Discussion about how office spaces need to change often focuses on the need for better meeting and gathering space—so that hybrid workers can more easily collaborate and build social connections when in the office.
But research also shows that a top reason that knowledge workers want to go into their offices is to get focused work done. They might not have a space at home where they can work uninterrupted, for example, or they might just find it easier to get into a focused mode after traveling into the office.
How can physical spaces better accommodate the many different needs of workers? To make sense of the countervailing considerations, we spoke with two experts: Janet Pogue McLaurin, an architect and global leader of Gensler’s work sector practices and research, and Anne-Laure Fayard, an ethnographer of work and professor at Nova School of Business & Economics in Lisbon. Here are some of the takeaways from the conversation, which was part of a recent Workvivo event, edited for space and clarity:
On libraries, and how spaces need to change
Pogue McLaurin: I’m hoping we’re going to see far less open-plan cubicles. It’s time. The pendulum had swung really too far to one side on open plan.
We’ve got to have far more access to private spaces. These are private spaces where people can focus and do that deep concentrative work. But it’s also private spaces to do the coaching and the mentoring that we have been missing.
We’ve been designing spaces with open plans for people to focus and then you get up and go into a closed room in order to meet. Maybe we need to reverse that. Maybe we need to open up the space for people to actually come together.
There are all different types of ways that people come together and do group work. There’s ideation, there’s brainstorming, there’s status meetings. Maybe there needs to be an array of more open and semi-open areas.
And you go into private areas when you really need to take that conference call, when you need to be on video, when you’re doing a webinar that should not be done out in the open.
We’re going to see a resurgence of libraries, quiet zones, maybe tech-free zones that may start to pop up. We can activate outdoor spaces and equip those spaces to actually do work, whether it’s the rooftop or the terrace or spaces in between buildings, or just a work cafe, for example.
If people don’t want to be in that space, then it’s not going to get used. So how do we design spaces that not only reflect our organizations and what we do and encourage and foster innovation, interaction, and connections—but are places that people enjoy? It’s really design for people, not efficiency.
Fayard: On top of that is what we call ‘permission’, which is really the organizational culture. Do you feel that it’s okay to be sitting in that place? Pre-pandemic, I saw an innovation consultancy that had a library for head-down quiet time. But nobody used it.
When I started asking why, the junior people all said, ‘We are a very open and extroverted company—it wouldn’t send the right signal.’ When we talked with the senior management, we realized that in fact none of them had ever been in that library. So if you create these spaces, you need to give people permission to use these spaces.
Pogue McLaurin: As we think about post pandemic and coming into the office at different intervals, these spaces can also signal when you’re available.
When we first put a work cafe in our own office, our office leaders would sit down there the first hour of select days, specifically to say, ‘Come talk to me. I’m going to sit here and check email if nobody’s coming and talking to me, but I am sitting here to be interrupted.’ That’s such an important signal, and we have to figure out these new signals moving forward.
‘Third spaces’ and what’s normal for younger workers
Pogue McLaurin: For the younger generations, the number-three reason that they want to come to the office is actually to maximize their individual productivity. They want to be visible to be promoted, and they want to be there to be inspired in terms of creativity and innovation.
That said, they’re really using third places more than the other generations. By third places, I mean coffee shops, libraries, parks and other places that may be outside the company space. Or it could be third-space-like spaces that you’re creating within your office space. The younger generations—particularly Gen Z—really want this opportunity to not just work in an office environment, but to actually work in all these spaces, both in and out of the office.
Fayard: For quite an important portion of this generation, a lot of their interactions are completely remote and virtual. They’re on Discord, for example. They don’t have the same need for physical interactions. I’ve been really challenging myself in the last few months talking with them about what I take as an assumption about work and interactions. And I’m realizing that there’s a part of a population for whom what I think is the norm is not the norm. When we say, ‘We’re not going back to the normal,’ we still have this normal in our head. And some don’t really see it as a normal.