Event Recap
Designing the Deskless Office: Taking Cues from Hospitality, Retail, and Higher Education

11 May 2023
Event Organizer: PLASTARC
Event Link
Tagged as: Organizing virtual

By Bennett Kirschner - 19th May, 2023

Designing a Deskless Office? Focus on Place, not Space

PLASTARC’s May 11th webinar, “Designing the Deskless Office: Taking Cues from Hospitality, Retail, and Higher Education,” explored many of the considerations – some new, and others as old as time itself – that should be taken into account when designing a hybrid workplace. During this hour-long session, panelists offered their thoughts on how office paradigms are shifting away from notions of ownership and towards ideas of place and belonging. But as this shift gives way to deskless offices, organizations must pay close attention to how people interact with the space, so that deskless designs can serve the needs of both the team and the individual. By taking cues from sectors that thrive on spaces explicitly built to foster exploration and creativity, organizations can leverage design to uplift their employees.

The panel was facilitated by PLASTARC’s socialspatial designer, Amy Rosen, and included three panelists who all have extensive experience working with deskless designs: Dina Sorensen, Founder and Design Director at d. studio, which specializes in design for K-12 schools; Kristin Mueller, Design Analyst at PLASTARC; and Matt Ezold, who works as Vice President of Digital Design at Bala Consulting Engineers. Their diverse backgrounds gave way to a dynamic discussion about the ways in which an organization’s values are reflected in its space, and vice versa.

In his opening statement, Ezold focused on how a purely functional approach to hybridization is preventing some organizations from fully activating the benefits of hybrid work. By remaining fixated on hard metrics and expecting that their workforce will inevitably respond to updates as they were originally intended, these organizations are “not acknowledging that when we change the workplace, we’re [also] changing…the amount of ownership that a person [expects to have] over their workplace.” The act of acknowledgment, then, is its own design commitment – “It's not something that's [inherently] built into our process of identifying the way a space should be designed, and how we expect people to work in it.” In order to design a space for the people it’s intended to serve, an organization must first have the foresight to openly communicate the ways in which its space and culture are inextricably linked.

Through her work designing for educational contexts, Sorensen has found that this kind of acknowledgment is the first step in identifying which “changes will enhance and benefit the culture [an organization is] trying to nourish.” An updated, deskless space is an integral piece of any holistic design, but it will never be enough on its own to truly elevate the people it serves, she noted. Instead, it’s vital to embrace the ways in which people can more fluently “express the resources within them” by designing a space that’s meant to cultivate collaboration, experimentation, and social feedback. In this context, people can achieve a sense of place, not just space, in which a sense of attachment empowers them to form individual identities and construct new knowledge together. And while this spatial ethos is most obviously pertinent in educational settings, a culture of curiosity, comfort, and vibrancy is also an essential part of any high-achieving workplace.

Mueller’s research at PLASTARC fell very much in line with this thesis. With the rising popularity of hybrid work, the home has become the main hub for solitary assignments, while the office has become a place where people expect to congregate and collaborate. But it’s not just working with others that’s drawing people to the office – it’s also working near them. “The people that want to come into the office learn a lot by overhearing others talk,” Mueller said, and there’s a “knowledge exchange that happens just [through] proximity to other people.” In her experience, considerations like this one elevate “space” types to more nuanced “place” types. The countless ways that thresholds are mediated to allow for or limit cross-pollination, including visibility between areas or the amount of noise that carries through space, do much to define office spaces that can’t always be neatly categorized as “communal” or “solitary.”

Throughout the discussion, the ways in which spaces shape their own navigation received attention from all three panelists. Mueller and Ezold both emphasized that a diversity of space types is essential to serve the many needs that people will have over a single day, but also that occupants must be able to intuitively navigate a space. Toward this end, Mueller focused on the necessity of repeating patterns, which foster a sense of familiarity and facilitate wayfinding, and Ezold talked about the use of ubiquitous technological capabilities, which enable employees to select a space according to its social characteristics, rather than the amenities or services that that space can provide. When this holistic balance between multiplicity and predictability is realized, we see it reflected in simultaneous feelings of comfort and agency, which together inspire movement through a workspace. For Sorensen, “movement is so [deeply] connected to how we learn and socialize and flourish.”

The panelists also noted that several of these innovative workplace solutions are originating in the education sector. The design of hybrid conference meetings, for instance, has been largely inspired by hybrid classrooms, which were the first to place remote attendees amongst the physical seats, rather than relegating them to a corner of the room. “The educational environment has been working through [problems like this] for a few years, not because they were forced to,” Rosen remarked, “and it's just [interesting how we’ve been] so siloed in our thinking [that] we forget that we can learn from other sectors.” The workplace should be appreciated for its positionality along the same “learning continuum” that the education sector exemplifies.

But how can organizations confidently distinguish the workplace innovations that are temporary measures for a historical moment from those that offer sustainable solutions? In our next webinar, “Sudden Shifts & Long-Term Solutions: Looking Back on 3 Years of Workplace Change,” we’ll analyze which predictions made in 2020 have thus far proven true, and which assurances have fallen by the wayside—and what these lessons can tell us about the future of work. Join us on Thursday, June 1.