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The Lasting Impact of Good Office Design

Built in the 1950s by architect and industrial designer Eero Saarinen, the General Motors Technical Center in Warren, Michigan, has been the innovative home for the automotive company for nearly 70 years. The GM Technical Center’s role as an integral hub of operations for nearly seven decades is a testament to the thoughtfulness of the original team of designers. For an organization such as GM, one that was built on the success of its vehicle design, having an exceptional physical space may seem natural. However, fully embracing a philosophy for a well-designed environment is more elusive than many companies expect.

The Color and Trim studio at the GM Technical Center is a notable example of an innovative space that was thoughtfully tailored to fit the end users’ needs. It is the place where designers chose their colors, review trends, and find inspiration while selecting fabrics, textures, and materials for new vehicles. The designers embraced many forward-thinking features including rounded walls that establish a central circular space and moveable panels, a unique element for that time. This design milestone aided in the evaluation of light on the proposed materials and created the ability to use natural light as well as simulated light, illuminating the many ways light would present on the exterior of the car. The intent for the GM Tech Center was not to mimic a studio design that already existed but to experiment with new spatial features that would positively influence their work long into the future.  

As the ever-changing landscape of returning to the office continues to settle, one thing that persistently becomes clear is that the office plays an important role for businesses of every size and industry. Most companies recognize the importance of having high-quality workspaces. Discounting the value of the office is wasting a huge financial investment and hindering the creative potential of the team. To benefit from the positive impacts of a workspace, companies must fully evaluate the foundation the office provides to their team and how they can maximize that space. This means going well beyond simply choosing carpet and paint samples.  

What comes to mind when you think about a well-designed office? The method for making an office memorable is a combination of deliberate elements, positioned with intention, that invokes a mood in occupants. The space should successfully articulate the essence of the organization and manifest the culture and brand. Like the GM Tech Center, every workspace should be designed to specifically support the onsite activities needed to produce positive business outcomes. The compilation of these details builds an environment anchored in good design.  

It can be particularly challenging, especially considering the pandemic, for companies to know what to do with their office. Repurposed old office designs that may have been imported from another company without recalibrating them to meet the needs of today’s workforce do not work. A strategic approach can bridge the divide between what is known and unknown to deliver a built environment that drives the business.

Design thinking, a concept introduced by Tim Brown, executive chair at IDEO, describes creative problem solving by reconciling multiple angles of any challenge. With any design firm you are working with, you should have the opportunity to step back and set an aligned direction based on the needs of the organization.

The first questions to ask are: What is the purpose of space? How will it be used? What does your company’s plan for returning to the office include? What amenities will draw team members to the office versus staying in the comfort of their home? Do you have the types of space that individuals need to be productive and engaged? Is the space “worth it” for the employee that has to commute rather than work from home?

The next question to consider is: What type of behaviors will be supported? Here it is helpful to understand how individuals will be operating both independently and communally. Most companies recognize the importance of having high-quality workspaces. Video calls have become standard practice for the new way that we work. Knowing that, how does your office support the on-site team with their video calls? Taking the time to understand what people will be doing when they come into the office will help you organize the space to match these desired behaviors.  

Lastly, office designers need to think about the impact of the space on employee wellness. Wellness was not something that was spoken about at length prior to the pandemic but it has become front and center of the workplace conversation since then. This can mean including ample natural light and air, or it could even mean the inclusion of wellness rooms that allow individuals to discover a private, quiet moment within the office. Additionally, there is a plethora of research surrounding how design can affect our mental health. Studies have demonstrated a relationship between the properties of space (scale, proportion, protrusion, and curvature) and human emotions. 

Right now, the office is at a crossroads. In many ways, this represents an opportunity to keep what was previously successful about the physical workplace while also capturing new practices that advance the world of work. The role of design is vital to crafting destination spaces that enhance the human experience and help all to thrive. The journey to holistic design becomes the combination of the art and science of design. The art is the aesthetic, the selections, and specifications that build the visual language of the built environment. The science is the function and experience of the built environment, how the space is navigated, and how it supports individuals in all the rituals and behaviors they need to flow through it. Both are halves to the whole of good design. 

In 2014, the GM Technical Center was designated as a national landmark, celebrating the unique story, aesthetic value, and craft of this iconic building. The lasting impact of the building is a testament to how long good workplace design can benefit those that use it. Prioritizing impactful office design that is tailored for the work that will be done is the only way to create spaces that are both pleasing and useful for decades if not longer. Good workplace design is not easy, but the benefits that it can give an organization make it worth the investment. 

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