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The Best Office Design In The World Means Nothing When Employees Work From Home

No matter how connected or collaborative a workspace is, it is hard to compete with the comfort of home. For years companies have focused on giving employees the power to telecommute. Now, designers are thinking about how to get them back in the office. 

OpenWork Agency Partner David Walker, WeWork South Head of Operations Nathan Lenahan, Shell Real Estate Project Manager Pamela Ewton, Gensler Design Director Mark Gribbons, Boxer Property President Justin Segal, NAI Partners Managing Director Jim Tainter
OpenWork Agency partner David Walker, WeWork South Head of Operations Nathan Lenahan, Shell Real Estate Project Manager Pamela Ewton, Gensler Design Director Mark Gribbons, Boxer Property President Justin Segal and NAI Partners Managing Director Jim Tainter

The number of telecommuting workers has exploded, increasing 115% in a decade, according to a new report from Global Workplace Analytics and FlexJobs. That translates to 3.9 million workers, or almost 3% of the total U.S. workforce, working from home at least half the time.

"Large companies rely on collaboration and innovation. There's a sense of concern with people not coming into the office," Shell Real Estate Project Manager Pamela Ewton said at Bisnow's Workplace of the Future event Wednesday. 

Once a very traditional work environment, Shell is increasingly relying on the collisions and collaborations of its employees, but getting workers back into the office is no easy task. The nature of telecommuting has changed the value proposition of going into the office.

"We have to think about the journey and experience that brings you to the workplace. Today, we're coming to the office for a different reason. We're not just going in to sit at a computer," Gensler Design Director Mark Gribbons said. "We're going to the office for our connections to people. How do we drive those connections as designers?"

Frost Bank Vice President Kristen Edgeller, Boxer Property President Justin Segal, Frost Bank Associate Relationship Manager Marki Kennedy
Frost Bank Vice President Kristen Edgeller, Boxer Property President Justin Segal and Frost Bank Associate Relationship Manager Marki Kennedy

"With the effect technology has had, it's made the physical location somewhat irrelevant," Boxer Property President Justin Segal said. "Yes, we're still trafficking in physical space, but what keeps people coming in is the community and the culture."

To foster the type of community and culture that brings people to the office, many companies are turning to co-working.

Gribbons works with Gensler’s co-working clients to develop a sense of community. He has noticed it all starts with the very deliberate way successful co-working spaces welcome people. Typically there is a larger lobby area than in a normal office. The kitchen and conference rooms are prominently featured in a central location to act as a hub of activity. New members and prospective users are introduced to the community before they see their workspace. Design elements that foster connections can even be as simple as narrower stairways that force users to look up and make a face-to-face connection with the person they are passing.

WeWork South Head of Operations Nathan Lenahan, NAI Partners Managing Director Jim Tainter
WeWork South Head of Operations Nathan Lenahan and NAI Partners Managing Director Jim Tainter

While design elements help, fostering human connections that build a community requires a personal touch. WeWork has been among the best in that regard.

“We have a bias towards listening. That’s how you notice the little things. Maybe a company just raised a lot of money or got a project off the ground. Send a handwritten note with a nice bottle of whiskey to them. Throw them a party. Have a genuine and sincere sense of wanting to help and take care of people,” WeWork South Head of Operations Lenahan said.

Shell has used those lessons to radically rework its real estate strategy. The company used to occupy 2M SF in Downtown Houston. Shell cut that space in half while still accommodating the same number of people. Still, the building was not full. Ewton said data is huge in deciphering what people are actually doing and the space they are actually using. You can look at who logged in by department, by floor and by building.

WeWork South Head of Operations Nathan Lenahan, Shell Real Estate Project Manager Pamela Ewton, Gensler Design Director Mark Gribbons
WeWork South Head of Operations Nathan Lenahan, Shell Real Estate Project Manager Pamela Ewton and Gensler Design Director Mark Gribbons

“In Houston we’re probably at about a third of what we used to be space-wise but the headcount hasn’t changed all that much,” Ewton said.   

Shell recently consolidated 8,000 people in Houston's Energy Corridor west of the city.

“We created a completely different environment,” Ewton said. “Sometimes you have to show engineers the data. You sit down and show them, only 40% of you have been to the office in a week. They start to look at their team differently, how they’re working. That’s what helps with the transition of what you need to provide.”

It is about using data and design to go deeper than the amenity layer. Amenities and technology simply are not enough anymore. They may help make the sale, but they do not keep people coming back. 

“Design matters. Tech for us in an embed. What’s the interplay of the physical space and digital? How do they harmonize together to make a workspace you’re proud of and want to go to?” Gribbons said.