By Anuradha Kadam - 28th March, 2023
A recent research seminar at New Jersey Institute of Technology’s Paul Profeta Real Estate Technology, Design and Innovation Center (RETDIC) on “The Post Pandemic Workplace” addressed the importance of data harvesting in spatial design and workplace real estate usage. As we return to some semblance of public life, the panel, which included PLASTARC founder Melissa Marsh, pondered questions such as: Where do people work? What is the point of physical space? What is the future of the workplace?
Janet Pogue McLaurin, the Global Director of Workplace Research for Gensler, discussed the workplace data that the international architecture firm has been collecting since 2005, with the aim of measuring space effectiveness and workers’ values. Through survey-data collected during the pandemic, they found that globally, most workers want to continue hybrid work moving forward. But the US is only about 50% in agreement, with the other half split between an “in-person only” or a “work-from-home only” model. All other countries are closer to 75% in agreement with hybrid as the new norm.
There are also global differences in what activities the office space is best for; while the number one answer is “working with colleagues or teammates” in all countries surveyed, the number two differs. European/Western countries prioritize “socialization with colleagues,” whereas Asian/Eastern countries prioritize “focus-work” in the office. Further studies conducted on different generations of workers also show that younger workers prioritize “meeting with clients and networking” in the office, whereas older workers prioritize “sharing their knowledge and expertise.” All in all, it is clear that the idea of “third places of work” beyond the office and at home are necessary for informal or impromptu meetings, ideation, and creative tasks. From research on college campuses, Gensler discovered that the workplace is an ecosystem that ranges from the home, to alternative workplaces (coworking, satellite offices, etc.), to third places (cafes, libraries, etc.), to the primary workplace or office building.
With the unconventional background of an elementary school teacher turned architect, Jacob Reidel, now the Senior Director at Saltmine, draws from his experience in classroom spatial design to create success for workplaces. Throughout architecture school, he found that architects are uncomfortable thinking of space as a “product,” and shifting from “clients” to “customers.” Similarly, architects often disregard the “experience” of the spaces they design. Reidel hypothesizes that these three “dirty words” are actually the key to better quantifying and measuring performance, which we need to inform what we create as designers.
Saltmine is a web-based platform specifically designed to optimize real estate plans for the future of work. Since advanced technology, such as building information modeling, building energy modeling, and other data-based analysis tools allow for design and evaluation to happen concurrently, we can use programming, test-fitting, integrating capacity studies, room-booking systems, utilization systems, employee surveys, and other quantitative and qualitative data for evaluating different workspace floor plans. This allows for more intentional spatial design and programming of office spaces.
Marsh explains the importance of data with an analogy: When more people guess how many jelly beans in a jar, the average of those guesses is increasingly accurate. So no one individual knows the answer—to the jelly bean jar or the future of the workplace—but collectively, we do.
Buildings used to be considered financial assets, mainly measured by geometric and financial factors. Now buildings play a more obvious role in human health and wellbeing, so they must also be measured based on the performance of occupants.
By integrating big data, such as from HVAC sensors and security, and little data, such as from conversations and interviews, PLASTARC works to predict how buildings and spaces will perform in the future, in order to inform the spatial design work of today. Considering that office environments may range from 20% to 90% occupancy, with shifting modes of work and prioritization, there is potential for a lot of space to be wasted or feel crowded at different times. Offices are currently not designed for focus-work, connecting to others, and social engagement with coworkers and customers, to name a few. With the advanced importance of equity and wellness in the office, and the understanding that humans themselves are also one of the many sensors that can inform the success of a space, designers must ensure that people have the same amount of control in their office environments as at home. Ultimately, this calls for more deliberate and data-driven design work; the more information that we have, the more likely we are to succeed.
Tech companies will likely move their offices to newer buildings, better equipped with sensors and technology. The panelists hypothesize that this, combined with hybrid and remote work opportunities, will allow people to leave densely packed cities to underutilized parts of the U.S., building newer office buildings or retrofitting old ones in these places. Over time, multipurpose spaces will increase, as will as mixed-use buildings.
As for the “one size fits all” approach that has been common in commercial real estate, through unconventional pandemic work arrangements, people have learned the best work environment for their mind and body. Since we are all different, we need a diversity of space types in office buildings. Many people never felt comfortable in historic work environments, which were designed to serve extroverted, cishet, abled, white men. Hybridity is part of the solution, but also brings up other inequities, when those who work in-person are offered more opportunities than those who work from home. Regardless of how companies decide to solve these issues of inequity, there is a general need for companies to reconsider their culture and the way we work.
Anuradha Kadam (she/her) is a Project Intern at PLASTARC and recent graduate of NJIT, Hillier College of Architecture and Design (B.Arch ‘22).
Event: Profeta Real Estate Research Seminar Series - The Post-Pandemic Workplace
Location: Virtual, 04.28.22
Janet Pogue McLaurin - Global Director Workplace Research, Gensler
Jacob Reidel - Senior Director at Saltmine, teaches prof practice at Harvard GSD
Melissa Marsh - Founder & Executive Director of PLASTARC
Darius Sollohub - Associate Professor at Hillier College of Architecture and Design (HCAD) [moderator]
Organized by: Steven Gomez, Program Development Manager at MTSM