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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A Healthy Building Starts with Light

Because disruption to the circadian system is linked to chronic disease, it’s critical to rethink lighting levels in buildings.

June 28, 2021

Lighting Designer

The CDC reports that six in ten Americans suffer from a chronic disease, and many suffer from two or more conditions. A growing body of evidence shows that repeated disruption to the circadian system — the rhythms that regulate the timing of the biological systems in the human body — lays the foundation for the development of chronic diseases. For example, researchers have linked chronic circadian and sleep disruption to metabolic disease, cardiovascular diseases, cognitive disease and cancer.

The circadian system is aligned to the 24-hour day through external cues, namely light exposure and timing of eating. In the U.S., people spend on average about 90% of their day indoors. While architects and employers can’t control when people eat, we can and do control people’s light exposure. Light exposure in the workplace, healthcare environments and schools, where people typically spend a third of their day, has a profound influence on the overall wellness for individuals and communities. Troublingly, research has also shown that conventional light levels in buildings and architecture in design are too low to adequately entrain the circadian system, creating environments that undermine human health.

To Create Healthier Buildings, Rethink Lighting
As the world rebounds from the Covid-19 crisis, now is the time to reconsider how to approach lighting in buildings. Here are some key guidelines to consider:

1. Lighting in the workplace matters. Research has shown that providing a high light level earlier in the day can improve sleep, but also increase resiliency to light exposure at night. The lighting environment of workplaces has a profound impact on people’s circadian systems. Designing buildings to increase daylight availability and lighting systems by providing a biologically active, high light level in the early part of the day can reduce the impact of light exposure at night and stabilize people’s circadian system health.

2. Go beyond conventional standards. Traditional lighting guidelines are based on industry standards (the Illuminating Engineering Society in the U.S.), which set light levels needed to adequately perform a visual task. Yet following these conventional guidelines is insufficient for the circadian system. Light levels generally need to be 1.25 to 2 times higher to be biologically active for the circadian system than the typical office standard. Instead, use circadian centric metrics, such as the Circadian Stimulus model developed by the Lighting Research Center, to analyze daylighting. Furthermore, incorporate lighting systems that set targets to a more biologically effective light level.

3. Start with daylight. It is feasible to incorporate additional electrical lighting loads to provide more light, but this can increase energy use and potentially counter sustainability efforts. Instead, it’s essential to first increase the amount of daylight delivered into buildings. This is no small task. The challenge is to find ways to do this without sacrificing energy performance — an imperative to mitigate climate change — or increasing visual glare. One strategy to maximize daylight availability is to evaluate different building forms and orientations for circadian-effective daylight availability in the early design stages of a project. In addition, incorporate passive shading and glazing systems to increase daylight delivery by reducing glare and heating loads, and therefore the amount of time daylight is blocked by blinds.

4. Prioritize where to supplement electric lighting. To get the most value and save resources, be strategic on where to implement electric lighting supplementation for the circadian system. Target the spaces where people spend the most time, especially in the early part of the day. If budgets are tight, consider carving out a few key zones that are light-rich, so people can work in those areas when they want. In the workspace, circadian table lamps can also provide a high-impact, low-energy solution, so long as they are accepted and used by employees.

5. A color shifting system is nice, but not necessary. While color shifting can have a positive psychological effect of simulating the passage of time, research shows that shifting to a cooler white light can actually reduce the biological effect on the circadian system through something called the subadditivity effect. Counter to traditional thinking and marketing, spaces may need to add more light to overcome this deficiency with a cooler white light, which can further increase energy loads. To decrease energy use and be just as, if not more, effective from a biological perspective, implement a simpler, cost-effective approach. For example, use static white light with a simple control system to increase light levels in the morning and reduce them in the late afternoon.

The circadian system, health and light are intrinsically linked. Access to daylight in the workplace, healthcare environments, schools, homes and other indoor spaces is not just a nice-to-have, but an imperative to human wellness and creativity. By taking a science-based circadian lighting approach, building owners, tenants, architects and lighting designers can strengthen society’s resilience to circadian disruption. Combined, the above strategies can improve the health of communities around the world and simultaneously combat the chronic disease and climate change crises.


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Staying Human in a Digital Workplace

Ten Research-Based Ideas to Improve Hybrid Work Settings

June 17, 2021

Partner, NBBJ


A major disruption on many fronts, the Covid-19 pandemic also challenges nearly every standard methodology around work. The resulting tension provides an opportunity to ground daily work habits in a deeper understanding of human nature. People seek meaning in their jobs through multiple ways, especially through the context of relationships — a trying predicament inherent in a remote or physically distanced workplace. Effective outcomes require recognizing such limitations and using research-backed design strategies to support the agency, behavior, creativity and unpredictable beauty that ultimately makes us human.

As organizations transition back to the physical office, many will continue remote working policies or create hybrid workplaces with a mix of off-site and co-located workers. Depending on organizational vision, mode of work and personal preference, this approach will present both unique challenges and opportunities. Through NBBJ’s Fellowship Program with brain scientist Dr. John Medina, we identify 10 research-based ideas for improving engagement and productivity in these new workplace experiences.

Meeting Strategies for Hybrid Work Settings
In hybrid workplaces, a significant amount of communication occurs via videoconferencing and other technologies. Creating productive remote work environments that more closely approximate in-person meetings are critical to addressing a major challenge of hybrid workplaces — remote workers may be at a disadvantage due to technology gaps and lower visibility.

Additionally, while technology transforms aspects of how we work, it is often still an impoverished form of communication. Zoom fatigue is real — video meetings are more exhausting than in-person conversation because the brain must fill in gaps of information it normally gets through face-to-face conversations. Our reliance on body language is so strong that we often only hear 25% of what is said (and surprisingly retain only half at that).

With that in mind, here are five key protocols that can help address these limitations to create a better remote work environment:

Share Meeting Materials in Advance
Meeting organizers should provide written meeting agendas, materials and goals prior to meetings. This approach compels organizers to crystallize their thoughts in advance and allows attendees — whether remote or collocated — to prepare. The outcome is a true discussion that encourages synchronous interaction versus a presentation.

Make Meetings as Interactive as Possible
Meeting attendees should read the agenda and materials prior to the meeting and come prepared with ideas, comments and questions. The organizer can begin with a brief summary, but then move quickly to a more interactive discussion. The more interactive the exchange, the better the material is retained.

Ask Questions and Clarify
Remote communication increases the odds of being misunderstood, so it is crucial that everyone feels empowered to ask for clarification as soon as a point of confusion arises. This helps ensure clearer communication; if a frequent practice, it also helps impart a feeling of safety in the group, which tends to be in short supply in remote settings.

Practice Good Listening Skills
Everyone can improve their listening skills. Research shows that great listeners actively comment and ask questions, and avoid pressuring the speaker even when tough questions are posed. This supports cooperative conversations in which no one dominates or gets defensive. Keep in mind that people engage in different ways—a lack of response may not indicate disinterest, but that another approach is needed to get input.

Rethink Virtual Platforms
The above-noted behaviors can be supported by communication tools that bring more of the human body into the field of vision, and use color and other visual elements to capture non-verbal cues. More visibility into the workplace for remote workers can improve awareness of others and prompt important unplanned connections.


Design and Workplace Strategies for Hybrid Work Settings
Individuals have the highest awareness of what habits and preferences work best for them. Forward-thinking organizations must leverage this knowledge to create processes and spaces that enable people to not only reconnect to one another when the pandemic recedes, but to map out their optimal workday. This is particularly important in hybrid workplaces, where, as more workers shift back and forth between office and remote work, there will be an increased need for individual flexibility.

To support the balance between individual prosperity and organizational success, here are five strategies to consider in creating a workplace that reflects both:

Understand Team Needs and Preferences
People have different preferences for how, when and where they work. Developing question sets that explore how these preferences vary across teams can be a useful, straightforward step towards creating more productive team dynamics and tailored schedules that take individual work habits into account. For larger companies, a framework that enables teams to manage themselves will likely lead to faster overall growth and camaraderie than a single blanket policy.

Encourage Personal Agency
Research shows that encouraging choice reduces stress and improves job satisfaction. It can also help people make better decisions to support their personal and professional development, and build understanding as to how, when and where they feel most productive. People offered more choice in how they organize and collaborate should arrive at the best setup for their individual needs. Configurable “kit of parts” spaces designed for smaller autonomous teams can provide significant flexibility and enable teams to experiment to find optimal work arrangements. Consider how this benefit can extend to remote environments where some may not have true agency due to apartment size or housemates. Also acknowledge that agency can be intimidating—develop a means to evaluate how well these choices are benefitting individual employee satisfaction and growth over time.

Support Diversity and Autonomy
The pandemic popularizes flexible work models which are likely to become a more permanent feature. Expanded and unconventional work shifts that encompass remote and office modes can be supported and coordinated to provide individuals with the work schedule that best aligns with their chronotype, work habits and role and life responsibilities. With many companies looking to reduce the number of workstations, amenities will also become more important as spaces that support a wider variety of individual and team work modes.

Promote Wellbeing
The health and wellbeing of the workforce is critical to organizational success, impacting everything from job turnover to performance and brand image. Organizations can consider realigning corporate values and priorities and developing new success metrics to support physical and mental health. Workplace design can incorporate strategies that support movement like stairs and walking paths while offering a connection to nature that may not always be possible in a remote setting. Wellness amenities that employees can’t get at home will be a valued in-person benefit.

Maintain the Intimacy of Working From Home
The working from home experiment builds deeper connections among some colleagues as they “invite” each other into their homes. In hybrid workplaces, it will be important to find ways of retaining and promoting those personal connections by imbuing them into the office. Layouts which group workers into smaller team areas with flexible furniture configurations, for example, can encourage greater intimacy and personalization. The harshness of a conference room compared to the softness of a home or hospitality environment will be readily felt, perhaps underscoring the gap between remote and in-person. Finding a more seamless transition that is able to be personalized in both realms will be critical.

The past year has initiated a chaotic yet revealing series of conditions that many are just beginning to comprehend. However, just as we grapple with these learnings – some new, some decades old – promising results from vaccines plus the desire for clarity in the year to come has created an urgency for organizations to define their next workplace now. The obvious danger lies in reacting so quickly that the next workplace becomes the previous workplace, or even worse, the unsustainable workplace.

For companies navigating this crisis, this transitory period has been ripe with opportunities to learn and reimagine, driving towards spaces that capture what a work experience should have been. The result can be a fluid environment that enables people to be their most productive selves while engaging in a deeply meaningful way. Humans have survived for 40,000 years because of their ability to socialize, adapt and rely on individual talents and strengths. The science behind this history is critical for its future – to stay human in a hybrid world, don’t forget to be humane.


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