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Corporate Occupiers Are Using More Nuanced Approaches to Figure Out Space Needs

Figuring out how much space a company needs, deciding how to configure the layout of that space, and bringing in the right furnishings and tools to make it functional and attractive for employees is much easier said than done. Many companies lately, especially from the tech world, are mandating workers return to the office a certain number of days a week or instituted other policies about in-person work. While it may work for some occupiers to use a one-size-fits-all approach, for a lot of other office tenants, figuring out the correct equation that addresses each variable in a way that works for every worker is frustratingly complicated. It’s why workplace strategists, armed with knowledge gleaned from the roller coaster experience of the pandemic over the last three years and prior hybrid schedules that were growing pre-pandemic, advocate for a more personalized approach.

Since the beginning of the year, more major corporate occupiers have been announcing return-to-office mandates, including companies like Disney, which announced last month it was calling employees back to the office four days out of the week, and Amazon, which is requiring workers to be in the office three days a week starting in May. At the same time, many larger occupiers are cutting down their office footprints. 

So should occupiers be worried about accommodating more workers in the office when there’s less space? Sara Ross, Principal and Director of Corporate Services at Dyer Brown & Associates, a Boston-based architectural and design firm specializing in workplace and branded environments, says no. Her firm works with clients looking at how to configure and best use their office space, whether it’s a new space, an existing space, or one that has been recently renovated. Unsurprisingly, many of the clients she’s been speaking to recently have been looking at downsizing their office footprints, and many of the organizations have leaned into hybrid work. While hybrid and remote models have become incredibly widespread in industries across the spectrum over the last three years, how companies approach configuring their workplace to accommodate them shouldn’t look the same, Ross explained. “We like to kind of take a tailored approach to solving these puzzles because we do want organizations to know the latest trends and what we’re seeing, but just because it’s a trend doesn’t mean it’s right for every organization,” she said.

A full-floor cafeteria amenity for financial services firm Manulife offers employees a range of seating styles, multiple serveries, a coffee kiosk staffed with a barista, and games. (Photo by Darrin Hunter, courtesy of Dyer Brown)

Working with many large corporate occupiers with multiple floors in one building and thousands of employees worldwide means putting together a plan that accommodates several offices in different cities and even countries that may each have very specific needs.“With global enterprise organizations, that’s a thing they’re trying to figure out and have a balance between a policy that everyone can use and obviously the nuances geographically,” said Ross. “But I do find it’s potentially a harder puzzle to crack.” Ross, who has been in the industry for nearly 25 years, has pivoted to helping clients figure out the “why” behind how they plan their offices, asking important questions of occupiers about what their company culture is, why they want workers to be back in the office, and how they can configure their space to be the right mix of workspace, conference space, and amenities.

The main challenge Ross and her firm are seeing surrounds company culture and camaraderie. One of the biggest drawbacks to employees working remotely and not being in the office five days a week for many employers and employees alike has been a sense of loss of culture, with the office becoming essentially fragmented by different work schedules. A recent survey from the Harvard Business Review that asked nearly 1,500 participants about their sense of community at the office before and since the pandemic found that it had declined by 37 percent. 

Having a sense of community at work made a massive difference for a lot of workers. Fifty-eight percent said it made them more likely to thrive in the office, 55 percent said they were more engaged, and 66 percent of respondents said they were more likely to stay at their current organization. Additionally, they reported feeling significantly less stress and were also much more likely to thrive in their personal life outside of work. But for some clients, looking at how to configure their space with the past culture in mind while trying to strategize where they could recapture that sense of community for the future is, again, not easy. “It’s difficult when people are half in, half not,” Ross said. 

In one example, Ross and her firm worked with Nimbus, a biotech company that had for many years been headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Before the pandemic, staffers enjoyed coming to work every day and had a strong culture, with one of the highlights being a tradition of having a meal together every day. Every day, the company served lunch around a large, farmhouse-style table, but when March 2020 hit, the daily tradition was lost. Recently, the company moved its offices to the Seaport area of downtown Boston and making space for the company to continue its lunch tradition was a high priority. Ross and her team configured the space to make an existing cafe even larger, with the capacity to fit 50 people together to accommodate company meals together. “They can’t say enough about making these few different changes to these spaces,” Ross said. “They really do enjoy it and love having the lunches again.”

Dyer Brown’s strategy for realignment and redesign of the Boston area real estate portfolio of global provider Fresenius Medical Care included refreshing the overall aesthetic of workplaces and amenities and encouraging increased interaction and collaboration. (Photo by Darrin Hunter, courtesy of Dyer Brown)

Another challenge companies are grappling with is how to allocate different types of workspaces within an office and find the right balance between them. For occupiers with a high number of new employees, research has shown that hybrid may not be a good fit. In those cases, according to Ross, either working from home 100 percent of the time or being in the office 100 percent of the time has proved to work better. There are also generational differences for companies to consider when planning their spaces. While it’s easy to think that older and younger generations have starkly different work styles and preferences when it comes to the office, that may not be the case when it comes to expecting options in the workplace. One recent study found that 38 percent of Millennials, 33 percent of Gen X, and 32 percent of Gen Z all identified flexible working as a crucial office benefit. 

Much of Ross’ work with clients deals with figuring out the right mix of work styles, stations, and equipment to serve all staffers’ needs. Companies will have to consider the right amount of monitors that an employee may need who is in the office most of the time versus hoteling space for workers who spend less time in the office and are more mobile. A common request Ross gets concerns whether an occupier has enough conference or meeting rooms and whether they are the right size. Small to medium-sized meeting rooms, which can accommodate groups of up to six, have been more in demand since the pandemic, as well as rooms that can shift in size using movable walls. 

Every office occupier is likely feeling the pressure these days to lock in decisions around how their employees work, whether it’s in the office five days a week or a mix of hybrid and fully remote options. Given how different every company is in terms of culture and employee needs, finding the right balance will take a lot of research and planning. Occupiers would be wise to look at decisions around office space configuration and work models from various perspectives, be it generational preferences, geographic location, and perhaps most importantly, looking at trends within their own workforce rather than what’s popular industry-wide.

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