Choice in the Office Can Be Both Frightening and Tantilizing


Choice and change. Those are two words the interiors industry uses a lot to help end users understand the rapidly evolving world of work. But to workers, they happen to be two of the most frightening words. So how can the industry prepare its customers for this office onslaught?

That’s what about 100 designers gathered to talk about in Chicago Thursday during the “Designing for Choice in the Workplace” panel discussion at Discover Financial’s office near the Merchandise Mart . The discussion was organized by Workdesign Magazine and sponsored by AgilQuest, Knoll, Staples Business Advantage and the IIDA.

What attendees discovered is that with choice and change comes a fair number of challenges -- for the designers trying to create the best spaces possible, the companies that hire designers to create their offices and for workers who inhabit them. The ideas of choice, chance and change “scare the bejeezus out of us, but tantalize us as well,” said Cheryl Durst, executive vice president and CEO of IIDA. It is the job of designers to manage choice, chance and change, she added.

Durst led discussion among panelists Arturo Febry, principal and design director at IA Interior Architects; Chris Lambert, vice president of workplace strategy at CannonDesign; Jennifer McCord, director of design at Partners by Design; Gary Miciunas, principal for advisory services at Nelson; and Dean Strombom, a principal at Gensler’s Houston office.

     Dean Strombom of Gensler Speaking


Dean Strombom of Gensler Speaking

Febry outlined the pressing need for managing choice in the workplace. He said in about four years, 50 percent of the workforce will be made up of Millennials, for whom “pay is important, but who want choices in the way they work.”

“This generation does not have loyalty (to their employers),” Febry said. “So how are we going to get them to stay? (Employers need to ask themselves) where can employees work? Are they tethered to a desk or do they work as a community at tables? Do they have flexible hours? Those kind of choices are important to the new generation.”

Strombom said Gensler always has advocated different ways of working, but hasn’t always followed its own advice when designing its own spaces. That’s changing, he said. The new Gensler office in Houston includes a floor dubbed “D6,” which Strombom said creates a seamless continuum between focused work, collaboration and everything in between.

People need a balance in the workplaces they inhabit, from quiet nooks to boisterous collaborative spaces. “Culture is a big part of it,” he said. “It has to be driven from the top down. It is a cultural thing where workers need to know that it is OK to be utilizing these different workspaces.”

The culture of work has to change as well. Previous generations could rely on panels to keep out unwanted distractions. Today headphones are your “door closed” sign, said Miciunas. McCord is working with Morton Salt to help transition the company’s workforce from one where 30 percent of employees are expected to retire in the next 10 years to one where the best and brightest talent flocks to the company. She is helping the company do it through its offices and creating engaging workspaces that resonate with younger workers while still supporting the older generation.

Workers understand what they need in the office, Miciunas said. It is the management that needs help. It isn’t enough to simply provide more choice in the office. If workers don’t feel comfortable or empowered to use those spaces, that’s not providing choice at all.

Strombom said there is a definite shift in the way people work, driven mainly by Millennials. Employees are demanding a different way of working. “I see and sense that shift happening. I don’t think it will be long at all before corporate America looks more and more like 1871,” he said, noting the thriving co-working center located within the Merchandise Mart.

Creating that perfect mix of private and public, heads down and collaboration is difficult.

Though spaces similar to co-working spaces in offices can be designed, they cannot be contrived. Instead, they need to grow organically, the seed planted by the designer. Simply putting in furniture that “feels” like it belongs in a co-working space will not create the same buzz that is found in them.

Despite the best efforts of designers, sometimes the options they create for workers fall flat.

 They simply aren’t used. McCord said it is important to create spaces that are destinations in the office where workers want to go. At the same time, Durst said, many workers still want some kind of ownership of their workplace. But that is shifting from the idea of an individual desk to shared amenities. She used the new Grand Staircase at the Merchandise Mart as an example of a shared amenity that feels person for those who work in the building.

Creating that perfect mix of private and public, heads down and collaboration is difficult, Strombom said, but designers can help spur those serendipitous meetings and connections corporate America so desperately wants. In one project, Strombom said he “designed for inconvenience,” placing no trash cans under the desks. Workers who had trash were forced to get up and drop it in a centralized bin, which created chance meetings between workers. The same company outlawed having lunch at your desk, forcing workers to go to cafes in the building, which would lead to more connections. BoF

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