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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The Workplace Should Be Organic

Six Ways to Create a Strong Connection to Nature in Any Workplace

January 20, 2022

Corporate Practice Director, NBBJ

This post was co-authored by Suzanne Carlson and Ryan Mullenix

Editor’s Note: This post is the third in a series on Healthy Buildings. The first post focused on lighting and how building design can support circadian rhythm, and the second explored the relationship between noise and productivity and healing in corporate and healthcare environments.

 

The very first buildings—and those for thousands of years after—were designed to shelter us from the elements. Walls, roofs, windows and heating systems overcome the unpredictability of nature by keeping it outside. Before buildings, however, our bodies grew so accustomed to the natural environment that our health still depends on our exposure to it. Time spent in nature yields measurable value to our lives, improving cognitive function, increasing creativity and decreasing stress. Yet despite its many benefits, incorporating nature into the built environment remains a challenge.

For example, even though some European hospitals integrate nature into their buildings, hospitals in North America are often required to eschew greenery indoors due to code requirements. Like healthcare buildings, the modern corporate office also acts as a barrier to nature, removing workers from green space and making it difficult to open a window or step outside. And although the pandemic and subsequent shift toward remote and hybrid work provide flexibility to embrace gardening, go for a walk, or at least gaze out a window throughout the day, many of us still spend much of our time indoors.

Integrating nature in the workplace (and all buildings, for that matter) is critical to the well-being of employees, teams and organizations. Here are six drivers that borrow characteristics from the outdoors to integrate nature into every workday.

1. The Workplace Should Be Organic
Establishing biophilic drivers for decision-making early on in a project leads to the thoughtful development of a calmer and more productive atmosphere. According to neuroscience research done with NBBJ fellow and molecular biologist Dr. John Medina, human beings are biologically predisposed to require contact with natural forms. Implementing a color palette that is associated with our experiences in nature, such as blues, greens and oranges, can offer motivation or focus, while rounded edges can make us feel safer than sharp corners.

2. The Workplace Should Change Frequently
On an even larger scale, hubs such as outdoor amphitheaters with movable walls or landscaped indoor spaces can support a range of activities such as group classes like yoga, gardening or cooking. These multi-use spaces can also serve as a meeting area or a place of respite, and if done well in harmony with nature, can offer diverse spaces that use zero energy. In addition, companies can explore the use of prefabricated or modular units—“offices in a box”—that can be easily nestled within the surrounding landscape. Not only do these spaces serve as diverse, autonomous places for work and meetings, but they can also be designed to easily open and close depending on the weather.

A prefabricated “office in a box” enables employees to immerse themselves in nature and can adapt to changing work needs or weather conditions.

3. The Workplace Should Be Green
We know the color green raises our cortisol levels, almost instantaneously reducing our stress. That same color also enables our brain to focus as it helps us relax. Lesser known is the improvement that plants can bring to our physical health through anti-fungal chemicals that boost immunity. Including greenery and plants in the office is the simplest way to bring nature into the workplace. At Korean fintech company Hana Bank’s headquarters—which will soon break ground—staff and visitors will be exposed to the health benefits of nature via immersive landscapes that include sweeping plantings, plazas and gardens extending from the existing landscape. However, even smaller planters or living walls offer enough benefit to warrant plants being incorporated into the office at any scale.

 

A plant-filled space can serve multiple workplace needs, from hosting activities and meetings to a quiet place for concentration or respite.

4. The Workplace Should Be an Immersive Escape
While living plants are preferable since the act of caring for them has a positive effect on happiness and satisfaction, even images of nature—whether digital or still—can improve overall mood and concentration. According to University of Washington psychology professor Peter Kahn, simply looking at images of nature can relax and calm us, while also keeping us engaged. Digital displays, either combined with natural elements or in place of them, can create an immersive experience. If possible, change the architectural program of the space to include a respite room that allows its user to be enveloped in digital sights and sounds of nature.

Immersion in nature, whether physical or digital, keeps employees relaxed and engaged. Hana Bank’s headquarters weaves nature into the workplace with a 12-story public “ribbon park” and outdoor terraces.

5. The Workplace Should Be a Threshold
One benefit of an office tower is the ability to optimize views and access to daylight. However, incorporating intuitive pathways to light and establishing moments to step outside make an even bigger difference in supporting employees’ circadian rhythms and overall health. At the campus of a Zhejiang-based large internet company, each employee’s workspace is located less than a minute from outside green space, and all workstations are close to windows that overlook greenery and open to let in fresh air and natural ventilation. Similarly, smartphone maker vivo’s nature-infused headquarters will feature an elegant spiral of exterior gardens, providing every level with easy access to green space for work, as well as paths for exercise.

Outdoor terraces and planted gardens provide every floor with access to green space at smartphone maker vivo’s headquarters in Shenzhen, China.

6. The Workplace Should Be an Instigator
Enacting policies and protocols that allow employees to take advantage of nature throughout the workday is also beneficial. Encourage walking meetings by providing suggested routes and the length of time it takes to complete them. Implement a video-optional policy for certain calls or meetings to allow people to take them outdoors.

Nature’s ability to support both mental and physical health in the workplace and beyond must not be overlooked. The well-being and engagement of employees is critical to an organization’s sustained success, especially now. Incorporating moments to connect with the natural world throughout the workday leads to a happier, healthier, more creative workforce and more successful, productive organizations.

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Humanizing Skyscrapers

Rethinking Tall Buildings for Human Interaction

January 6, 2022

Partner, NBBJ

@ryanjmullenix

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in NAIOP’s Winter 2021/2022 Issue under the title, “Rethinking Tall Buildings for Human Interaction.”

This post was co-authored by Ryan Mullenix, Dr. John Medina and Greg Smith

 

Tall-building innovation has been driving architectural conversations for centuries. Society has long marveled at structures that brought humanity closer to the heavens. From the time of the construction of the 138-foot-tall Home Insurance Building in Chicago in 1885 (widely considered the first modern high-rise) to the 2010 opening of Dubai’s 2,723-foot-tall Burj Khalifa, the tallest buildings grew approximately 20 times in just 125 years.

This ambition is both understandable and applaudable. Tall buildings create more value for less land, not only in increased square footage but ideally through less lifecycle resource expenditure. Tall buildings also help address population challenges. According to research from the University of Texas, earth provides around 24.5 million square miles of habitable land, but as the number of people has increased almost five times in the past 100 years, the amount of habitable land has stayed relatively the same. The acreage per person has been reduced by about 80%, from almost 10 acres in 1900 to just over two in 2020.

For those looking to build higher, where has the conversation been focused? Most discussions on high-rise innovation tend to address three areas: conveyance (how one moves up and down), structural design and materials (how a building resists wind and earthquakes), and exterior walls (how energy performance can be improved). Recently, mechanical system efficiency and speed of construction have entered the dialogue. Given the significant impact of each of these factors, it’s no surprise that the design of the building core, a concrete block filled with elevators and shafts, usually demands the most attention.

What is surprising, however, is that these topics remain similar to those that surfaced over a century ago, when technological advancements first enabled society to build higher. The conversation is still rarely around how people — or organizations — stay healthy.

Humanizing Skyscrapers
A substantial number of developers and corporations see the future of the built environment as one centered on community. In recent years, buildings such as the Commerzbank Tower in Frankfurt, Leadenhall Tower in London and Tencent’s HQ in Shenzen (which includes elevated gardens, porous ground floors and amenity-based sky bridges) emphasized the importance of interaction. Their investigations prompt a powerful question: if high-rises were designed around people — not systems — how would that process begin?

To answer this, it’s important to explore the intersection between the science of buildings and the science of the brain.

What Makes us Human?
Designing high-rises in a people-centric manner requires an active knowledge of how the human brain responds to built environments. The first insight from the cognitive neurosciences is frustrating, however. The human brain reacts to the modern world as if it were still living in the Rift Valley of East Africa, many thousands of years ago.

How is that gap bridged? Humans evolved to be social animals. Relational interactions soon became a crucial part of human survival, a fact that was underscored by the COVID-19 pandemic. Any building that supports such interactions is likely to be successful.

A second insight occurs in humans’ ability to adapt. Though we appear to be creatures of habit, we actually don’t like being in places that are static. We appreciate experiences that are repetitive enough for simpler navigation, but those spaces must be unique enough to ensure our environment isn’t boring. Though we often hate change, the brain is surprisingly good at it.

Integrating Tall Buildings and Humans
In contrast to what benefits the human physiology, tall buildings are comprised of a substantial number of floors that are isolated; massive structures and greater distances from the ground or roof reduce interactions with colleagues, urban experiences and the outdoors. Although the exterior may be dynamic, the tenant experience is often anything but.

Given this context, the following ideas provide insights on how to broaden the dialogue to include innovative thinking for both buildings and human performance.

Spaces to think. Ceiling height influences different types of cognition. According to neuroscience research, a tall ceiling supports divergent thinking, while a compressed ceiling helps us focus on detailed resolution. Skyscraper floors are typically undifferentiated — the repetitive floorplate dictates a repetitive layout under a non-varying ceiling.

At The Net in Seattle — a new 36-story high-rise that recently broke ground — high-volume spaces throughout the building will create unique environments for various modes of creativity. The ground floor offers a 24-foot-high daylit solarium and a range of conditions throughout. The uppermost floor provides 30-foot ceilings for ideation sessions and events that are immediately adjacent to a three-story landscaped park.

Spaces to move. Our ancestors used to walk up to 12 miles a day. In a high-rise, going for a stroll likely requires an inconvenient elevator ride to a small ground-floor lobby that squeezes out onto the sidewalk. Placing egress stairs — usually an artificially lit element buried in the center — next to the exterior wall implores occupants to think twice about how to get from A to B. At The Net, a 36-story stair is adjacent to the elevator bank and occupies part of the façade. A code-required element, the stair now provides benefits to tenants without reducing rentable square footage.

Spaces to learn. Winding paths, plenty of nature and varying types of unpredictable movement are ideal for how we focus and retain information.

Outdoor spaces in tall buildings — if provided at all — tend to be relegated to any roof area that remains after cores and mechanical penthouses are placed. Direct floor access to the outdoors is rare in office projects over 10 stories tall. Stacked atriums that combine natural worlds to discover with verticality are a powerful mixture that can improve cognition. Even simple balconies can provide benefits.

Spaces to comfort. Pandemic-enforced isolation has taken its toll on the mental health of the worldwide workforce. Most tall buildings are limited in their ability to support multiple configurations for diverse work needs, including emotional and mental health. Elevator arrivals tend to occur in the center of the floor, and high-traffic areas like restrooms and service elevators have a large impact on acoustics and privacy. Spaces for refuge are rare.

Can a high-rise building environment aid in addressing mental health? Possibly. To take one short-term example, tall buildings might embed places where tenants could find temporary relief from psychological stress at work (WIRED calls them weeping paths).

At The Net, moving the core from the center of the building creates an open floorplate that is readily reconfigurable based on needs. Instead of being constrained to a single lease depth between the core and the exterior wall, spaces can be more graciously created for arrival and collaboration, and, just as importantly, respite. This footprint allows for different tenants to craft an experience that reflects how they work now and to adjust an experience based on how they need to evolve.

Initiating the Next Discourse
The past 125 years of high-rise dialogue has yielded some remarkable outcomes. Developers, designers, architects, engineers and contractors have collaborated to achieve unbelievable heights on properties that are often smaller than a football field.

High-rises can add value to their inhabitants. They can ignite greater creativity and cognition. Tall buildings can encourage healthier bodies and teams. They can enable individual choice and control for those moments when life and work intersect. Adding an unexpected but unsurprisingly relevant mindset like neuroscience can ensure that, as we build taller in the years to come, the distance between us and the ground does not increase the distance we feel between each other.

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