How Space Impacts Creativity in the Hybrid Workplace

A Research Endeavor to Improve Problem-Solving Through Design

February 25, 2022

Partner, NBBJ


The first time I heard author Daniel Pink speak about creativity was in 2003. As a futurist, he projected the employment challenges society would face because the jobs we’d steadily relied on were quickly becoming anything but. Roles that were “routine, rule-based, single discipline and managed” were disappearing, or at least becoming less important. Even two decades ago, the fields of accounting, law, manufacturing and retail were feeling this impact. In Pink’s words, work in the 21st century would be conceptual, empathic and big picture—perhaps not surprisingly, the very traits of creativity that make us distinctly human.

As an architect, I practice in a field where such creativity is paramount. To address critical issues from environmental impact and human health to urban integration and social inclusivity, creative individuals and teams are essential. This demand for ingenuity, however, is not specific to just the arts. Corporations have long leveraged creative skillsets to drive innovation and differentiation in their products. At the time I was listening to Pink’s predictions for the future, Stanford University’s was forging its existence, helping people unlock their creative potential to tackle some of the messiest problems in healthcare, education and social innovation.

This necessity for multi-faceted creativity in the workplace has led NBBJ to various cross-disciplinary collaborations over the past years. Our primary intent for such exposure has been to improve how our ideas help organizations perform at their highest level. In a recent research partnership with Kristen Dong and Tyler Sprague at the University of Washington, we collectively pursued a deeper understanding of creativity to specifically guide how NBBJ designs the spaces and relationships that allow people to do their best thinking. The following post outlines our process and findings on how to create ideal platforms for generating ideas.

But First, Why Design for Creativity?

In an ideas-based economy, competing with the best thinking starts with offering environments to attract the best thinkers and provoke the best thoughts. It doesn’t stop there. Creative employees are not only more effective workers—they also tend to be happier people. Employees with creative agency report higher productivity and fulfillment as well as higher retention rates. As an innately human characteristic shared by cultures around the world, creativity also fosters an inclusive mindset. Like the “yes, and” of improv, it supports thinking that is open to new and different perspectives. An environment that encourages these benefits is one worth getting right.

Approach and Learnings

For the sake of our exercise, we defined creativity through the lens of the Alternative Uses Test, designed by J.P. Guilford in 1967. Given creativity is difficult to measure and evaluate—and that many we interviewed stated they were not “creative” types—we inquired about tasks related to creativity in addition to direct evaluations, such as open-ended problem solving ability. We also utilized a mixed-methods study to make sure our quantitative and qualitative data supported each other.

The study focused on 36 different social and spatial factors in workspaces. It included questions regarding behavioral outcomes prior to work-from-home conditions demanded by Covid-19. Following the quantitative evaluation, we interviewed a smaller group of participants for qualitative insights. Although unintended, our research efforts coincided with the very beginning of the pandemic. The impact of remote work and distanced interactions yielded a condition that enabled us to explore creativity through a narrowed—but no less complicated—lens.

Finding 1: Regardless of the Workplace Setting—Whether in the Office or at Home—Control Remains Important

The pandemic certainly accelerated discussions happening prior to Covid-19 around what a workplace should be. The importance of choice in the workplace—how space is physically used and the behaviors around those uses—remains fundamental to employee satisfaction and performance, whether remote or in an office. The work-from-home scenario surprisingly didn’t solve the issue of control—while people had greater autonomy over their direct atmosphere (i.e. temperature, lighting, noise, posture, dress), they had less influence over their periphery (i.e. housemates, access to the outdoors, room proportion, furniture options).

Datapoint: Those with high agency to adapt their space were the best performers in work-from-home; those that had low agency fared the worst. Study participants with low design agency in their space were poor performers across all behavioral outcomes.

Potential: Design for Convenience in the Hybrid Workplace

  • Easily accessible temperature and lighting controls provide an office convenience that is often an afterthought in a home environment.
  • Wheeled, modular furniture is an inexpensive, low-tech means to allow for a variety of configurations and greater sense of control.

Furniture that allows for multiple configurations, and easily controlled lighting and temperature, contribute to a sense of agency that helps to enhance performance.


Finding 2: Perspective Matters, Everywhere

How you—and others—literally see ideas offers a unique prompt difficult to achieve in the virtual world. Per our research, displaying ideas in various ways appeared to inspire divergent thinking, boost collaboration, clarify vision, and enhance innovation. This finding, however, wasn’t limited solely to moveable partitions and animated walls. Whether remote or in-person, interactions that are familiar or static can limit the way we stretch our thinking. However, per our research, it appears that exposure to different stages of development, life issues and communication styles initiated important mind shifts by introducing new vantage points, whether socially or physically.

Datapoint: Caregivers who lived with families reported the highest creativity among all participant demographics. Those that lived alone struggled. As trying as it was for many of us to balance work with caregiving, this activity appeared to provide an unforeseen benefit.

Potential: Design for Multi-Generational Relationships

  • While remote work has been difficult for many, participants noted this has allowed for more flexible schedules and improved individual problem solving.
  • Peer-only relationships can be limiting. Encourage cross-generational groups that are not solely project- or department-specific.
  • Opportunities to teach, coach, or care for others may provide important outlets for staff not yet engaged in an organization or community.

While remote work has been challenging, the opportunity it provided for caregivers living with families to engage in intergenerational interaction resulted in increased creativity. Designing for multi-generational relationships and mentorship in the workplace can provide similar benefits.


Finding 3: Despite Technological Advancements That Improve How We Interact, Creative Thinking is Still Heavily Influenced by Our Physical Surroundings 

Most participants reported struggling to match their former performance prior to remote work and learning. 50% shared a workspace with others, and 70% said mental health issues impacted their ability to learn. Generally, interviewees felt less effective in productivity, team problem solving, time management and open-ended work (e.g. writing an essay). Individual problem solving was improved, implying that isolation from others was helpful for this type of thinking. In our qualitative interviews, people voiced a need for more space, separate space and minimal distractions as critical to improve their creative thinking.

Datapoint: According to the survey, the best place to work was a dedicated office room with furniture that allowed for movement and platforms for ideas. These spaces, however, were the least common spatial features in participant workspaces. Conversely, the worst place to work in was a kitchen without windows or spaciousness. While having these elements didn’t contribute to better performance, lacking them significantly affected participants.

Potential: Design “More” Space

Expansive spaces can boost creativity. An element as simple as the height above you can have an impact on how a space supports ideation or focus. Whether at home or in a formal “workplace” this sense of expansiveness can reduce stress. Therefore, for employees who are primarily remote, it is important for employers to understand how constraints of their remote space may limit their contributions. This may suggest organizational support through a “home office in a box” kit.

  • Increase perceived dimensions through mirrors, natural lighting, and high ceilings to make spaces feel larger than the floor plan allows.
  • Create comfort through contrast by offering differing scales and juxtapositions. A small space next to a large open area can make an individual feel more comfortable (the strategy of prospect and refuge) while making the overall experience feel more expansive.
  • Build in separate space to rest or step away from work. Research suggests that taking a break in a direct workspace rather than outside of it are not as restful or beneficial to creativity.

A feeling of expansiveness can increase creativity. High ceilings, differing scales and contrasting spaces all contribute to an environment that is more conducive to ideation or focus.


Potential: Design for Movement

Numerous studies show movement enhances creativity by boosting cognition, learning, memory and decision-making. Even in confined conditions, workplaces can encourage people to move in different ways. By using standing desks and yoga ball seating, participants responded with the highest creativity and problem-solving abilities.

  • Quiet flooring allows occupants to tap their feet or fidget without disturbing neighbors.
  • Workspaces that are separate from eating and relaxing areas will force movement, but it is important to consider transition spaces as well. These areas must be inviting while encouraging a quick “mental break.”
  • Consider the difference between a prompt and an inconvenience. If spaces are too troublesome to travel through regularly, occupants will find a workaround or skip movement altogether.

From small-scale solutions like flooring that muffles the sound of tapping feet, to inviting transition spaces that encourage a mental break, promoting movement enhances creative thinking. However, if spaces are inconvenient or hinder travel, they may have the opposite effect.


Creativity remains a trait that is hard to define when present, but highly noticeable when missing. Factors of personal perception, background and area of study will continue to frame how individuals and organizations reference this elusive term. Yet new research is enabling designers to identify techniques that will encourage diverse thinking through environments and behaviors. As expected, the spaces and dynamics around us remains critical, but so do the people we interact with outside of our jobs, especially in the post-Covid workplace. As companies look for consistent differentiation in their work and products, these creative advantages may not only help them recruit and retain the best talent, it may also offer holistic wellness while delivering better financial and cultural returns.



  • Future Research Centers: The Place of Creativity and Innovation. Bisadi, M., Mozaffar, F., & Hosseini, S. B. (2012). Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 68, 232–243.
  • Creative environments for design education and practice: A typology of creative spaces. Thoring, K., Desmet, P., & Badke-Schaub, P. (2018). Design Studies, 56, 54–83.
  • Literature review and interviews on the impact of space on creativity using previously defined space typologies. Thoring, K. C., Guerreiro Goncalves, M., Mueller, R. M., Badke-Schaub, P. G., & Desmet, P. M. A. (2017).


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What Happens When a “Big Room” Goes Virtual?

Three Strategies to Create an Efficient Hybrid Design Environment

February 11, 2022

Principal, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: We believe that strong project management drives great design. In this four-part series, we will explore four different and important aspects of project management. The first post focused on accelerated and innovative delivery methods. This post, the second in the series, explores the hybrid design environment. A version of this piece also appeared in Project Management Institute under the title, “Virtual Big Room Keeps a Project Running.”


At the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in early 2020, hospitals were among the organizations most immediately and deeply affected. Because of the immediate action and focus on critical issues—such as upgrading ventilation, building temporary structures and expanding emergency departments—many healthcare organizations were forced to pause construction projects and redirect resources to Covid-related efforts. In a survey of healthcare leaders conducted by Health Facilities Management, 76 percent of respondents reported having delayed one or more construction projects due to the pandemic, while 29 percent reported canceling at least one project altogether.

In our work on Oregon Health & Science University’s (OHSU) hospital expansion project, the pandemic forced the design team, led by NBBJ, to shift from an in-person integrated project delivery model that relied heavily on collocation to a fully virtual work model in a matter of days. Shortly thereafter, the project was put on hold due to the understandable need to focus on urgent patient volumes and other issues. Through strong communication and the use of digital tools and organizational methods, the entire team was able to collaborate in real time, keeping the project on track despite massive disruption. The team’s ability to pivot also allowed the project to restart quickly and efficiently once it was brought back online. Below are three tactics for implementing a productive and successful hybrid design environment.

Create and Implement a Virtual “Big Room”

Project “Big Rooms”—large facilities that support the collocation of the entire project team—are an essential part of integrated delivery, fostering a common purpose, relationship building, as well as speed and responsiveness. Pre-pandemic, the OHSU hospital expansion project was organized around a Big Room environment, relying largely on in person connectivity and teamwork.

While projects benefit from team leadership being on site, the pandemic forced many Big Room environments, including the one at OHSU, to adopt a partially or fully virtual format. This experience has demonstrated that a Big Room doesn’t necessarily need to be a physical location. Just as important as physical collocation is the culture of formal and informal communication, expedited problem solving and shared commitment that characterizes effective Big Rooms. This culture can be built through in person interaction, virtual systems and platforms, or a combination of both, depending on project need.

When the project restarted, the “Virtual Colo” (a nickname for the collocation space), was re-established. This virtual space became an urgent and immediate need when the client requested ideas to support crucial initiatives. The team was able to brainstorm asynchronously and collect the requested information from the broader project team more quickly and effectively using a shared Mural—an online whiteboard tool—and present their findings to the client in a timely and organized manner. While not a replacement for in person collaboration, the virtual Big Room effectively fills the void while social distancing and Covid safety protocols remain in effect.

“Prior to the pandemic, our joint team had a very collaborative, successful in-person collocation project and process. We loved the culture and communication it fostered, so when the decision was made to go virtual, we all hoped we’d be able to replicate the best elements of it,” said Trevor Wyckoff, Vice President – Account Manager, Skanska USA Building. “Thankfully, through flexibility and a commitment from all of the partners, we were able to successfully adapt and recreate the collocation environment in a virtual space, retain the level of communication that occurred prior to the pandemic, and have seen some efficiencies as well.”

The collocation space—or Big Room—on the OHSU hospital expansion project pivoted to a “Virtual Colo” due to Covid-19. While not a replacement for in-person collaboration, the team was able to maintain the level of communication and efficiency that was in place prior to the pandemic through the use of virtual systems and platforms. 


Incorporate Live Models and Virtual Walk-Throughs for Real-Time Decision-Making

In addition to tools for project management and communication, live models and virtual walk-throughs also facilitate real-time collaboration and aid in decision-making. Throughout the OHSU project, the design team used BIM360 to create and share live models, allowing subcontractors and design team members to develop the models together. Laser scanning of existing conditions was also integrated into the BIM360 model, making even more highly detailed information readily available.

In addition, site tours—usually conducted in person—can be conducted remotely using virtual reality or other remote walk-through methods to help broaden a project vision and a shared understanding of possibilities and options. Tools like Open Space—a platform that maps live jobsite photography to building plans—enable virtual teams to do rapid walkthroughs of construction sites to track progress and identify issues. On the Elks Children’s Eye Clinic at the Casey Eye Institute, a neighboring project associated with OHSU designed by NBBJ and built by Skanska, 3D panoramic cameras were used to record construction progress, allowing the design team and contractor to review and track construction remotely. This tactic was also used for jurisdictional inspections, when appropriate, to adhere to safety precautions and social distancing measures.

Use Digital Tools to Streamline the Project’s Workflow

Digital tools such as Zoom, Bluebeam Studio and Smartsheet were in use prior to the pandemic, but an increased reliance on digital communication, project tracking and decision-making has necessitated the use of these tools in new and different ways.

On the OHSU project, the team used Bluebeam Studio—a professional PDF editor with enhanced mark-up tools and collaboration capabilities that enables a more streamlined, interactive review of digital drawing sets—to facilitate virtual quality control page turn work sessions, as well as design and medical planning client work sessions. Interactive sessions were also conducted via Mural to align work and archive information, and to present to and communicate with the Owner. Smartsheet kept the team organized by sharing key project management tools such as pull planning, task tracking and waterfall decision matrices in one portal accessible to the entire team. For example, by translating the analog pull plan calendar that existed in the physical Big Room into Smartsheet, pull planning schedule work sessions could be reimagined as collaborative virtual events.

“Having a well-put-together agenda or slide deck is key for design meetings. Having multiple people on the presentation and documentation side is key—one tasked with notes, one with monitoring the chat and another with operating the presentation. The flexibility to move back and forth is critical,” says Ed Trotter, Senior Project Manager, Design & Construction at OHSU.

In the period since the project was put on hold, the interior functions of the facility changed. As a result, all logs and data needed to be transitioned to support the relaunch process, including phases of the project previously approved for permit as well as in mid-stream of agency review which required updates.  According to the project team, had these documents been managed in a series of separate files, the speed and accuracy of this process would have been compromised—and possibly resulted in a longer offline period for the project. “Continuity of key players has really helped. The team also did a good job of archiving the project for a restart, so much is going well,” says Mr. Trotter.

Accelerated by the pandemic, hybrid and virtual design environments have staying power. The shift to hybrid design environments also illustrates that digital project management and communication tools are highly effective and will complement and amplify the value of in person collaboration. By embracing this new mode of working, projects can be completed faster and more efficiently—without compromising patient, staff or user experience.

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Design an Office That People Want to Come Back To

Post-Pandemic Workplace Ideas Inspired by Pre-Pandemic Trends

January 24, 2022

Partner, NBBJ

This post was co-authored by Robert Mankin, Andrea Vanecko and Jonathan Ward 

Editor’s Note: A version of this piece was originally published by Harvard Business Review.


As the Covid-19 crisis enters its second year and the Omicron variant surges, organizations around the world are contemplating how, when, and even if to have their knowledge workers resume regular in-office hours. And they do so at a time when the views and priorities of their employees have shifted. A recent McKinsey study showed that well-being, flexibility and work-life balance are top of mind. A survey Microsoft conducted last year indicated that 41% of the global workforce would consider switching jobs in the next year, with 55% noting that work environment would play a role in their decisions.

Our firm was put in a unusual position in 2020:  we were hired to design the headquarters of the  Korean fintech company Hana Bank  during the very period when the pandemic was forcing business leaders to rethink the purpose of the office. But the process—and the resulting building—wasn’t a reaction to Covid. Rather, the crisis highlighted and accelerated trends that had been bubbling under the surface for years, including an increased focus on employee mental and physical health, the needs of a multi-generational workforce, greater emphasis on corporate purpose, and the shift to remote work.

The pandemic raised the stakes for companies looking to retain top-tier employees and build thriving cultures. Here are some of the principles we employed and lessons we took away from the Hana Bank project as well as our recommendations for how organizations can implement both small and large-scale changes in enticing people to return to in-person work.

Ask what the office is for — and name it accordingly

It might sound simple, but nomenclature matters. For knowledge workers, the office shouldn’t be a place to tackle a to-do list. It’s a place for collaboration, creativity, and learning, where an employee feels nurtured and a sense of belonging. Names of buildings, floors, areas, or rooms should reflect this intent.  Terms like “learning center” or “innovation space” communicate the new perspective, shape design changes, attract talent, and influence behavior.

Hana Bank calls its new HQ “Mindmark” to acknowledge the creative work happening inside. Cutting-edge tech companies like Facebook and Google have “campuses” for the same reason; they want their engineers to experiment just as they did when they were students. Even UPS recently renamed its corporate headquarters building—from the Plaza to Casey Hall—as CEO Carol Tome recounts in this HBR article to emphasize a more warm, inviting, collaborative environment.

Hana Bank calls its headquarters “Mindmark,” emphasizing creativity and knowledge. As one of the first offices fully designed during the Covid-19 pandemic, Hana’s headquarters enhances well-being and community through access to nature and diverse, inspiring workspaces.

Listen to what your employees want and need

Think of Covid as a catalyst to talk about what the best employees want from their workplaces, even if you can’t execute on every idea. For most organizations, reverting to the status quo won’t be an option. People will expect more flexibility, better technology, and incentives to come to the office, and companies must heed that call.

Salesforce, for example, reduced its desk space by 40% and embraced a floor plan that features more team-focused spaces that encourage a balance of individual and collaborative work. The Hana Bank HQ caters to various modes of working, including the kind of heads-down individual work that happens at a desk, flexible seating for when people need a break from their desks, collaborative spaces that encourage focused team interaction, and lounges for socializing. This combination of experiences encourages worker agency while still providing structure.

A variety of work spaces and configurations allow Hana Bank employees to choose where and how they work best. To enhance creativity and offer respite, alternative focus work areas include private alcoves, wine bars and outdoor terraces, while collaboration spaces support typical teamwork sessions and more informal social activities. 

Experiment within your own organization

Some companies will create a new headquarters post-pandemic. But most can design a more thoughtful office environment. To start exploring ideas for your own organization, our recommendations is to start small. Repurpose conference rooms, invest in a new teaming table, or refurbish a floor instead of an entire building. You might also incorporate multimedia technology to bring people together and breathe new life into your office.

WarnerMedia’s new headquarters features an immersive media experience that incorporates content from the company’s vast universe of networks to create a sense of brand identity and community. Many companies have invested in smart hybrid meeting technology as well. Look also for multi-use opportunities. For example, the circuitous indoor/outdoor ramps that stretch from the bottom to the top of the Hana Bank building can be used for one-on-one walking meetings, individual exercise, or social breaks in nature and fresh air. Finally, be sure to focus on safety and sustainability by following healthy building guidelines.

Hana’s headquarters is focused on restorative work—the idea that people can leave the workplace feeling better than when they arrived. A series of looping pathways traverse the building from top to bottom, creating a “ribbon park” that unites employees and visitors with the health benefits of nature. 

Activate partnerships based on insights

For younger knowledge workers, the office is as much a place to learn and socialize as it is a place to meet deadlines. Nearly 60% of Millennials report that opportunities to discover new insights are extremely important to them when applying for a job, and they may also stay longer at a company if they get involved in social causes. Smart companies make this happen by partnering with outside organizations to provide such programming.

Activities like yoga or meditation, community service, or continuing education are a good place to start Even small initiatives like a hanging work from local or student artists in rotation, canned food drives in the lobby, or pop-up food trucks outside can fuel employees’ sense of purpose. Gravity—a mixed-use development in Columbus, OH, that houses a large-scale creative office building in addition to residences—employs a full-time amenities curator to seek out partners and programs that feed curiosity and build community.

In conclusion

The workplace trends that accelerated and employee preferences that crystallized during the pandemic aren’t going away. We urge corporations to use this moment to think about how they can improve work environments in a way that boosts employee engagement and well-being, thereby encouraging attendance, increasing retention, and attracting new talent. Now is the time to act.

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