A Futuristic Office Is Less Important Than An Office That’s Good For Workers

Guest post by Meg Osborn, fastcoexist.com

There’s a lot of new technology that companies can put into their new offices—but instead of just following the latest trends, they’re finding out what workers need.


According to a new report from Glassdoor about America’s labor market and job trends, “2016 was a landmark year for hiring.” When measured in rising pay, unfilled jobs, and historically low unemployment, 2016 proved one of the strongest in our economy’s recent history.

Interestingly, “landmark” times for hiring also yield fascinating times to be designing and/or creating the future of workplaces. Just as Glassdoor celebrates the strength of 2016, it also acknowledges that the current 5.85 million unfilled job openings in America translate to lost productivity and increased competition for talent. It also recognizes new technologies spurring innovation will also change how we work and the tools we need. Competition for talent? Enhancing productivity? New technologies and tools? Strategic and successful workplaces can play a critical role in helping companies adapt and solve these challenges.

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Just as 2016 proved a banner year for employment, 2017 promises to be an exciting one for workplaces. Every company, large or small, has the opportunity to introduce new ideas and practices this year that will strengthen their workforce and improve their bottom line. Here’s a look at three ideas that can enhance workplaces in 2017.


“Appropriate” workplaces may not sound as sexy as “innovative,” “cool,” or “transformative” ones, but they definitely can prove to be more valuable to a company’s success. Over the past decade, far too many companies followed macro trends and shifts in workplace design rather than invest in research focused on their own staff, work realities, and needs. Having such measurable evidence of how employees work and the types of spaces they need and prefer can drive significant improvement in retention, productivity, and profit.

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Zurich North America raised the bar for leveraging data in workplace design in 2016 when they opened their new North American headquarters outside of Chicago. The 783,000-square-foot building serving 3,000 employees was designed based on crowdsourced ideas from employees. Two years before the new building opened, Zurich built two pilot floors and had 150 employees spend 12 weeks testing out four different work environments. They were able to test furniture, technology, organization, and layout and weigh in on all of it via surveys, town hall meetings, and group feedback. Ultimately, the data revealed key findings, including:

  • Casual furniture: Despite trend data at that time that suggested millennials preferred couches and Ping-Pong tables, the Zurich data revealed their people viewed these types of furniture as a hindrance to being efficient.
  • Social hubs: Zurich ultimately included a dining area, fitness center, outdoor walking paths, and a performance auditorium in their new HQ based on resounding feedback from employees seeking places they could take a break and/or connect with colleagues in new ways.
  • Private enclaves: While Zurich employees enjoyed open, collaborative workplaces, they also really enjoyed enclaves—private spaces designed for individual, focused work. The new HQ strategically organizes enclaves throughout the building to meet this need.
  • Sit/stand desks: Almost across the board, Zurich employees wanted more opportunity to move during the workday. All employees have sit/stand desks in the new HQ.
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Via its workplace testing, Zurich used data to understand its employees’ wants and needs for the workplace. Another route for companies can be to use data to help employees understand the difference between how they perceive and actually execute their work. For example, recent survey data revealed that employees felt they were at their desks 68% of the time, but actually only occupied them 44% of the time. Similar data suggested that while employees often feel team meeting rooms are “always booked,” average utilization is around 40%. That means employees can misjudge how and when they use spaces by 25% to 30% on average. This is further evidence that having data and measurable proof can help companies introduce workplace changes and make strategic updates for the better.

Even if companies can’t invest in a full test workplace like Zurich, they should consider their own methods for engaging employees, technology, and research to ensure the workplace they offer is truly calibrated to their employee and company needs.

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Another interesting finding in Glassdoor’s recent survey is that nearly all employers are now hiring for technology jobs, even in more traditional markets like health care and retail. This trend is connected to the automation and efficiency provided by new technology along with its influence on nearly every aspect of how we work.

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Take for example DCI Artform, one of the largest retail shopper marketing agencies in the world. While rooted in the more traditional market of retail, DCI Artform launched a new office last year that features a technology hub and Digital Cave. Using high-resolution laser and stereoscopic projection and 3D computer graphics, the Cave allows DCI clients and employees to virtually experience retail environments and displays before investing in their full creation. Using the technology helps DCI better engage brands, reduce costs, and still create the most effective, cutting-edge solutions possible. It also changes the type of work environment they require and certain hiring needs.

As new technology in robotics, virtual reality, holographics—you name it—is introduced each day, it’s key for companies to be aware but not overly eager. Adopting new technology into company culture and workplaces isn’t a golden ticket to success—it requires the same level of research and strategy as any other workplace change. However, workplaces need to be paying attention and always thinking about how a new technology can lead to a better workplace and stronger business outcomes.

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One of the more fascinating shifts we’ve seen in recent years is the focus on corporate workplace strategy in unfamiliar spaces like hospitals and research labs. Organizations are recognizing that the same principles that can improve workplaces for insurance companies and technology firms can also enrich these less accustomed buildings.

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Penn Medicine’s Abramson Cancer Center in the Center for Advanced Cellular Therapies is one example of this trend. After initial plans called for the center’s four principal investigator (PI) teams to be separated across two floors, Penn Medicine engaged workplace design to increase efficiencies in its program. This 25% increase in efficiency enables all four PI teams to occupy a single floor, which will strengthen collaboration and communication in the teams’ pursuit to eradicate cancer. Similarly, the University of Minnesota Health launched a new Clinics & Surgery Center that eliminates private offices in favor of collaborative work environments. The change has been received well by staff and is helping M Health accommodate nearly twice as many patients with significantly less real estate.

Based on feedback and outreach our team has seen, this shift is only in its infancy. Throughout 2017, look for more “non-corporate” environments like hospitals to begin adopting corporate workplace design as a way to strengthen staff experience, limit costs, and gain efficiency.

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It appears 2016’s big year for employment has set the stage for a fascinating year in workplace design. As companies look to evolve their workplaces, it’s key they commit to new efforts in ideas rooted in evidence and not just macro trends. This approach can help organizations succeed in the year ahead and beyond.

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