Editor’s Note: This blog is part of our Design Forecast blog series, looking at what’s next in 2023 and beyond. Here, we sit down with Gensler Work leaders Natalie Engels and Elizabeth Brink to discuss what’s next for the future of workplace and workplace design.
What specific challenges are clients coming to you with right now in the Work sector, and how are you addressing them?
Elizabeth: Many of our clients are still in experimentation mode. They are still experimenting with what hybrid work looks like, what their policies are, how much space they need, and how they are going to use the space that they have as they try to figure out how to create a workplace that really supports what they need and what their people need.
As we saw in Gensler’s recent workplace survey, attitudes are still evolving, and that’s going to continue to evolve as different companies continue finding what works for them. And what works for one company may not work for another. It is not one-size-fits-all.
Natalie: Before the pandemic, there was a formula in what worked across the board. Because everyone had desks, everyone had conferencing, you pretty much worked with your team in the location you were in, and each company essentially was figuring out what amenities they wanted to offer on top of this based on the policies that supported their spaces, and this was the formula. Now, there is not a specific formula. We cannot just rely on what was known, and it is going to take a while to figure this out. That is where experimentation is so important.
How will increased global volatility continue to require new ways of planning and experimentation? And how will this impact workplace design?
Natalie: I’m seeing more pilot spaces, but they’re pretty small scale, like testing a room to figure out what type of equipment is needed for a great hybrid meeting experience, or putting in a deep focus space. However, we are just starting to hear that clients are wanting to do an entire floor to really test a full kit of flexible, adaptable spaces.
Elizabeth: I agree. We are seeing small-scale piloting, but we are also seeing, as it is starting to scale up more to half a floor or a floor, a real integration and testing out different technology solutions. These companies are not just piloting space — they are piloting the technology integrated with it more holistically. We are seeing that even in what we are doing here in our L.A. office, where we have done a huge in-depth study around what people are wanting from the workplace. We are looking at how we are going to phase it out, and the technology side of it is so integral to deciding what those spaces need to be.
How can we reimagine the office as a place that will bring people together and give them the spaces they need to do their work and be more productive?
Elizabeth: When we were all first started to come back to the office, there was so much joy in simply getting together and sitting and having a coffee with people, that everyone was so focused on those social spaces. Now, people want to get their work done and to be effective. And so, the mindset has shifted. If people are going to invest their time in commuting into the office, they need it to be for a place that works for them. They see the commute, not as a given, but as an investment. The workplace must work for people.
Natalie: There is so much flexibility right now, even in the days that workers choose to come into the office, that [companies and building owners] cannot quite get enough mass momentum in office buildings so that they are highly operational and it all pencils out. The real estate standards must shift. When we talk to our clients, or out in the industry, we are still hearing that price per seat or price per person is what is being utilized for real estate decisions. There must be another way to value a full space — if it’s going to be highly flexible, and they’re not going to do 100% dedicated seats. We think that a new language needs to be introduced on the real estate side. It is that mix, dialed in for that company. But again, it is not an easy formula.
How is the “flight to experience” shifting how building owners and developers position — and reposition — their office buildings?
Natalie: Tenants will continue their flight to experience — giving a competitive advantage to Class A spaces in prime locations with the right mix of high-quality, differentiated amenities in and around the building, such as onsite medical care, childcare, and more. As companies place less of an emphasis on efficiency and more focus on shared experiences, developers should prioritize strategies that bring people and neighborhoods together and create a sense of belonging, such as outdoor workspace, cafés, wellness spaces, and mixed-use environments that add value for tenants and provide more meaning and purpose for workers.
Elizabeth: Coming out of pandemic, people have been choosing to engage in experiences that feel meaningful to them. From restaurants, to concerts, to sporting events — they are choosing to go to wonderful experiences at higher rate, closer to home than before the pandemic. All those experiences have commutes. People are pickier now about time and exposure for experience. They are going to choose those experiences that draw people in. Companies should focus on experience to get people into the office, to be more effective, and to do their work.
Natalie: There is something about how places make us feel that needs to come into the work environment. We have focused on destinations or space types, but not the emotive response to the space. Is there excitement? Do you feel protected? Do you feel creative? We will need to incorporate this soon.
Another trend we are seeing is ongoing competition for top talent that crosses industries — the energy sector is seeking tech workers, for example. How is the competition for talent impacting workspace design?
Natalie: There is an opportunity for all industries who are trying to attract tech workers to do simple things in order to do so. Because these big corporations have so much real estate, and so many different space types that go into these campuses, or across the world, it is a huge investment. These other industries, like the energy sector, they are where tech was 10 years ago. Because of this their investment is going to be much smaller, and they can do what is needed for that talent now, as they start to build. And that is going to be an interesting dynamic, as these other industries can solve for the needs of tech workers faster than some of the larger, more mature industries.
Elizabeth: Now, you see industries like aerospace, biotech, consumer goods, and financial services — so many industries are tech, and they are needing the software engineers and that kind of talent and the spaces that support them. All these mashups will be shifting how people need to be able to work with one another in the workplace.
Are there certain types of spaces you think will help attract those type of workers?
Natalie: Deep focus space is one, and providing the amenities that tech workers are used to, like food & beverage, and, to some degree, wellness. And then, the right fit up for a neighborhood, the meeting room diversity, focus rooms, video rooms, and project team rooms. The tech industry has had time to dial that in, but now, they must shift to more flexibility and what will work with hybrid.
What’s driving the shift in workplace metrics — measuring experience outcomes, such as engagement, well-being, and equity — rather than traditional KPIs?
Elizabeth: A lot of companies track engagement metrics, happiness metrics, and other experience metrics. I have not seen it so much with workplace, but I think that is the direction it is going. Traditional KPIs are something you can really define and hit in space planning. The challenge is that you cannot really define the experience metrics until afterwards. And so, part of this piloting and experimentation is looking at a lot of the more qualitative aspects of design. We all know how important the intangibles, like joy, are. We are going to start seeing more of a linkage between those intangibles into some of these happiness or engagement metrics.
Natalie: This is where we need to understand what we are trying to measure, and how would we measure it, including the intangible. Is there a way that you could start to add in an intangible factor as you’re space planning?
Elizabeth: Some of the metrics are starting to look at things like dwell time and different ways of measuring diverse types of seating, so that it’s not just seats at assigned desks and offices but starting to measure new metrics like peak time occupancy. And there will probably be some follow up measurement as it goes. So those ways of looking at planning KPIs differently. That is still experimenting, and it is certainly less concrete.
People want answers, but it is more nuanced, it is much more complex, and you really must know your company. There is so much more to consider when creating a workplace that works.
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