HR Management & Compliance, Recruiting

Designing the Employee-Centric Office

In those long-ago days before the pandemic ushered in a wave of remote work, it was the default assumption for most companies that employees would come into the physical office five days a week. They’d work their average eight to nine hours and go home at the end of the workday. Of course, plenty of companies already had remote or hybrid policies in place, but it certainly wasn’t the norm.

COVID-19 and the ensuing lockdowns upended that model and now, two years later, many companies are still grappling with whether or how to bring employees back to the physical office. Organizations can’t expect things to go back to the way they were before – nor should they. It’s time to re-think the concept of the office, the purpose it serves and the potential it holds to be more than just a place to do work.

Employees Want More Out of Work

Not only have the places we work changed in the past couple of years, but we’ve also seen a sea change in how people think about work and in employee expectations. As we’ve seen with the Great Resignation, for many people, the pandemic created an opportunity for reflection on what they really want or expect out of a job.

47.8 million people quit their jobs in 2021, an increase of 12 million from 2020. Resignations accounted for 69.3% of total separations, with the increased resignation rates highest among those 30 to 45 years old. Whether the cause or the result of these resignations (or both), culture has taken on greater importance. LinkedIn’s Global Talent Trends report found job posts mentioning culture get 67% more likes, shares and other engagement.

Employees aren’t going to just come back to the office because that’s how it’s always been – and employers shouldn’t be thinking in those terms. Instead, you should strive to create a place where employees want to come because that’s where they can truly do good work. What’s needed is an employee-centric office.

Building the Employee-Centric Office

Creating an office environment focused on the employee starts with empathy and the elements of human-centric design. It’s about being able to offer choice and move beyond a template-based design. Not all employees are the same, and you need to account for differences in order to design a workspace that fits the majority of needs and desires.  

This starts with empathy, with having an understanding for these needs and desires, and truly caring about meeting them. For too long, the tendency has been to design spaces from the perspective of the building’s layout, without fully taking into account the people who will be using that workspace.

Organizations like IDEO and the Luma Institute are just two examples of human-centric design focused resources where employers can learn more about how to create a framework for employee-focused workspaces. Lean into your trusted design resources, such as architects and interior designers, and ask them what they know about human-centered design. For instance, a good question to ask a design firm is, “What do you know about activity-based working, and how do you design for it?”

Making Use of Data

To ensure you’re creating something that really fits the unique needs of your employees and not just, say, employees generically, you need data. And you need data from your own workforce. Too often, data applied to design considerations for the office has come from research that was looking at trends (qualitative data) – and it wasn’t always up to date. And the problem with a trend approach is that what might be declared good for all employees generally might be missing what’s good for your employees specifically.  Such qualitative data has been used more often than not when making design decisions – and quantitative data has been harder to pin down, often inaccessible and tedious. With new technologies, we’re seeing a shift in the accessibility of quantitative data, making it easier to use this to complement the qualitative data metrics that have been established.

Spatial intelligence can help you learn more about how your employees are using the existing space – but also, importantly, how they’re not using the space. This can tell you things like whether people are actually using the couches in your open office floor to collaborate and share ideas. Do they seem, rather, to be gathering in individual offices more often? Are conference rooms being used, or do they sit empty?

With an advanced spatial intelligence solution, you can collect all this information and then use it to derive insights about how your employees want to use their workspace – insights that should shape your design. Research by VergeSense conducted last year, for instance, found that the use of collaboration spaces overall increased by 50%. This kind of data enables you to understand the relationship that people have to their surroundings and to each other. Context for complex social behaviors starts to appear in the data. You can better understand if the space is inhibiting or encouraging knowledge share, for instance. Considerations like circulation space become more relevant as spatial and temporal considerations become accounted for in your offices.

One example we’re seeing is an increase in demand for what are called phone booths – essentially, these are small, enclosed personal spaces that can be put into an open office to give people areas to work quietly and privately.  With these, you don’t have to overhaul a complete floor plan or office – it’s more a matter of adapting and adding to what already exists. And looking at the spatial intelligence data helps make these types of determinations and enable the addition of more popular workspaces and the removal of others that aren’t being utilized.

Design for Success

The pandemic ushered in the concept of remote work on a grand scale – and while the staid old office concept was changing for many companies, the past two years forced a faster move. So, now what? Organizations can’t just expect things to go back to the way they were – and that’s a real opportunity. It’s time to re-think what the office physically looks like, the purpose it serves and how it can become another tool to do work more effectively. Use analytics and spatial intelligence to tackle this transformation from a design perspective.

Brad Golden is Customer Success Manager at VergeSense.