Human-centered Design and the Future of Workplace

As designers, how should we be advising our clients on navigating the new normal of a hybrid workplace?

Whitelaw Twining, Vancouver. Photo by Heywood Chan

As we navigate the new normal of a hybrid workplace, global architecture, design, and planning firm Gensler is leading conversations with our clients on how the desire for reconnection is shaping how we plan for the future of our workplaces. It’s also emphasizing the true impact of real estate, places, and space. Now is the time for companies to rethink what their workplaces can offer employees in a way that provides collaborative experiences and in-person interactions in spaces that feel inclusive, equitable, healthy, and are designed for human connection.

For over 18 months, we’ve had to learn new ways of working, which often, at the best of times, proved challenging. As a result, we’ve discovered better ways to manage the balance between our work and personal lives that many aren’t prepared to abandon when current conditions warrant a safer and healthier return to the workplace. As companies plan their return, and for those already venturing forward, the most successful will be those that recognize work can be done in non-traditional ways – hybrid schedule between working in the office, at third places, or at home. But with a focused lens on this new work model, what will that mean for the workplace?

Guidewire, Ontario. Photo by Ben Rahn/A-Frame)

The driving force of human-centered design

Despite how we work in the future, the workplace is not going away. The purpose and value of the workplace is still critical to our companies and our company cultures. It plays a crucial role in providing collaboration, connection, and visceral human experiences – all sought-after needs following so many months working from home. The future workplace must bring people, place, and technology together to ensure equity for all work modes – hybrid, virtual, or in-person.

The most valued workplaces will be those prioritizing human experience. This is an opportunity to realign real estate with real needs. As architects and designers, it is incumbent upon us to understand our clients’ culture more deeply and to ensure their physical spaces are reflective and supportive of how they intend to grapple with these new constraints. It’s about reimagining real estate footprints and square footage needs through the lens of ROI, with a heavy emphasis on value-added benefits like workplace amenities – which will look different than pre-pandemic offerings.

LoyaltyOne, Calgary. Photo by Tom Arban

Amenities as the true differentiator

As employers and developers are safely ready to bring back employees and attract new tenants to workplaces, they need to provide a space to which people want to return. A space that meets the evolving needs stemming from our collective pandemic experience. Ping-pong tables and fancy espresso machines are no longer what employees are seeking in their workplaces. Design considerations emphasizing connectivity and the idea of health and wellness are essential to future workplace amenities. Common features like repurposing heads-down areas into more collaborative spaces, access to fresh air and the outdoors, and providing places where people can come together will be the true differentiator between companies and the amenities/workspace they offer employees.

The pandemic has shifted our perspective on the importance of access to outdoor space. These “third places” serve as alternative work settings offering employees fresh air, natural light, and more focused time away from noise and distraction when needed. Revitalized rooftops are one of the biggest rediscovered opportunities in real estate development. Natural green spaces and biophilia provide a sense of wellbeing that, in turn, allow employees and tenants the ability to recharge and be more creative and innovative in the workplace.

T-Mobile Headquarters, Bellevue, WA. Photo by Heywood Chan

Critical lessons to remember going forward

While we’ve learned a lot throughout the pandemic and look forward to a post-pandemic world, not all the trends we’re currently seeing will remain. Design for human connection and health and wellbeing will continue to be a driving force, but workplace configuration will likely flex, depending on a company’s needs at any given time to reflect the growth of their staff. However, there are lessons that we need to carry with us going forward to ensure we are prepared for whatever the future may bring, whether it’s another pandemic or some other test of our resilience.

  • Remain flexible. Companies—and people—need to be prepared to pivot at any given time  in reaction to unexpected challenges. Flexibility must come from leadership down.
  • As leaders, we need to recognize the varying lifestyles and personalities of our employees and shift how we focus on managing outcomes and KPIs – more about quality of work over quantity of output.
  • Encourage employees to take time to recharge and recognize that everyone is balancing their personal and professional lives in a much different way with less separation between the two than pre-pandemic times.
  • Invest in technology to ensure the hybrid model evolves into a more equitable experience, regardless of whether your employees are working in the office, from a third place, or from home.
  • Touchless experiences will also continue to be highly valued by employees. Leveraging voice or gesture tech in lieu of touch is another design solution that adds a sense of health and wellbeing in the workplace.

We’ve all shared in this global experience together. We’re all responsible for creating the future of workplace where we can work smarter, healthier, and with a focus on collaboration and innovation. The desire for human connection continues to drive our recovery and reminds us every day of the true impact of real estate.

Jason Santeford is Managing Director at Gensler Vancouver.  He possesses 20+ years of diverse experience with complex, sophisticated projects of scale including mixed-use, office, healthcare, commercial retail, and residential. This diversity reflects the variety of construction methodologies and unique characteristics inherent to each