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The 3 Qualities of Modern Offices

 by Russell Duncan
by Russell Duncan

To be a modern office space is to be human-centric, thoughtfully designed, and adaptive to disruption.

Engaging and modern office spaces are centered around one thing–the human. They are fueled by how unique individuals, teams, and orgs actually work. People are dynamic and as such, offices should be responsive to their needs and preferences in order for employees to be productive and engaged with their work.

All of this requires a ton of data, thoughtful design, and a flexible mindset–all of which are passions of Russell Duncan.

Russell Duncan bio card

Russell is a lifelong CRE Tech and PropTech professional who is passionate about enabling people and organizations to create spaces that enrich the lives of those who use them. As a product marketer, Russell helps organizations realize the power and benefit of technology and data to enhance the built environment through a human, value-centered approach. Prior to joining JLL Technologies, Russell worked at Alteryx, Apto, and Digital Map Products (Lightbox).

Ryan Tidwell (Saltmine): How would you define the term “modern office space?” What qualities does such an office have?

Russell Duncan: Three qualities come to mind: human-centric, thoughtful, and adaptive.

1. Human-centric
Modern office space must be catered to the human and as we’ve seen, it’s definitely a trend that will stick around for the long haul. While office design is always evolving, we’ve been in a very positive transition period for some time, and it’s one that is increasingly putting human needs first.

It’s almost funny to say that aloud because you think, of course it should be human-centric, but yet many companies have failed.

The shift we’re currently experiencing is drawing the barriers of modern offices to the surface–many are finally seeing how the old playbook is irrelevant to our modern times. It’s a shift that lends itself and caters to the human so productivity and job satisfaction can occur.

Worker preferences have never been more important. We cannot forget that just last year over 4.5 million people quit their jobs because workers no longer accept pre-pandemic working conditions. Employees begrudgingly accepted rigid workplaces in the past but now that those spaces have been revealed as irrelevant, amidst the shift to a more remote-first work environment, people will not go back to an office if it is not designed with their needs in mind.

2. Thoughtful
It might be an overused term but thoughtful and empathetic design doesn’t just consider worker preferences but uses them as fuel for the design project.

A modern office environment is one that people actually want to be at–it’s a place that fosters rich experiences with other humans. To me, that’s the fuel to go do good work. It provides not only a place where people can be productive but common and shared spaces that draws people together for enriched human interactions.

Employees who feel good about interacting with an office alongside their colleagues, perpetuates positivity.

For example, the design and “vibe” of a space. Aesthetics are important, flow is important–all of these details and variables are key in making a positive, office experience. It’s asking:

  • How can the spatial arrangement of things be more thoughtful?
  • What types of surfaces and textures are inviting?
  • What colors and types of lights provide warmth and comfort?

3. Adaptive
Covid won’t be the last type of disruption we will face. While future disruptors may not change how we work at the scale Covid did, we can be sure that novel events will continue to put us outside of our comfort zones and challenge everything we think we know about something.

Covid did that to corporate real estate on a mass scale.

Before Covid, we built offices and people came–because that was the norm. “Good” work happened at offices, right?

Now, it has shifted as many are reporting that they’re more productive at home. Workplace planners, human resources, and executives are desperately trying to “crack the code” on what will draw people back in. The office employees left when Covid first went into effect, won’t cut it because it’s not conducive–or adaptive–to the “new” way people work.

3 qualities of modern offices

RT: How does today’s modern office differ from the office five years ago?

RD: Five years ago the big trend for offices were open concepts and I think we over indexed on those types of environments.

Whenever something new comes along, we tend to, as a society, over-index on that thing. It’s going from one binary to another as opposed to an evolution–moving through a spectrum or through the gradient of whatever.

Five years ago, it was all “The walls are coming down. Every single wall. It’s all going to be rows of desks and that’s it.” Which can work in concept but think about how the immediate choice has aged. Which is not great.

Many offices sit vacant 50% of the time which is bad for things like the environment, corporate spend on utilities, etc. We went totally “out with the old and in with the new” as opposed to gradual change and iterations.

I like to look at the office environment as a pendulum. Society has swung from one extreme–e.g., big, open spaces–to a more remote-first model where that kind of space isn’t necessary.

The remote-first movement was a movement out of necessity due to the pandemic but it too was an over-index in some ways. Drastic change is often spurred by unpredictable events, which is natural; however, when we choose to change things drastically because it’s not the other “thing,” it’s unnatural. It’s change for the sake of change.

To be “modern” is to have “characteristics of the present”–the needs, expectations, and demands, of the now–as well as a taste of the future without over-indexing. It has to appeal to the intuitive state of now but point towards the future by employing best practices of those pioneering a new way.

RT: What’s the cultural element to this? Should office spaces be more so driven by culture so a space’s needs reveal themselves over time? 

RD: Yes, I think that’s a good way to look at it. If you’re not having a regular pulse check on what people would respond to favorably, you run the risk of alienating people and then having to redo things–the cost of change is pretty extreme in that sense.

For example, the co-working space really changed office design and strategy because they have a good sense of what people really want out of physical workplaces. Players like WeWork and Industrious have influenced larger occupiers–who aren’t even relying on co-working–in the modeling of their own offices. They’re looking into all of what these companies have done effectively and applying it to their own office offerings.

Consider PayPal, each of their spaces reflect the various personas of people who actually use a particular office. The employee pulse influences all spatial decisions and is the blueprint for their workplace strategy.

Mobility is so big right now. Because yes, theoretically, we can work from anywhere, but people like options and according to Gensler, only 12% of people want to stay totally remote. Many people desire to go back to the office but not at the expense of flexibility which is what people really want. People want autonomy over their own lives–to work from home when they need to but also have access to enjoyable spaces that are both functional and purposeful.

Office design and execution is a huge influencer in:

  • Attracting and retaining talent,
  • Bringing a brand to life,
  • Providing a social outlet,
  • Connecting new employees to company culture,
  • Driving employee engagement and affinity,
  • And encouraging both spontaneous interactions as well as networking.

Your workplace is a big competitive differentiator.

RT: In our increasingly “phygital” world, what sort of technologies can workplace teams leverage to evolve offices into modern ones?

RD: Technologies that can actually measure the workplace experience. This allows workplace teams to measure what office interactions are meaningful, where those interactions are happening, and how the inhabitants of the space are interacting with all of it.

For example, workplace experience apps help eliminate friction and remove prohibitors around corporate services which has long been a pain point for occupiers. Workplace experience apps allows employees to do two important things:

  • To interact with the office with a renewed sense of security and ease of use. From things like reserving desks, collaboration spaces, to reporting maintenance issues, etc.–these technologies make life at the office easy. It also provides workplace teams a birds eye view of how people are interacting with the space.
  • To interact with the subtext of how work gets done. For example, things that can otherwise be a massive prohibitor to productivity.

Any technology that can take static utilization data, and present it in an actionable way, is essential to any workplace technology stack. From the actual sensor in the office keeping track of physical movement, to how that data is captured and presented–technology can help bridge the gap between the pulse of your people and your workplace strategy, design, and execution.

When people interact in space, their behavior is being captured which is the most valuable data point you can use in a workplace strategy. To see week over week, month over month, how spaces are actually being used is huge.

Earlier we talked about making the office more enriched–a workplace technology like Saltmine does that with space planning, office design, workplace strategy, etc. Technologies like these are essential with how the workplace is changing because they create a visual representation of an office’s lifecycle by perpetually adapting to real time usage of people’s interaction with office space.

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