The New Modern Workplace

The pandemic forever changed our relationship with the office. Architects, designers, and product manufacturers are taking note.
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It is no longer a given that employees will clock in to the office each day. After working from home in sweats and finding that their jobs could, in fact, be done remotely, employees gained some leverage. Now, they need more to attract them into the office than mere duty. Often that means compelling workplace design that allows for more flexibility,
comfort, creativity, and meaningful collaboration than ever before.

Gone are the endless rows of cubicles, the sad gray carpets, the staid conference rooms, and the stationary workspaces. Enter the hospitality influences, with new offices taking cues more from hotels and luxury homes than corporate design of years past. Employees—those emerging from the pandemic and also a new generation of workers—want options. They want to be able to work from the outdoor patio, the cafe, the swanky common areas with lounge-y seating, and they want to be able to be videoed in and feel like they aren’t second-rate contributors. Holistic and inclusive design, connections to nature, luxe amenities, technology, health and wellness, culture, and community all now take center stage in supporting a happy and inspired workforce—one that shows up.

Often this means “repositioning,” or renovating, behemoth buildings in a major way. Brian Parker, principal of the interior design studio at Cooper Carry, calls this shift going “from corporate to comfy.” With the formula out the door, designers of corporate spaces are getting to let loose and experiment.

“In the old days, offices were simple, efficient spaces to come and sit at computers,” says Parker. “That’s no longer the thing. We have to think, how do we create engaging spaces that evoke a comfortable, relaxed environment where people want to be?”

We spoke with expert designers, architects, and product manufacturers to break down the top trends shaping the modern office.

Sharing Spaces

Working from home, people got accustomed to having a choice of where they would sit, and they might move around during the day—from a desk to the kitchen counter, to the yard, to the dining table, to a comfy chair. Office layouts reflect this new pattern of movement—a “palette of postures” that is said to promote better health and wellness, and “hoteling,” which allows employees to reserve personal spaces around the office on their own schedule.

Energizing meetings might take place around an outdoor fire pit; reservable heads-down focus areas might be tucked in quiet corners; and maker spaces might intersect with higher-traffic areas to prompt interaction, creativity, and collaboration. “Third spaces,” which feel more like hotel lobbies or coffee shops, become crucial areas that
represent a combination of social mingling and productive, engaged work. Often, it’s the lobby or reception area that serves as the great room, hub, and meeting space, and the vibe may be simultaneously more inspiring and casual than before. “When entering a suite, right away you want to have that cultural moment, entering into the energy and heartbeat of the company,” says Parker. “You don’t have to walk back to the conference suite.”

Mobility is key, which means laptops and plug-in capabilities everywhere, from lobby seating to patios and planters. “The idea that everybody needs to be on a desktop is anachronistic,” says John Bencich, principal of Square Feet Studio, whose Atlanta BeltLine-adjacent office has long served as an experimentation lab for the firm’s designs. “And thoughts about square footage per person should fade away a bit.”

A driving element of adaptable design is furniture that can move, adjust, and perform double duty. Enter companies like Kimball International, which has an Atlanta-based executive team (its official headquarters is in Jasper, Indiana), and produces innovative furnishings to meet the changing workplace, based on independent research. Desks on casters. Moveable markerboards that double as room dividers. Height-adjustable everything, programmed via QR code. Light, bouncy stools (the new fitness ball?) that can be pulled up to various workstations. And privacy panels for open workspaces that can be flipped down like a table skirt when used as a stand-alone desk.

Modular systems, like Kimball’s EverySpace platform, provide flexible furniture “architecture” by allowing for combinations of workstations, desks, bookcases, storage, and dividers that can customize everything from open-space layouts to tiny work nooks—and then, it can be reconfigured again and again. “It’s a way to create division that’s not cubicle-esque,” says Jackson Armor, the company’s Southeastern showroom experience manager. “Shelves let light in, you can store things for practical use, for aesthetic use, you can look through to see if someone’s busy . . . so it affords privacy but also connection.” Slide in a room divider when you need one; push desks together for a huddle table to collaborate.

Kimball’s Poppin brand is known for its youthful office accessories and modern furniture, including phone booth–like “pods,” which range from individual sizes for phone calls and quiet work to six-person spaces complete with display screens and connectivity. Being inside one is akin to having on noise-canceling headphones—a snug retreat from a bustling common workroom. Poppin also offers a line called Poppin Spaces—framed panels (glass, fabric, acoustic tiles) that connect easily to create free standing rooms in lieu of committing to drywall. (They’re on wheels, with monitors featuring calendar bookings.)

Flooring, too, helps imply transitions by changing the look and feel of a space without walls. “Our product might be asked to create a demarcation: This is an area where you can have a conversation or keep your voice down here,” says Chip DeGrace, director of design purpose at Interface, an Atlanta-based manufacturer known for its modular carpet tiles and other flooring. “What are those tactile, visual, and acoustic cues that can change culture?”

In an era all about choice and personalization, DeGrace says they might use a dozen different typologies of flooring in a project where previously they might have used three or four.

Going Modular

Every expert we spoke with mentioned outdoor spaces and the influence of nature as part of any new office design, with biophilia (a human’s innate wish to connect with nature), health and wellness, and sustainability acting as driving forces. Gathering spaces call for shade, heaters and fans, and connectivity en plein air.

Gensler, with architectural firm Duda|Paine, worked on the cutting-edge LEED Platinum NCR building in Midtown Atlanta. Here, a sprawling terrace atop the parking deck connects the two buildings and features lush landscaping, cafe seating, and an indoor/outdoor bar. According to Erin Greer, principal and studio director of Gensler’s Atlanta Work Studio and the company’s global practice technology leader, outdoor spaces like these are now often the new hub of energy in the workplace. In fact, she was involved in one Kentucky-based project that was considering an all-outdoor office.

Jordache Avery, architect and principal of Atlanta-based architecture firm Xmetrical, worked on an adaptive-reuse office building before the pandemic (Koncept House, an entrepreneurial hub in Atlanta’s Castleberry Hill neighborhood), and a second project with the same client post-pandemic (Koncept House II in an old Masonic lodge in nearby Capitol View), noting a changing tune on the importance of outdoor space. “We talked initially about putting in a roof-deck on that first project,” he says, “but it wasn’t really a priority. With this project? It’s a priority.”

Blocky high-rise with no patio space? No problem. On the new pilot floors at the Coca-Cola campus, Gensler cut into existing interior spaces to create new outdoor spaces. “It can be costly,” says Greer, who worked on the project, “but it has had some of the most dramatic impact.”

It’s not just outdoor space that boosts this connection to nature. Indoor designs are increasingly punctuated with an abundance of plant life and greenery, windows and skylights that allow in huge swaths of natural light, organic patterns, and natural materials.

“There’s a lot less stark, cool white,” says Parker of Cooper Carry. “We’re seeing more wood, softer and calmer tones, and patterns moving away from modern and more toward organic forms.”

The firm’s mixed-use Midtown Union project features a large, two-story glass lobby bathed in sunlight, with natural materials, stone, and plants as a driving design element. “This is a very different approach to how we may have handled a corporate lobby in the past,” says Parker. Furthermore, this connection with nature dovetails with an emphasis on sustainability. In addition to natural materials, this might include recycled materials, like
PVC-free materials, low-VOC applications, green energy sources, and new ways of building that reduce energy cost. Xmetrical’s Avery has been exploring cross-laminated timber construction for office buildings (several layers of wood glued together crosswise), which has the strength of concrete and steel construction with a much lower environmental impact.

All-Inclusive

“Belonging” is a common refrain of the new office conversation, and that applies to everyone. Diversity, equity, and inclusion are being considered in the design of workplaces more than ever before. That can mean gender-neutral restrooms, mothers rooms, and using colors and materials sensitive to neurodiversity. Quiet rooms can calm the mind, while energizing spaces can provide a mood boost. This can mean carving in lots of different types of spaces.

“We try to create a diversity of space so we can appeal to all levels of a company’s employee base,” says Parker. “We’re looking at materiality, size of spaces and their locations, seating heights, lighting levels, colors, acoustics—super granular levels about what’s best suited for all different types of people.”

According to Jessica Gubbins, senior director of brand marketing at Kimball, the company’s customizable office products are meant to create this sense of democracy. (The latest generation of pods, launched in February, are ADA-compliant, for one.) But, says Gubbins, when it comes to textures, colors, and workplace furnishings as a sensory experience for a neurodiverse workforce: “We hadn’t necessarily been asked these questions before. But
now it’s something we want to focus on.”

Another inclusive trend? Eliminating hierarchy in the conference room. No one should have their back to the video screen; bosses don’t need to take the heads of tables. Modular, mobile furniture allows for more creative and egalitarian participation.

Creature Comforts

The term “resimerical,” a portmanteau of “residential” and “commercial” describing a homey design with commercial capability, has existed for years, but the concept has never been more relevant. It’s all part of creating an office environment that’s comfortable and a place employees want to spend time. You might sip your coffee and read the paper from a lounge chair before digging into emails, or you might crack a beer and review notes with a colleague on a leather sofa at the end of the day. Comfort is key.

“There’s a softening of the atmosphere with residential design elements, like open shelving, framed art, mirrors, rugs, and floor lamps,” says Kristin Kong of Atlanta-based K Kong Designs, who has designed interiors for boutique office spaces, including a historic renovation for architectural firm Cevian Design Lab in Rome, Georgia. “We’re seeing the combination of traditional areas in homes such as bars and lounge areas in office spaces, creating more comfort and gathering opportunities.”

And it’s not just boutique spaces seeing this influence. Cartersville-based flooring manufacturer Shaw Contract (a subsidiary of Dalton-based Shaw Industries) recently collaborated with West Elm on a line of rugs that look like they belong alongside your hearth, but are built to withstand the traffic of a busy office. Materials become plusher, more tactile, and warmer, and designs are inspired by West Elm’s most popular residential designs.

“We’re wanting to create feelings of home, but still wanting to be in the office together to collaborate and innovate,” says Shannon Crider Langley, director of workplace, retail, and multifamily marketing at Shaw. “What better way to create a vignette of space than to bring in an area rug?”

Tech Talk

Hybrid work—a combination of working in-office and at home—is a new normal at many companies. A huge component of hybrid success is technology—and technologically savvy spaces—to meet that demand, especially in meeting spaces and for collaboration. Or, as Greer of Gensler puts it: “We work to maintain the equity of those in and out of the room.” Each team has to figure out what platform works best for them, but after that, it should be
plug and play.

In addition to enlarged video displays, says Greer, “We encourage everyone to bring their laptops and turn on the camera so there’s equal representation.” Greer suggests concierge-style platforms that recognize you when you enter the meeting room for ease of connection and efficiency. A one-stop digital app, says Greer, could add a hospitality-style dimension to work connectivity, where employees can book a desk, find their team, order lunch, schedule meetings, and generally stay engaged. Gensler’s Digital Experience Design team curates customized solutions for clients, based on each company’s existing tech platforms.

What’s more, Gensler’s Intelligent Places team uses data and technology to predict how a space will perform before it’s even built. Complex algorithms analyze traffic patterns, human behavior, and potential scenarios to determine the best office layouts. Meanwhile, Atlanta-based software company Cove.tool analyzes data for designers, architects, engineers, and contractors to predict a building’s performance and optimize sustainability.

Acoustics too, can make or break the success of hybrid teamwork, and there’s an increased need to reduce reverberation and increase soft spaces. Shaw Contract is addressing that starting with the floor. “Flooring is one of the largest surfaces in a space,” says Ashley Olson, design director of the workplace and hospitality studio at Shaw, whose cutting-edge Create Centre in Cartersville was designed by Gensler. “It has a huge effect on the acoustics of a space.”

Shaw created a tool called Sound Advisor that allows clients to plug in space and flooring specifications to generate acoustic ratings, allowing them to preview how well specific designs block impact noises. One product that has performed well is BottleFloor, made from recycled plastic bottles, which is a hybrid between a hard and soft floor. “It has this dense, needle-felted construction,” says Olson. “It’s almost the same material as acoustic wall coverings, and it absorbs sound exceptionally well.”

Destination: Office

Employers, take note: The modern office must serve as a destination with a community-driven experience. Sometimes, that means a company’s or building’s amenities: nice gyms, luxury touches, chic cafes, party spaces—the “hotelification” of the office building. Other times, that means a choice location: in a walkable neighborhood, with proximity to restaurants, bars, gyms, coffee shops, and parks. “A walkable community allows for the amenities companies are looking for,” says Greer of Gensler, “without having to do it themselves.”

Shifts in workspaces can also mean shifts to more desirable locations. “We are definitely seeing a flight towards high-class properties with heavy amenities,” says Pace Halter, president and COO of W.C. Bradley Co. Real Estate, which is developing a prime riverfront site in Columbus into a multiuse complex called Riverfront Place, home to the new Synovus corporate headquarters as well as other offices. “Many companies are finding class A office space much more achievable and with the reduced square footage that flex/hybrid [work styles] allow, they are choosing to upgrade to newer, nicer buildings while consolidating their footprints often from multiple locations into one.”

Bencich of Square Feet Studio, which is working with Portman on an office and retail hub called the Junction Krog District at the BeltLine and Irwin Streets in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward, says a “front porch” space, instead of a formal lobby, will connect the building to the neighborhood. That building, he says, has three restaurants but isn’t “overly amenitized,” leveraging its connection to the community as its appeal. “There’s a pride of place,” Bencich says of the porch concept, “but people can join easily. Someone might say, ‘Oh, I don’t work in that building, but I’ll meet you at the bar.’ It works on more levels than a traditional office building.” Simultaneously, it links the offices with the neighborhood around it, chock full of amenities from food halls to yoga studios and, of course, the BeltLine itself.

In Buckhead, Square Feet Studio is working on the design of 35,000 square feet of new restaurant and retail space called Oxton at Piedmont Center, an aging grand dame office park not known for its walkability. “It’s always rented,” says Bencich. “But they wanted to make it cooler. It’s going to change the entire vibe. I mean, that’s a sea change.”

Lobbies in general are moving more toward a chic retail aesthetic. “For a visitor or an office worker, you’re going to feel like you’re arriving at a place where something is happening,” says Bencich. “And that’s what you want.”

 

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