Bay Area Still Leads in Workplace Transformation

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Image courtesy of Forge

By Jacob Bourne

Design professionals are at the forefront of sweeping changes occurring in many workplaces on an international level, however these changes are especially salient in the Bay Area due to the region’s cultural history and rate of technological innovation. Competition among tech companies to attract and retain the most talented employees has also fueled a steady evolution of what can be expected in today’s workplace culture and physical spaces, for both office and R&D environments.

“This is a very exciting time for research as the speed of discovery is happening at an accelerated pace,” said Suzanne Napier, vice president at SmithGroupJJR. “The high level of data and information being shared and the blending of the data between fields of research is helping work progress faster and faster. Reevaluation is happening at the planning level to address the changes and to rebalance the needs of lab spaces.”

Diane Stegmeier, founder of Stegmeier Consulting Group has been researching changes in work environments for the past 20 years and has worked with organizations from all over the world to assist in change management. She’s found a great level of awareness among leaders in the Bay Area that workplace culture is an integral part of the overall work experience for employees, which has in turn influenced the built environment.

“In the Bay Area, I see a stronger willingness to invest in the environment knowing that it will attract and retain the right talent,” said Stegmeier. “There’s more open-mindedness to listening to what employees want. In other parts of North America there’s not as much of a genuine interest in hearing employee’s voices. Senior leadership in the Bay Area wants to see how it can attract workers and keep them. The communication loop actually gets around to all stakeholders. So employees are not merely just going to work, but are entering into an intentional reality created at the workplace.”

Image courtesy of UC Berkeley

One of the concepts that is being adopted in cities worldwide is the movement away from single occupancy cubicles and offices to more open collaborative spaces. Stegmeier Consulting Group conducted The State of the Open Office Research Study, identifying the top three concerns that have arisen due to the workplace changes: audible distractions, lack of audible privacy and uninvited interruptions. However, the concerns about noise and lack of privacy were largely held by employees before the changes took place. Once the study participants moved into the new spaces, they found that acoustical treatments incorporated into the design were effective. One area identified as needing improvement is in providing a greater variety of different work space types to accommodate diverse activities.

For Eric Ibsen, chief design officer at FORGE, there are other factors at play in the evolution of workplace design. The Bay Area’s workforce is marked by transplants from other parts of the country as well as the globe who often work long hours in demanding, high-paced tech positions and may lack close-knit communities outside of the office. A greater amount of amenities offered and comfortable work areas help cater to people who spend more time at the workplace. Although these changes do stem from competition among companies to attract and retain talent, they also arise from companies adopting a more conservative approach to their real estate holdings.

“I’m seeing the pendulum swing back to the earlier version of the open office environment,” Ibsen offered. “The individual employee’s footprint will continue to stay small, and to make up for it, amenity footprints and common areas will increase. We’re trying to accommodate a larger workforce with less space. Companies are trying to make their real estate dollar stretch as far as it can while attracting great people and staying productive.”

These changing workplace trends extend beyond offices into more technical laboratory and research environments. Updating the designs of these spaces can take even more careful consideration as developing them is about twice as expensive as office environments and entail more safety precautions and stringent code requirements. According to Napier, labs have been experiencing a wealth of change, but one very impactful shift has been separating desk spaces and technical spaces. This separation has not only been a boon to employee wellness, but has also given the labs smaller footprints resulting in more energy efficiency.

Image courtesy of Forge

“Getting people to spend more time outside of the lab and away from chemicals has been an important aspect of enhancing safety,” Napier explained. “The increasing use of robotics and artificial intelligence technology also allows researchers to spend more time outside of the lab, which is important for wellness. The design is really fueling where researchers spend their time, and there’s been an increase in amenities like separated tech write-up areas, wellness rooms, meditation rooms, rooftop gardens and cafes. Designing active buildings where re-planning elevators out of direct visual connection while providing visually open staircases encourages people to use the stairs and improves individuals’ health. Inclusion of biophilic elements such as the use of warmer natural materials, visual access to landscaping, and natural ventilation within these facilities is a major interest of mine as it gives that respite from harsh research lab environments.”

Some of the sustainability upgrades are more recent due to the stricter 2016 California Energy code requirements, however both institutional and corporate entities have become more dedicated to efficient design for practical and ethical reasons. Napier has witnessed a shift away from forced-air systems to those that use water for heating and cooling. She’s also seen a focus on mechanical and lighting control systems that save energy after work hours and the significant monetary savings associated with LED technology versus fluorescent. Technologies like green plugs, which are a different type of outlet, give researchers access to energy for more intermittent functions without adding phantom loads.

Some of these technologies such as LED and lighting control systems are also being heavily incorporated into office designs. Stegmeier offered an example of a workplace technology that’s apart from the built environment. Her company developed an app called WorkSlice that helps users view workplace development in terms of thinking about the workday in “slices.” The app gathers crowdsourced data in real time to engage employees and measure the use of different spaces based on the specific activity performed versus relying on a single space to meet the demands of multiple activities. One of the main goals of the app is to maximize productivity and free people from distractions.

“We see that enhancement of communication and collaboration are very strong drivers in the Bay Area,” Steamier added. “Because work happens at such a fast pace in the technology sector, communication has to occur more organically rather than be limited to conversations just occurring in conference rooms.”