4 things companies have to get right in the workplace this year

A workplace strategist and the content director of a design publication walk into a bar. Well, figuratively speaking, that is. In this case, it’s a virtual interview with Make Space editors who are mapping what lies ahead for the workplace in 2022.

In a business environment where everyone wants data, inputs, insight, and leading indicators on what to expect this year, we thought: Who better to ask about what lies next than two people who spend every day predicting, strategizing, and talking to others about where things are going for the built environment?

Meet: Cynthia Milota, Director of Workplace Strategy at Ware Malcomb, and Jen Levisen, Editor-in-Chief at Mortarr, who shared their thoughts on what lies ahead.

Cynthia Milota, Director of Workplace Strategy at Ware Malcomb
Cynthia Milota, Director of Workplace Strategy at Ware Malcomb

1. Piloting should be commonplace for those who adapt the workplace

Milota’s advice is sage, and practical: “Make haste slowly,” she said. “It’s an oxymoron, but the reality is the quickest way to accomplish something is to proceed deliberately. Not — start, and stop, start, and stop.”

In a highly unpredictable environment, she advises organizations to continuously invest in forward momentum without expecting their strategy to be perfect right out of the box. 

Milota describes this as an intentional prototype or pilot approach, to see what works and what doesn’t in the short run. 

“If you have an iterative release model, as you consider your return to work, then that takes the pressure off to have one great, fabulous solution,” she said. “And of course, incorporate a feedback loop. People don’t want to be changed. They want to integrate and make sure they’re a part of whatever it is that changes.”

Jen Levisen, Editor-in-Chief at Mortarr
Jen Levisen, Editor-in-Chief at Mortarr

2. Increase sustainability through greater investment in adaptive reuse 

For Levisen, architects, designers and those who build space are talking a lot more about adaptive reuse, she says.

It’s not a new concept, but as someone who interviews leaders from a range of design businesses, Levisen says she hears about it a lot more often.

More than 4,200 office buildings were created through adaptive reuse in the past 100 years, according to Commercial Search. But the conversion of adapting a space from one purpose to another is particularly relevant now, thanks to changing needs brought on by the pandemic, says Levisen. 

Even back in 2017, a Deloitte analyst predicted that over the next decade, “90% of the development will likely be focused on renovation and adaptive reuse of existing buildings.” The analyst also suggested that “adaptive reuse and restoration can be 16% cheaper in terms of construction costs and take 18% less execution time.” 

Levisen thinks commercial construction is uniquely positioned to — and should — lead new, expanded conversations on adaptive reuse. 

“We are the built environment,” she said. “Everything around us is our industry, and we touch all of it. We are responsible for how it’s built, we’re responsible for what it’s built with.”

Levisen says there are other incentives for adaptive reuse such as: 

  • A long list of tax incentives offered to projects that reuse an existing building rather than taking on the environmental cost of building a new space.
  • Expanded engagement with local communities who have history and connection with a building already in place. Adaptive reuse often has heritage requirements.
DIRTT Dallas DXC
Photo by James John Jetel

3. Integrate tech and “right-sized” meeting spaces for intentional hybrid engagement

Bad design leads to challenges around engaging staff in a hybrid work environment, and Milota says it’s more important than ever to bridge the gap between those in office and those working from home. 

“This is not new news, but the pandemic has accelerated the notion of proximity bias, or presence bias,” she says.

Human communication often happens most organically when people are in the same physical space as their coworkers. For example, the “meeting after the meeting” that occurs as people are walking back to their desks when in office, says Milota. 

How do you alleviate proximity bias when some of your staff are connecting remotely, but others are in the same room as you? Milota says you can inspire more genuine, intentional engagement in these hybrid scenarios with a few strategies: 

  • “Right-sized” meeting rooms, and having a workplace that offers a variety of differently sized rooms so that the optimal amount of space is available for any scenario. For instance, you don’t want to have two people in a 10-person boardroom, says Milota. The ability to easily adapt a space with modular components can be useful here.
  • Integrated technology that works well, at both ends of a hybrid scenario — in the office boardroom, and at the remote work location.
  • Provision of necessary training, protocols, and change management strategies so that people are empowered to properly use the tech provided.
  • Have a sponsor in the room who will ask meeting attendees if they can hear and see presentations, and purposely engage those who are quiet.

For Levison, the hybrid workplace done right is exciting. “I have enjoyed seeing the accessibility of our industry grow,” she said. “Pre-pandemic, you would have to make showroom appointments and set up times to visit — it seemed more of a shuttered industry. Now, we’ve needed to transform with remote work, and the accessibility people have in a more digital landscape really opens doors for more accessibility and connectivity.”

DIRTT Dallas DXC
Photo by James John Jetel

4. Attract and retain talent through an “ecosystem of spaces”

The concept of creating workplaces that are destinations, rather than obligations, has come up a lot in the past two years. Milota says putting this mantra to practice requires thinking beyond the functional design of physical office space, though. 

The most innovative companies focus on creating work environments that are part of an “ecosystem of spaces,” which extend far beyond office needs, she says.

One of the standouts for Milota is Bell Works, located in Holmdel, New Jersey. The self-proclaimed “Metroburb” (a little metropolis in suburbia) is an ecosystem of technology, offices, retail, dining, hospitality, and more. 

Levisen agrees, citing the Dayton’s Project in Minneapolis as another example, where Transwestern as the developer and Gensler as the architect and design lead took a department store and revitalized it into a multi-use building.

“With the Dayton’s Project, [the designers] really paid attention to the community impact of the building and how that building made people feel.”

Milota says these ecosystem-like settings can also be created on a building level by providing recreational programming, childcare and other services, in a communal and mutually beneficial set of spaces.

As for the setup of offices, we should expect fewer “owned” workstations, says Milota. But to compete with the comforts of home and the increased demand for more amenities, companies should avoid maxing out the capacity of a space. 

“When you’re in the office, your desk is going to be bigger and better,” Milota says. “Your desk is going to compete with how you have your home office tricked out, so what’s the quality of space that is going to attract you [to the workplace]?”  

Ultimately, the most forward-thinking companies are already engaging in these types of “repositioning” projects, says Milota. But they can’t achieve success working alone in a silo. Whether a company is reaching out to their landlord or other tenants, these communities can only be created thanks to a complementary blend of both people and space working seamlessly together — not one or the other. 

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