At the height of the high-tech boom in the middle of the last decade, companies like Google and Facebook drew attention for transforming the office into a hospitable environment that would entice employees to practically live at the workplace.
Even smaller tech firms like Manchester’s Dyn Systems reflected the trend. Its corporate headquarters in the Manchester Millyard earned the “Awesome Interior” designation from Business NH Magazine in 2016 when it featured the “coolest office and commercial spaces that are both functional and reflective of the company’s style and mission.”
The magazine described 60,000 square feet of open workspace with “whimsical touches that include a slide, a putting green and an event space with cafeteria, custom wall murals from local art students and living plant walls.”
The former Dyn office in Manchester featured unique touches including a slide and living plant walls. (Photos by Christine Carignan)
Dyn was acquired in 2016 by tech giant Oracle, which in 2019 closed the Manchester office, shrunk the workforce and consolidated NH operations at its more conventional Nashua campus.
But the lessons of those heady years have not been lost on office designers and architects today, who are struggling with a different problem—getting people to come into the office at all.
A Permanent Transformation
As COVID-19 recedes from pandemic to endemic, work life for many has been permanently transformed. Many who successfully worked from home are now refusing to return to the office full time and changing jobs if employers demand that they do.
Many employers realize that retaining hard-to-find employees and getting the most out of them will require some accommodation of their work-at-home expectations, with occasional or scheduled trips to the office as needed—a hybrid model.
In many cases, that means changing the design of the workspace, acquiring new technologies and making the office a place for collaboration with attributes that are attractive to a hybrid workforce.
Firms like Robin, based in Boston, have sprung up to offer systems that support desk booking and room scheduling—hybrid meeting technologies that are simple to use and enhance visitor experiences. “Meeting rooms are getting smaller due to the increased participation from remote attendees. Oval or rectangular meeting room tables are being replaced with round tables due to the collaborative way people work,” according to the Robin website.
While presentation-style spaces are still needed, these spaces are now being designed with hybrid collaboration in mind and include technology like digital whiteboards, video conferencing cameras that are plug-and-play, and conference room booking software.
Stephanie Lull with SRL Architects in Portland, Maine, has seen demand increase for such changes among her clients. “Many of my clients are responding to that,” she says. “Before the pandemic I was doing a lot of conventional office design that got built, and all of the sudden there was no one in the office. We did expansions with a lot of open office space, and then no one was there for two years. It was like a ghost town. What I’m finding now is that clients really need flexibility so they can respond to whatever the future brings.”
That means responding to the needs of the employees in new and creative ways, which requires more than a good coffee selection in the break room. “We are creating workspaces where people who work remotely can come in and work a couple days of the week, which can be assigned or reserved,” says Lull. If the office has an open floor plan, Lull recommends what she calls phone booths or Zoom rooms.
“If you are on the phone, you don’t want to hear the person next door on a Zoom call at their workstation. So they have rooms appropriate for that,” she says.
Office phone booths and meeting pods designed by companies like Pillar and Room come in all shapes and sizes, with costs ranging from $6,000 to $20,000. “They weigh a ton, so you have to make sure floor structure is appropriate,” says Lull. “They are literally a phone booth you bring in to create quiet for people outside the phone booth and privacy inside.”
A Mixed Stew of Options
Offering a variety of work environments has never been more important, she says. “You create sort of a mixed stew—a jambalaya of options so people can work however they need to. If there’s a big meeting and a need to bring everyone in, there’s space for that as well. You have to be flexible and nimble,” Lull says.
“A marketing firm that I am working with is currently looking for new space. They grew in a space that is not organized very well so they are looking for new space that will accommodate remote workers who come in occasionally, with a large board room for them to use, and a photo studio that can also be used as a break room. They need the Zoom rooms also, and they also need to have an executive suite for overnights by staff or people from out of town,” she says.
The new location will also come with new office furniture that features high barriers around workstations.
Invisible but Important
The easiest thing to do, but not least expensive, according to Lull, is to make sure that air quality and ventilation are kept to the highest possible standards through proper filtering and maintenance. Acoustics are also important, which could be anything from effective sound insulation to making sure certain materials in the room aren’t creating an echo. These are invisible but important improvements to make commercial office space competitive with the home environment.
Natalie LaBonte with One Light Interiors in Weare focuses on those environmental factors. She specializes in what’s called Biophilic Interior Design, which incorporates nature into indoor environments, as well as modern Feng Shui.
“When I worked in a corporate office, I got far more ill than when I worked from home,” she says. Many remote workers share that perception, which biophilic design is meant to counter.
“There are many layers to that,” says LaBonte. “One big thing that offices can do is find organic ways of bringing nature into the office environment and creating spaces where people can have access to direct sunlight. Another is to use organic shaped structures that support the flow of indoor greenery.”
Organic or biophilic design trends in office furnishings promote natural shapes and materials like wood and glass. Instead of square and rectangular, think smooth rounded forms that imitate naturally occurring structures such as cellular, netted, skeletal or crystalline forms. These shapes and materials more naturally integrate the flow of greenery in and around the workplace.
“That’s my big push,” she says. “Where can we be smarter, and where can we be more environmentally connected?”
Technology is Key
Meaghan O’Neil, principal designer and owner at MAO Designs in Bedford, says investment in the right technology to link the office worker with the remote worker is critical.
“Having the ability to bring in employees who are working at home through Zoom calls or some other form of video conferencing is essential,” she says. “We now have smart TVs with cameras that can zoom in on whoever is talking, responding to movement and sound. When a sound is picked up it zooms in on that area.”
Ultimately, employers who want to draw more workers back into the office have to recreate some of the most desirable features of remote work, according to O’Neil. “People need a place for a brain break or a body break,” she says, citing amenities like a fitness room, a lounge where someone can recline with a laptop, and a well-stocked breakroom.
“Bring some of the comforts of home into the office,” she says. “Because a lot of those aspects are why people want to work at home in the first place.”