Are Zoom Towns the Future of Cities?

July 27, 2021

Applied Analytics & Data Visualization Strategist, NBBJ

More than a year after the pandemic caused an abrupt shift to working remotely, offices are starting to reopen. However, in many cases, hybrid work policies are here to stay. This year-long work from home experiment showed that some tasks are more productive at home, while others benefit from being in the office (and others, such as essential workers, are required to do their jobs in-person).

According to a recent study by Microsoft, 73% of workers prefer a flexible work environment, and 46% of the global workforce is planning to move now that they can work at least partially in a remote configuration. From the employer perspective, remote work could upend the demand for companies to locate in competitive markets near an established talent pool and offering geographic flexibility could be a talent attraction strategy. If some employees are offered a flexible work environment, and many employers can now hire from anywhere, where might people choose to locate? Enter the concept of “zoom towns.”

Zoom towns are locations that are beginning to see a significant influx of remote workers. Initially, many zoom towns were in vacation destinations like Cape Cod, Massachusetts, Aspen, Colorado and Lake Tahoe, California. But as employers make hybrid and remote options more permanent, zoom towns are evolving to a wider variety of locations, such as Austin, Texas, Charleston, South Carolina and Butte, Montana. Publicly available data has already started to give us a glimpse of the future. The USPS “Change of Address” dataset shows an increase in both overall moves and in net out-migration from larger cities. A national Bankrate/YouGov survey found millennials are most likely to have moved in 2020; movers preferred smaller cities or less-dense neighborhoods and; movers tended to relocate within the same region as their previous address. The survey also revealed that 21% of people relocated for their job, while 17% moved because they can now work from anywhere.

Given the availability of this data, new tools can help employees and employers identify ideal locations for their homes and businesses. A zoom towns location analysis tool developed by our firm uses geographic layers that capture a specific data theme, and compiles those layers to produce a weighted location suitability index for every area in the U.S. For example, an employee is ready to work remotely and move her family out of a major city. Her ideal home is in a location with a temperate climate (more important) and a low tax burden (less important). First, each data layer is classified, giving the best locations a score of 9, and the worst a score of 1. Second, each layer is weighted based on importance. With the layer classification and weighting complete, a simple arithmetic analysis produces the result: the best locations to live with both a temperate climate and low taxes are throughout the middle of the country, in certain locations throughout the Rocky Mountains, and along the Pacific Northwest coast. The analysis is quick and easy, and the employee can now see multiple location options that perhaps she hadn’t previously considered.



As zoom towns continue to see an increase in population, it’s also important to think about how we make these smaller, more remote areas more community-oriented and sustainable. People who are considering or have already moved to a zoom town may need to find new ways to network and connect outside the workplace. Activities like supporting small businesses, volunteering, joining neighborhood or civic associations, and researching local issues and causes allow zoom towns to support and accommodate their new residents, and to thrive as strong, resilient communities.

Additionally, many small towns are not prepared for a large influx of new residents, which may strain resources and cause problems like congestion, unaffordability and infrastructure constraints. This so-called “amenity migration” can have destructive consequences if not planned for and managed, according to researchers from the University of Utah. Adequate infrastructure, denser development, cleaner and more accessible public transportation, and access to a stable, fast Internet connection can all help zoom towns to retain both new and existing residents. Zoom towns may also help counteract the widely researched effects of “brain-drain” – the loss of highly-educated residents from rural environments to large cities.

Zoom towns do not mean an end for more traditional large cities, or the destruction of urban growth. Rather, zoom towns may need to be more like cities, adapting to challenges such as housing and transportation, and developing sustainably. With new tools and the ability to choose where and how we live and work, the two can coexist and even benefit one another.

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How Can Rest Build Creativity, Focus and Wellness at Work?

Five Strategies to Support Rest in the Office

July 15, 2021

Principal, Workplace Strategist, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This is the sixth and final article in a six-part series on five different work modes. The first piece outlined a framework for each work mode, while subsequent posts explored a single work mode in greater depth — including focus, collaborate, learn, socialize and rest.

This post was co-authored by Kelly Griffin and Edwin Beltran.

The coronavirus crisis has shown more than ever that rest is essential to life — and especially work. It is critical to being effective, productive and creative. Yet rest is typically viewed as a counterpoint to work and a waste of time. While society typically doesn’t think of rest as a critical knowledge-building work mode, it is important to understand the role rest plays in the ability to generate new ideas and build knowledge. As organizations soon return to offices, it is time to think of rest as an essential work mode too.

Neuroscience points to the incredible benefits of rest. A NASA study found that a 26-minute nap can dramatically improve alertness by 54% and performance by 34%. Other studies show that when we sleep, our brains are incredibly active, removing toxins to make way for new growth. (And poor sleep has tremendous costs, not just physically but financially as well. Experts say that U.S. businesses lose $411 billion annually due to reduced performance and lost work from sleep deprivation.)

In the post-pandemic return to the office, restorative rest will be even more essential to health, wellbeing and the ability perform at the highest level in the workplace, both individually and as a member of an organization. The office fortunately can provide these valuable benefits — with the comfort and expanded flexibility found in current work-from-home setups. Here are five strategies to implement in the workplace so employees are refreshed and rejuvenated so creativity and productivity can flourish.

Embrace a culture of rest. To encourage rest in the workplace, it is helpful to first create or reframe organizational guidelines around rest activities. Consider when, where and how employees are most productive when their mental and physical wellbeing are supported. Engage with and observe staff: What restful activities are they drawn to and where do they occur? The key is to be intentional and keep an open mind when implementing new procedures and configurations. An office “rest ambassador” that champions the power of rest can provide a supportive link between staff, leadership and the design team.

Extend opportunities to rest outside the workplace. Promoting restful activities outside the workplace can be beneficial, while encouraging the importance of rest in the community. Cabanas or benches underneath a tree can offer joyful, calming places for respite. Outdoor public spaces with immersive media experiences that feature customizable nature scenes and sounds from around the world can bring the powerful benefits of nature to an urban city block. These scenes can be tailored to adjust to different times of day, seasons, holidays or visitor preferences.

In addition, inspirational slowdown routes or scenic “hikes” that reconnect employees and visitors with the purpose and mission of an organization can re-energize and inspire. For example, restorative, landscaped paths lined with scented plants like rosemary, jasmine and honeysuckle can create moments of rest. They can also be strategically placed at arrival and exit zones and even transform the experience of walking through a parking lot from car to building, bus stop, or drop-off area.

Provide active rest zones to restore and rejuvenate. Rest can be an active and extroverted experience. Areas that allow teams to unplug together can offer unique ways to collectivity unwind, connect with colleagues and perhaps even learn a new skill. For example, sound-proofed music rooms — outfitted with a piano, guitars and drums — can enable staff to come together to create uplifting music that enhances cognition, lowers stress and even improves the immune system. In addition, maker spaces and art studios can also provide opportunities for teams to transfer the creative energy of a soothing hobby into innovation-building and problem-solving at work.

Furthermore, multi-purpose areas or conference spaces can transform into areas for calming group meditation, breathing exercise and yoga stretches with flexible furniture that can be stored away when needed, customizable circadian lighting and built-in speakers with peaceful music. Furniture selections in these spaces could be cleverly tailored to successfully support the dual functions of collaboration and leisure with the ability to change from formal, upright table-side postures to softer, lounging postures. These informal postures can help people feel more relaxed and better able to share ideas.

Offer calming respite spaces for positive passive distractions. Peaceful areas in the office to engage in low-key activities can provide employees much needed opportunities to recharge from the stressors of the day. These spaces can also allow the mind to wander, helping people reflect on bits of information or problems in the background while engaging in other low-demand activities. The best ideas can present themselves when they are least expected.

To refresh the mind, these more introverted spaces can feature garden-like elements that provide the inherent calming benefits of nature. For instance, an indoor room filled with immune-boosting lavender, air-purifying snake plants and natural light — as well as views or access to outdoor green spaces and porches — can offer a meditative place to get away. These spaces could also feature the rejuvenating sounds of running water and gentle bird calls. In healthcare settings, Snoezelen rooms — multi-sensory rooms with gentle lighting, relaxing sounds, soothing scents and tactile materials — have become popular not only as therapeutic offerings for patients, but also as restorative relaxation environments for staff.

These sensory experiences aren’t limited to dedicated rooms of course. They can also include napping zones with comfortable high-backed chairs at the end of a hallway to extra-long window seats in stair landings, both providing relaxing places to reset and reflect. In Google’s South Lake Union workplace, rest in the office is an important component, from a circadian-lit “treehouse” to a jellyfish lounge with dimmed lighting.

Finally, consider implementing a range of workplace setups, from the simple to the advanced. The strategies discussed above can be designed at three levels:

  • Simple. The easiest to implement with changes to behaviors, culture and technology.
  • Medium. Is more robust and increases effectiveness not only through changes to behaviors but strategies to “green up” the space and adjust furniture.
  • Advanced. Provides the maximum benefit with additional spaces and programs that support all aspects of rest.

For example, the hallway napping niche discussed earlier could expand into a dedicated napping zone that supports multiple senses. This could include a designated room in the office with a lounge chair, sound-reducing materials, gentle lighting and cooler temperatures.

Rest has never been considered a critical work mode but it should be. Society is learning that humans, when tired and stressed, do not bring their best ideas to work. The workplace design strategies that support productive rest outlined above can boost wellness and productivity — essential to an organization’s long-term success.

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Think COVID Shapes The Future Office? Think Again.

The overlooked influences that will more strongly define where we work.

July 8, 2021

Partner, NBBJ


The impact of COVID is extraordinary. An unexpected, yet accelerated conversation has compressed a century of debate on how to work better into a one-year dialog.

Our comfort level – high or low – with offices leads to an expedited resolve to address long-lived conversations around density, commute, work mode, remote connectivity, and physical health. It’s also caused us to question more deeply how work affects life (and vice-versa), what an office provides that we can’t get at home, and the impact of our jobs on our communities and our mental wellbeing. We have elevated both personal and collective discernment around what is needed to be our best.

This experience also has resurfaced not only much of what was already known, but what is often overlooked – or underappreciated. We are social beings, yet we are unique individuals. We enjoy convenience, but don’t necessarily learn well when just one click away. We are inherently connected to nature, but not all of us have direct access to that benefit.

As businesses contemplate their next workplace, leaders will be asked to answer multiple questions that impact recruiting, productivity culture, and experience. That response will likely center around one initial fundamental ask: why should employees return?

Many agree that a physical workplace offers a chance to engage in ways we can’t remotely, and yet a remote environment provides control and refuge that doesn’t happen in an office. Many also acknowledge that our next workplace – whatever that is – cannot be the one we previously knew. Space, behaviors, and schedules must all shift to accommodate learnings from our remote experiences. Offices – or whatever they will be known as – must now provide experiences and benefits we can’t get elsewhere.

However, as these messy, unique, and highly-personal situations are contemplated, there may be a risk of missing specific cues that are critical to long-term support of the best talent and ideas, regardless of where they do their work. Here are five areas of organizational awareness that should not be overlooked:

Most employees of innovative companies are eager for learning opportunities that continuously provoke new levels of awareness. Although much of that learning may be specific to how to improve skillsets and feed curiosity, that drive is also related towards discovering personal style and approach. Critical career guidance is often less about who one wants to become and more about the traits they hope to avoid (Harvard Business Review – the Good, the Bad, the Productive).

Dedicated advocacy programs coupled with “structured serendipity” – the intentional overlapping of colleagues through schedule and work modes – can lead to a perpetual education loop. Peripheral training – sessions that are less specific about doing tasks better and more geared towards personal improvement and advancement – is an opportunity to create well-rounded employees who are better students, teachers, and citizens.

For years, organizations selected a location based on where they could do the most business. Talent followed, arriving in those places in droves but sometimes settling for the local lifestyle offered. As costs of living and technological advancements rose exponentially, work locations shifted to places where companies could discover emerging talent. Proximity to universities, research institutions, and airports were key attributes. Now, as individuals prioritize lifestyle, companies are realizing their real estate “presence” may likely need to be anywhere. Talent is choosing a preferred way of life, and businesses are following – a complete reversal in the conventional chain.

Reconsider what a convening places is; the future office will be versatile and scaled to suit, fitting in everything from downtown towers to shopfronts to community centers to homes.

From the start of the pandemic, there has been an understandable concern around “haves and haves-nots.” We know that in-person collaborations often start before – and continue well beyond – the scheduled meeting time. For those calling in for specific time frames, those important conversations will be missed, putting those in a remote setting at a potential disadvantage. There is much discussion around means and technologies to address these circumstances, including protocols for hybrid mode versus full remote or in-person mode. A bigger gap, however, may likely be growing between generations. Although technology makes it seem as though there is a level playing field, those who have years of experience in either the industry or with an organization tend to have established relationships, networks, and institutional knowledge regarding how to successfully lead. They also are often later in their career, and their remote environment tends to be more conducive to the work they do – more space and fewer interruptions. These experiences skew the reality of what most of a workforce might be experiencing.

What an in-person space offers to younger or newer employees can help address this disparity. What a company provides for its employees at home can as well.

In the next five years, the majority of our workforce will consist of a generation that has witnessed social injustices, a changing climate, a mental health crisis, and a pandemic. They will expect their employers to not only take positions but, more importantly, actions on how to combat these issues. The environments and experiences of a day at work will be scrutinized not just through a lens of personal growth, but through a deliberate focus on how that day makes life, society, and the planet better. Ideally, employees don’t have to choose between volunteering and a career.

Exposure to impact – and opportunities for further contribution – should be a part of every company’s dialog. Narratives and physical links to these outcomes are a great start; co-sharing spaces with those you’re impacting might bring more meaning.

The tie between a company’s business vision (i.e. what it does in the market) to a company’s ethos (how it reflects its beliefs) is an emerging metric many employees are considering. Much like the generational expectations noted above, employees are selecting where to work based on how well a company “walks the walk.” The more palpable the benefit of one’s work on others (socially, environmentally, economically, culturally), the stronger the emotional tie between a job and a contribution. Consider moving beyond the passive customer connection (displays and stories) to active customer relationships (embedded service centers and partnerships).

The experiences an organization provides for a customer extends beyond simply how they use an interface. When a team can sense the value they bring to the customers they serve, they not only improve their awareness of a quickly evolving market, but of how to improve the product being created.

After a year of incubated debate, there will be tremendous pressure to provide an ultimate outcome. Some organizations will return to the office as if nothing happened, others will move forward as if the office never existed. Most will occupy an interstitial space that ranges from furniture solutions and revised sharing ratios to a radical rethinking of how physical environments offer restorative experiences.

It’s becoming more obvious that 2021 will be the big experiment, so treat this upcoming year like the scientific method – create a hypothesis, test, iterate, and start again. Also recognize that the best outcomes in life usually require some sacrifice. In our personal lives, diet and exercise in exchange for better health is a daily reminder of this trade-off. At work, it will be important to assess where individuals and companies should stretch for greater fulfillment and personal reward. These less-discussed but no less important influences will likely be the true drivers of the next workplace.

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