Me and We Spaces: Evolving Workplace Design

January 19, 2023
Interior Design Commercial

Employee preferences and a renewed emphasis on flexibility are shifting the way we design the commercial real estate workplace.

The modern workplace is undergoing a significant transformation. The shift to remote and hybrid work has resulted in employers focusing on designing inviting, flexible spaces that can easily adapt to continuously evolving employee preferences. Before the pandemic, there was a growing movement towards more open and collaborative work environments, and while the cramped cubicles and fluorescent lighting of yesteryear have continued to recede, our move toward a post-pandemic reality is bringing about even more changes to the commercial real estate workplace. Features that promote health and well-being are certainly front and center, but we’re also seeing a shift in the way the office space is being utilized.

A key topic of the discussion around the future of the workplace is the question of whether open office environments (spaces with little to no physical division between employee workspaces) are here to stay. Over the past several years, we saw growing critiques of this design approach and its impact on how people work. The pandemic and work-from-home lifestyles sparked further rhetoric on the topic as people were able to curate their workspace to their individual needs and preferences. While the solution isn’t a return to cubicles or all private offices, we must look towards developing a more balanced office design, spaces that offer an equilibrium between open and enclosed, individual and shared spaces, and that allow employees a greater sense of choice to work in a variety of spaces that support different modes of work.

As we assess what these changes mean for the way we design the commercial real estate workplace, it’s helpful to first explore the current state of the workplace, and why, even in a remote and hybrid-work world, the office still matters.

“The Great Return” (Is that a thing?)

Before the pandemic, people were opting to work in “third places” such as coffee shops, parks or coworking venues, but the competition for attraction got even fiercer once working out of our houses became ubiquitous. Many companies are now considering how they can attract employees to their workspace, given the increasing number of options. Discussions with clients, colleagues and industry researchers have made it clear that “The Great Return” is, at its core, part of a larger conversation about the workplace: rather than simply being a place where people punch in and punch out to their work amid rows of cubicles and private offices, the “workplace” actually comprises an entire ecosystem of types of spaces that range from community and co-working spaces to home offices to satellite locations to the traditional workplace, and which allow people to work when, where and how they prefer.

With all the options before them, are people coming back into the office? And if so, why?

It turns out people are returning to the office, and they’re doing so for a myriad of reasons: an employee may need access to specific tools or equipment (e.g., a printer), they may want to have a face-to-face meeting with internal or cross-functional teams, or they might prefer to be in an environment where they can do more focused work. For many employees, there’s an element of socialization that comes with being in the office and a strong desire to draw a definitive and literal line between work life and home life. Understanding the reasons why people return to the traditional office space is important because it helps us understand how we can design spaces that draw people in, and that they will want to make a regular part of their “office” ecosystem.

In today’s world, employers are more acutely aware of the different amenities they need to incorporate to entice people back into the office. As people were working from home the last few years, they got used to curating their workspaces to their exact needs: at home, they could change lighting levels, personalize decor, limit or adjust surrounding sounds, finetune ergonomics, choose to work indoors or outdoors and on and on. Employees are now having a hard time leaving that space behind, and rightfully so. When we design workplaces, it’s important to understand how the space in which we work influences how we work. If employers want to create a space where employees want to be – a destination, if you will – they need to be cognizant of employee expectations.

Designing to Draw People In: A Case Study

Our recent work with Milliman in Omaha, Nebraska is an example of designing to draw people back into the office. Milliman, which is an independent risk management, benefits and technology firm, was looking to reimagine its office and improve the well-being of its workforce. The company engaged our design team to develop plans for a renovation that would support Milliman’s efforts to retain and attract top talent and reflect the organization’s evolving culture. Our design for the space incorporates a mix of private and collaborative workspaces as well as flexibility and transparency throughout to encourage openness, connection and innovation.

One of Milliman’s key directives was that the redesign should reflect the company’s evolving culture. Rapid growth over the past several years meant Milliman’s workforce was spread across two different locations, and so the redesign not only needed to allow for consolidation of the two groups but also encourage openness, collaboration and camaraderie. Our design eliminates private offices and replaces them with more than 25 meeting rooms of varying sizes and functionality. The design also incorporates an expansive, open community space visible throughout the office to encourage people to come together and socialize. The space includes a variety of seating groups, a large custom bar, a kitchenette with free snacks and a games area with table tennis, foosball and shuffleboard.

The (BIG) Density Question

As we gradually move into digital spaces like the metaverse to hold meetings and make connections, the need for focus-type rooms will become increasingly important (think about how often we meet virtually via Zoom or Teams rather than in real life; for many of us, our desk isn’t always the best place to have these conversations). One space type we see becoming increasingly popular with our clients is the focus room. This space goes beyond the typical “phone booth” to incorporate sophisticated design solutions that enable focused work, help limit interruptions and offer more privacy. In addition to focus rooms, we’re also seeing a growing desire for spaces that can support large groups, small groups and individuals equally. All this means that, within a given space, there are now fewer “typical” business office spaces (“me” spaces) and more shared spaces (“we” spaces).

The world has shifted towards an increasingly hybrid work model and a growing number of employers are moving toward shared workstations rather than single occupancy offices and looking to incorporate spaces that can accommodate a variety of work modalities. Image © žžƵ Planning & Design.

Prevailing wisdom before COVID-19 was that the most common tenant improvement specs needed to accommodate 70% individual spaces and 30% shared spaces. It was a safe assumption then, that even without any specific programming, designers and developers could plan for approximately 150 SF per person within a given building’s footprint. Now, the world has shifted towards an increasingly hybrid work model and a growing number of employers are moving toward shared workstations rather than single occupancy offices. This move from “me” spaces to “we” spaces is having a marked impact on the distribution of space within the building, which means we’re now seeing TI designs evenly split, with 50% of the overall footprint dedicated to individual spaces and 50% dedicated to shared spaces.

A greater emphasis on shared spaces means we can fit more people into the building. As such, there are several considerations developers, designers and clients should be mindful of in response to this increased occupancy:

  • Before signing a lease, building owners should conduct a thorough analysis of program needs to align those needs with building capacity

  • Designers and developers should consider widening stairwell and door well widths in new construction buildings to allow for greater capacity than might be anticipated

  • Designs could consider integrating firewalls to allow for horizontal exit methods and allow people to get out of the building safely

A (Dual) Density Solution: FNBO and Fusion Medical Staffing

Designing to address the change in occupancy can be challenging to address – especially in existing buildings – though it’s not impossible. In our work to redesign FNBO’s (formerly First National Bank of Omaha) headquarters in Omaha, Nebraska, we sought to reposition and reimagine its real estate assets for the workplace of the future.

Existing floor plates were designed in a very traditional and hierarchical format, and the perimeter of the floor was lined with private offices and workstations housed within the interior of the space. Combined with high panels, little natural light and minimal collaborative spaces, the space felt outdated and closed off. It was clear to FNBO that this approach needed a drastic overhaul – especially if they wanted to create a space that could compete in a world where people are increasingly choosing to work outside the traditional office.

With 21 floors and 400,000 SF, the facility design strategy needed to have an intentional approach. Our design team collaborated with FNBO to create a carefully curated set of standards that includes a system of benchmarks, space planning ratios, math + modeling and focused programming sessions, allowing each floor to be programmed and designed in an expedited fashion. Inherent in this approach is the flexibility to adjust layouts, and to move employees quickly and easily to adapt to the ever-evolving work demands is key to efficiency and operational excellence.

žžƵ’s design for the FNBO Tower Transformation eliminates private offices, increases collaboration spaces and adds specific spaces that align with different modes of work. The new model incorporates a decrease in overall density and flips the ratio of individual vs. shared spaces. Image © žžƵ Planning & Design.

Our design for FNBO’s updated space eliminates private offices, increases collaborative spaces and adds specific spaces that align with different work modalities. To accommodate this shift away from the traditional model, our design had to incorporate a decrease in overall density: the previous floor plan designs allowed for 80% individual space and 20% shared spaces; in the new model, 45% of the floor plan is dedicated to individual space, while 55% is dedicated to shared spaces. In addition to the increase in shared spaces, FNBO’s office now includes an abundance of natural light, open lines of sight, a focus on wellness, an increase in collaborative meeting spaces and cafes and community spaces designed to emphasize hospitality. The result of this approach is a truly transformed workplace – a place where people want to be and one that can compete within the growing and vast ecosystem of places to work.

Accommodating these types of spaces within existing buildings is not always easy; existing conditions of stairwell widths, exit capacity and building types can limit the program’s ability. This was true for our work with Fusion Medical Staffing’s expanded office space in Omaha, Nebraska. The vision for large training rooms, cafes and lounge space had to be right-sized in the final design to accommodate the Existing Speculative Tenant Building’s infrastructure because, as is true with many existing buildings, the current stairwell widths restricted the number of people who could safely exit the building. Creative planning and active collaboration with local code officials allowed for our design to meet the client’s vision and also provided key lessons about how we might approach the construction of future projects. New demands and visions for the workplace have expanded our idea of what the workplace can and should be: the workplace is no longer a space where people go to work – it’s also a place where they go to connect, play and create. The workplace needs to be able to work and perform in ways that an individual’s home office cannot – it needs to bring people together, help build relationships, promote collaboration and increase innovation – all activities that can be rather difficult in a home office and that require a shift in the kinds of spaces we need to incorporate into our designs. This shift requires us to reconsider how the projected number of occupants might increase based on visions for expanded space use and adjust to accommodate this vision.

Designing to accommodate the changing office layout is not specific to one industry or type of workplace client. FNBO and Fusion Medical Staffing are culturally different – the former a more formal, institutional hallmark financial company, the latter a more progressive startup-like organization – yet they both needed to address very similar issues. In the end, as designers, owners and employers, we have a tall order. The office’s role amid all this change is to strive to meet the needs of employees better than ever before, to outpace technology and emphasize that some experiences and opportunities are best served in real life. Change is happening and it’s happening quickly, and while we all need to be prepared and adapt, we should not let this change deter us from pushing forward and leveraging the creative solutions at our disposal. I for one welcome the workplace evolution because it challenges all of us to think about the office differently and strive to design better.

Written by Alysia Radicia, Interior Designer