooms to innovation hubs and maker spaces. These types of quiet zones can offer employees the opportunity to reduce unwanted visual distractions without being confined to a cubicle.
As employees return to the office, one preconceived value of the workplace was an individual space—a home for your family photos and souvenirs from your last vacation. While the comforts of an assigned desk feel personal, after evaluating the office landscape and rethinking the value of the "office reset," do assigned workspaces still have value?
According to CNN Business, unassigned seating in the office, sometimes referred to as "hoteling" or "hot desking," isn’t a new concept. "But the pandemic push toward remote and hybrid work is leading more companies to adopt it." And as Work Design Magazine pointed out in 2021, "the 'unassigned' workplace provides a truly agile work environment. Working from home has shown us that we do not need to be tethered to an individually assigned desk in the office. A workplace built around employee choice creates a completely different employee experience which caters for our differences and diverse needs."
In other words, employers need to leave behind pre-pandemic notions of the office environment and think about how to build spaces that will not only entice workers to come back, but will help them thrive.
With research pointing to the impact and importance of human-centric design—and in particular sound and visual—there is a big opportunity ahead for employers and workplace designers alike to reevaluate their approach to office design and make it more compelling.
As these design concepts continue to percolate, there are multiple pathways and new technologies available that make this space one to watch over the coming year.