Design for evolving employee needs

The workplace is the foundation of a company’s culture and an overlooked driver of employee engagement. Designer Betsy Vohs says spaces must embrace flexible designs to allow for evolving employee needs in the wake of the pandemic.

“COVID didn’t make the office go away, it just made it more important,” says Vohs, founder of Studio BV, an architecture and planning firm in Minneapolis. While some workplaces became ghost towns in the pandemic, many employees now crave a comeback after long hours sitting at the kitchen table, on video calls in pyjama bottoms, with screaming kids in the background. It’s not just adult company employees want, Vohs says, but the togetherness that drives creativity and innovation.

“Space is the platform for cultural enrichment and engagement. It is the kind of bare facts of culture,” she says. “If you don’t have the things that tie you together, you’re just a bunch of … consultants. The world does not invent the next iPhone or cure cancer doing things that way. We have to be together, and we have to provide spaces where people can bond, connect, mentor, learn, grow, take risks, and be visible.”

“Space is the platform for cultural enrichment and engagement. The world does not invent the next iPhone or cure cancer [without shared spaces].”

– BETSY VOHS

Photo by Corey Gaffer Photography

The Evolution of the Workplace

Vohs has long been interested in how the body responds to its environment, in particular with interiors given her background in architecture and design. “I believe design can change everything for people. So whether you are a small not-for-profit, or you’re world headquarters, that experience of being in a place is important,” she says.

She believes employees will want the feel of their work environment to change moving forward, to fulfill a post-pandemic renewed desire for collaboration and in-person communication. “All that counts is coming together in the office. I hope that is inspiring a call to change. We need to do it together [as an industry] to make things better for people coming out of this,” she says. “Our job’s going to be that much more important now.”

“I think this will finally be a game-changer for modular construction. We must have spaces that are able to do something. They can’t just be static boxes anymore.”

– BETSY VOHS

The onus will be on the industry to create better “interior experiences,” Vohs says. There is an opportunity for companies that provide flexible workplace products that can easily turn a cubby into a conference room, and then back, as needed.

“I think this will finally be a game-changer for modular construction. Because we have to have resiliency in the office plan,” she says. “We must have spaces that are able to do something. They can’t just be static boxes anymore and have us change because we physically need spaces to support health and wellness in ways that aren’t predictable.”

Vohs isn’t alone in thinking the time is now for modular construction. A McKinsey & Company report from 2019 identified that the modular construction industry is poised to scale to more than $100 billion in U.S. and European real estate, delivering $20 billion in annual savings. It identifies the benefits of modular construction as:

  • Reduced build cost and overall lifetime cost of the building
  • Accelerated build schedules
  • Greater certainty on both build times and costs
  • Improved quality of the building

Cost savings and increased quality will allow for greater flexibility in design to respond to the evolving needs of employees due to the pandemic. Before, Vohs says, many organizations looked to provide employees spaces for “focus work” — quiet places to make calls, do research, and write reports. For the future, she sees the workplace as being more open, leaving the closed-door tasks for the home workplace.

“Right now, a lot of my workplace clients are talking about less personal space, and a lot more highly, specifically designed collaboration space,” she says. “It’s a complete change in priorities around collaboration, and being together, and workshops, and just the socialization — the 40% of work that really makes it real.”

She also sees a trend around space that’s more relaxing, with at-home comforts such as art, plants, blankets, and pillows in the meeting spaces — which she has in her workplace.

“I sometimes get asked, ‘what if someone steals them?’ and I think, ‘well, if someone is stealing your blankets, then you’ve got a bigger problem’,” Vohs says with a laugh. “I feel like these softer things change how people feel in a space, and they create opportunities for behavior to be impacted. That is going to be the expectation of the office. It’s more comfortable, it’s softer, it’s a place where you can have more conversations. And when people go back to work, they are going to want to have conversations that were never even remotely in the realm of what you talked about at work before. So that takes a different lens of an office. It can’t look like an art museum.”

Photo by Corey Gaffer Photography

The Experience-Based Workplace Culture

The future workplace will not only encourage employees to come together and collaborate, but be the center of the company’s culture and experiences. It will be about the people, not what they produce.

“I think we’re going to be in an experience-based world after this, because this virtual life is really killing us,” she says.

A sign of progress for Vohs is an advertising agency client who decided, amid the pandemic, that its staff experience is more important than the client’s. As a result, the agency moved out of the downtown core and into a larger space with a deck, located in a walkable neighborhood with many restaurants and cafes.

“They said, ‘our clients will be there for us because we’re talented, but our staff is the talent, and so we have to have a space that supports the staff first, client second.’ I have never heard that. It’s radical for an agency,” Vohs says.

“Those are bold decisions that I don’t think outside of COVID I would see. I just would have never expected it,” she adds. “More people are asking, ‘How can our office be something that’s bigger than our office?”

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