Workplace Design is Ripe With Opportunity, Designers Say at NeoCon

How are designers, architects, and manufacturers talking about workplace design in 2023? For one, they’re questioning the term itself. “Maybe we shouldn’t call this a ‘workplace’ roundtable anymore since everything is merging,” noted Interior Design Editor in Chief Cindy Allen at the start of an industry discussion she hosted during NeoCon. “Every design segment seems to be dealing with the same issues.” The nearly 20 designers and manufacturers gathered in SANDOW Design Group’s DesignScene space at THE MART June 12 nodded in agreement.

But the conversation quickly pivoted to a challenge that’s ultra specific to the sector—the ever-changing role of the office. “People are starting to ask what the metrics mean,” said one attendee, referencing stats around remote vs. in-office workers. “When we say 50% of employees are back [in the office], are we saying 50% of the overall occupancy or 50% of pre-pandemic figures? Leaders are starting to get smart and ask questions to understand what the data is communicating.”

The Evolving Role of the Workplace

Companies also are creating office measurements that suit their brand’s culture. “We ask for 40 hours of presence versus five days in the office a week,” said another, noting employees have flexibility to step away as needed, which ups productivity overall. “The message is one of being actively engaged.”

Larger companies also are likely to set different standards for return-to-work policies than mid-sized and smaller firms. “Big offices will not make it—they will not survive—if they do not bring everybody back 100%,” asserted one designer. Regardless of days in or out of the office, the group agreed that human connection remains paramount. “It’s not about butts in seats. Culturally, it’s about: How do I want individuals to interact with clients; How do I mentor young people?” said another.

Cindy Allen at table with designers during NeoCon Workplace discussion
Cindy Allen (far left) hosts a Workplace roundtable discussion June 12 at THE MART during NeoCon.

How Office Design Enables Mentorship Opportunities

To encourage mentorship organically, designers are considering the return of seat mapping. “We’ve gone back to planning and have started to assign seats again,” said an attendee. “Peripheral intelligence is so importance—people come into the office because they learn something and they hear the way someone speaks to a client. We’re thinking about the topography of the office and creating hotspots of real cultural relevance.”

When it comes to Gen Z, many of whom started their careers in the midst of a global pandemic, attendees agreed that, for most, training is not up to par. “The younger generations can’t pull palettes the right way, they’re constantly seeing too much on social media that’s influencing their decisions.” One solution: Implement an in-house training program. One firm piloted the idea as part of its DE&I initiatives, recruiting a small group from various backgrounds—none with formal design training—for a rigorous mentorship program to much success. “I’d argue that a program like that might be more valuable than an expensive design education,” said one designer.

Another idea: Encourage early career designers to focus on one project from beginning to end, even if it takes more than a year, enabling them to take ownership and understand all aspects of the work. “When I see a superstar, I pull them aside and say: ‘For the next year and a half, you’re going to work on this one project.’ They may not like it at first but then they really appreciate the opportunity,” said one designer.

Tune in to ThinkLab’s Design Nerds Anonymous podcast for more insights about Gen Z and their influence in the design industry.

Designing for a Wider Range of Environments

Office culture also is shifting on an institutional level. From government workplaces to healthcare facilities, the group agreed a wide array of spaces are ripe for reinvention. “What does design look like in places that have a suburban existence, where people actually like to go to the office?” asked one attendee, noting that the conversation around workplace design needs to evolve beyond major metropolitan areas—and beyond the U.S.

“It’s important to not be U.S.-centric,” offered an attendee, stressing the importance of storytelling and crafting thoughtful narratives through design. After all, design is a means of visual communication. “People want spaces that provide curated, artful expressions,” added another designer.

The Shifting Role of the Showroom

When it comes to design offices, material libraries remain a hot commodity. Some attendees even increased their on-site librarian staff to create a more comprehensive search experience and prioritize sustainability. Firms also are offering manufacturers opportunities to display their products in shared spaces within their offices for stretches of time, enabling designers to test furnishings and accents in physical environments.

But the group agreed that the role of the showroom needs to shift away from a sterile display of product and present more as a hub for creation and creativity. “It would be great if showrooms functioned more like a lab,” said one attendee. “The creative process is messy and fun, and people want to look behind the curtain.” Since transparency and social responsibility remain top of mind for designers, showrooms are one tool manufacturers could use to expand on those narratives.

With that, Allen wrapped up the two-hour discussion. “We always look forward to being at this table,” she said, thanking participants for their insights and encouraging everyone to find a word in the walls of the DesignScene boardroom—a giant word search brought to life—before heading back out into the NeoCon crowds.

A special thank you to our sponsors: Garden On The Wall, Kimball International, and Shaw Contract.

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