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Ping-pong tables and coffee bars – is that what employees want?

Incentives are important, but giving employees a comfortable place to get work done is key

By Zhen Wu, Designer (Boston, MA)

Living and working in Boston – a city full of young professionals and upstart tech companies – it’s easy to understand the difference between working in a traditional office and a "work space" that caters to a younger population. Many young people here choose to leave the corporate world and its implied suit-and-tie environment for a flexibility driven industry like a start-up. Along with this trend, work place design has dramatically shifted from cubicle-oriented to open offices equipped with an array of entertainment and beverage dispensers to entice the market. With work place design being an ever evolving topic, what comes next?

While gaming machines and coffee bars do seem to be incentives, employees agree that a work space needs to function. According to recent articles from the Boston Globe and Curbed, a new report on workplace engagement indicates that these allegedly enticing incentives may be seen as unnecessary. For example, if the majority of the employees prefer to work in a lounge setting, they don’t also need an entertainment station. To understand how a work space functions for the new generation, we need to envision what their day looks like and how the space they're in can further generate productivity.

  1. Work Stations: Industries that rely on software and coding no longer require desktop computers for production. Tech companies are allowing laptops as connection stations to a digital cloud. Spaces that can allow workers to be mobile are welcomed as work stations disappear. However, industries that rely heavily on graphics and content still will appreciate larger and multiple screens for desktop computers. A company may have both types of users, so designers need to first fully understand and identify the industries and working habits of the occupants to create a comfortable and efficient work space.
  2. Connectivity: Let's be clear: Wi-Fi-enabled spaces should be a standard. Robust cloud storage as well as effective facilities to allow necessary tele/data equipment to function is essential. This cannot be an afterthought during the design process.
  3. Meetings: Meeting can happen in all forms in a modern work space. Lunch meetings, walking meetings, elevator meetings, happy hour meetings… they’re all viable. Deliberately defined meeting spaces, therefore, may no longer be the only solutions. On a warm summer afternoon, getting outside to perk up can be an enticing and productive reason not to be inside.
    Conference rooms often take up the most real estate in a space despite being empty for much of the day. A large furniture company recently used sensors to track the use of their conference rooms and found that larger conference rooms are often used at less than half of their potential occupancy. Also, smaller conference rooms are booked more often than the larger rooms. By providing smaller and more equipped rooms with screens, companies can greatly increase the efficiency of all spaces.
  4. Retreat: In today’s open office, individual privacy is a major concern. A workplace is filled with daily activities, often making it difficult to concentrate. Offering pockets of retreat in various forms can offer employees a haven to have conversations, work sessions, or even a meditative (or nap!) space away from office buzz.
    Recent studies of workplaces across the globe corroborate the importance of retreat places on "campus." These studies show that many of the successes in productivity from tech companies result from the fluid uses of private and public spaces necessary for different tasks.
  5. Community: For spaces that are meant to have gatherings, the traditional cafeteria style is beginning to phase out as café-style spaces are appearing. People are no longer looking to be in line and sit with the masses. They are looking for privacy with smaller, round tables and couches that encourage intimate conversations.
    In recent visits to a local tech co-work space, I couldn’t help but notice the awkward interactions of visitors in their gathering space. People were immersed in their laptops and missing out on potential face time with those around them. As designers, we need to be aware of this technology addiction effect and design around it. A gathering space, for instance, should promote conversation. Furniture styles can discourage the use of electronics by providing less horizontal surface. Or picture the average bar – people most often stand, socializing and congregating near the bar. By taking away the furniture that encourages isolation, people look for conversations.
  6. Turn-over: In the world of entrepreneurship and start-ups, people understand that growth is a goal and work spaces need to accommodate their companies. As spatial designers, we can’t design for one constant tenant occupying a space for an extended period of time. Spaces have to evolve and be flexible enough for the next company on a fast turn- around time. A previous data-support tenant may be replaced by an e-commerce satellite office. How do we allow a space to transform and maintain efficiency?

Our workplace design strategies can and should appeal to the current generation of young professionals who are changing our economy. But we can’t let function get away from form – everyone wants their office to foster productivity. Boston is one of country’s leading cities for tech and start-up companies. As creatives, we should set an example to further the research of employee-oriented place-making to better serve the next generation of professionals who will continue to shape our global economy.

Zhen Wu is a design coordinator in our architecture team in Boston.

Café-style gathering rooms often replace cafeterias and offer other amenities.

Lounge spaces now offer an alternative work space to the cubicle or office.

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