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What Flexible Offices Can Learn From Trauma-Informed Design

Flexible offices have been a hot topic for a while now. After reading about the need for flexible offices it led me to ask a naive question: what does a flexible office look like? I asked because I really didn’t know. “Flexible work” is a blanket term for any work schedule that does not adhere to the typical 9-5 work hours at a set work location. That can mean anything from a staggered work schedule to completely voluntary in-office requirements. It usually goes hand-in-hand with what we are calling hybrid work, meaning partially remote and partially in-person. It turns out there’s no definitive answer for how to create a flexible office, and the subject of flexible office design is a three-story rabbit hole with quicksand at the bottom. 

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The whole flexible office craze started appearing after we all collectively realized that COVID-19 was not going to “figure itself out” in a matter of weeks. Things like hand sanitizer dispensers, plexiglass shields, and one-way movement restrictions along specific hallways were all relatively short-term adjustments when the CDC first introduced them. However, we’re entering the third year of COVID-19, so many sectors have come to accept that living around the virus is the “new normal.” 

To “stop the spread,” mandated occupancy limitations pushed employers to implement a staggered schedule for their staff, shifting the office from a “fixed” space to a “flexible” one. But that flexibility only referred to employee scheduling, not a design concept. Then again, “flexible” would also mean “a space able to withstand spacing desks six feet apart and other pandemic measures that the CDC can come up with.” Because of the virus, plenty of places have made permanent changes to how they operate, so why would offices be any different? 

“What we’re seeing is an acknowledgment that there are several unknowns,” is how Ezinne Udezue began when the subject came up. She’s the Vice President on the Platform and Owners team at Procore Technologies, a global construction software-as-a-service company, and one of my favorite people to interview. She carries herself with unruffled confidence that assures you of her expertise. Her language is as smooth as the voice she uses to deliver it. Honestly, I’m surprised she’s not a sought-after narrator for guided meditation apps. Instead, she spends her time developing a platform that serves the construction industry, which is why it seemed logical to consult her first. She had eyes on the beginning stages of office construction, so I thought she could give me insight into how planners conceptualized the flexible office space. 

When it comes to office space, a lot of our customers have come up with this idea that the office space needs to be optimized for serendipity and collaboration.

I could see the gears in Ezinne’s head turn as she took a moment to calculate her next thought; it’s one of the reasons I enjoyed talking to her. She always absorbed the question and let her answer marinate before saying it aloud. But even with her expertise, she was just as unsure of the future as I was of a solidified vision of a flexible office.“We’re definitely in a learning posture when it comes to flexibility because there’s no clear answer yet on what to do next,” she said. “However, when it comes to office space, a lot of our customers have come up with this idea that the office space needs to be optimized for serendipity and collaboration. More open kitchens and dining areas, more open work meeting areas, places where people could relax, work, and have more of those serendipitous encounters. That’s the biggest piece of feedback.”

According to Ezinne, most flexible offices that are currently under construction will have ample space for employees to mingle and conduct team meetings and projects. I could see the logic behind that. Before the pandemic, American adults spent most of their waking hours at work, so suffice to say their workplaces served a critical role in their social lives. The idea is that people will welcome face-to-face contact again when the virus’ grip falters. Ezinne had made it clear that the future of flexible design centered around spatial need, but beyond that, there wasn’t much explanation for how offices would use excess space. 

As I researched flexible workspaces, I noticed that adjectives like agile, nimble, and fluid kept popping up, sandwiched between corporate-speak platitudes and vague, inspirational announcements about “the future of work.”

I tried desperately to get a more precise answer, so I tumbled further down the rabbit hole. As I researched flexible workspaces, I noticed that adjectives like agile, nimble, and fluid kept popping up, sandwiched between corporate-speak platitudes and vague, inspirational announcements about “the future of work.” Titles like “Emerging Trends in the Hybrid Office” were plentiful (only to talk in generalities about how employees didn’t want to give up working from home). The discussion of flexible offices never centered on the office itself. It was always a call-to-action that businesses “ensure that leadership defaults to a people-first instead of a work-first approach.” I.E., “Make sure you talk to your staff about what would work for them before making any decisions.” As chuffed as I was that these articles advised companies to respect their employees’ wishes, I wasn’t getting anywhere. 

So, I reached out to some friends and asked if they could send me photos of their offices. Those whose offices hadn’t moved to a different space had returned to a renovated office. Everyone was kind enough to send me before-and-after pictures of their workspaces. I pored through the photos, looking beyond smiles at work parties to see the layouts, the furniture, the color schemes, everything. 

At first, it was hard differentiating the “before” photos from one another. Remember, before the pandemic, seventy-eight percent of American offices featured an open layout, so it wasn’t that uncommon for the offices of totally different businesses to look like carbon copies of one another. As far as the “after” images were concerned. At the same time, some of the new spaces evoked a cozy coffee-shop vibe. I saw traces of the short-term solutions: desks spread farther apart, a couch here and there to give another seating option, sanitizer stations cemented into the wall. Occasionally there were more plants, but I initially chalked that influx of flora to the “PlantTok ” craze of the pandemic. However, the offices that had undergone the more extensive renovations integrated biophilia in some fashion, whether it was a strategic peppering of a few houseplants or a full-on vertical garden. 

Once in a while, though, I would see an office put in a soundproof booth or two for employees to make a phone call, a video conference meeting, or a break from the sensory overload that the open office can cause. These types of booths have become a hot item as of late, as they’re an affordable (and often sustainable depending on the brand) alternative to ripping out sheetrock and drywall to build new focus rooms. Funnily enough, I got a chance to use one at a conference while back, and I have to say they’re fun. The design of these booths is based on the old-school phone booths of London, so it felt very Whovian, as if they would teleport me to an exciting new planet where I could hear myself think.

But alas, that booth did not launch me into space for an epic adventure, much to my disappointment. Once I looked past the novelty, I realized that these booths carry a somber connotation. Stepping into an office booth says, “I need to escape to get work done because I can’t get work done at the place I’m supposed to be getting work done.” If you need to use a booth because there aren’t enough quiet areas in your office to make a phone call or get any work done at all, then why are you even at the office? 

I need to escape to get work done because I can’t get work done at the place I’m supposed to be getting work done.

Even so, these booths existed years before COVID was a whisper from a bat’s mouth, so there wasn’t a shift in their design or sales pitch. Demand only rose because of the circumstances that stemmed from the pandemic. Some office tenants looked to cut down on their office expenses when the market stopped. Many downsized, while others packed more people into less space or took on short-term leases in places that weren’t intended to function as an office in the first place. The booths can be built when a tenant moves in and taken apart when they leave. Quite literally, they were the most “flexible” thing I found, but the modularity of the booths give a sense that they’re nothing more than a band-aid slapped on a bigger problem.

So, to recap, flexible offices look a lot like the old offices, but with a few intentional changes. In the newer offices, desks were usually spread apart or replaced with a communal table and other seating options strewed about. Private offices were getting turned into conference rooms, and open seating areas got a “loungy” makeover. Sometimes there were plants. The better designs factored quiet space, whether it was the booths or seating partitioned away from the sounds of the office. In a nutshell, that seemed to be everything. 

Just when I thought I had scraped the bottom of the rabbit hole, I slipped into quicksand. The more I looked at what I found, the more I thought these specific elements looked familiar…

In the early months of the pandemic, I binged TedTalks in my kitchen. I would prop up my iPad and half-watch while I baked my latest experiments. I remembered one presentation well (mainly because my black-sesame-and-tahini banana bread wasn’t rising like the reference picture, and I needed a reason to look away from the oven). It was a talk given in 2019 by a woman named Brandi Tuck, founding Executive Director of Portland Homeless Family Solutions (PHFS). PHFS’s mission is rooted in empowering homeless families with children “to get back into housing and stay there,” and Brandi set out to explain further. She talked at length about how the pervasive stress and fear of experiencing homelessness renders long-term effects on the brain. According to Brandi, “the architecture and design of a place can literally change the chemical reaction in the brain, helping you to think logically and understand the world again,” which is precisely why homeless shelters need to incorporate something called “trauma-informed design.” 

PHFS opened their first homeless shelter in Oregon using trauma-informed design the same year Brandi gave her talk. Fast-forward to last week as I tried to make sense of flex-office design elements, and I remembered her. I pulled up the video on YouTube, hit play, and my jaw dropped. The parallels between flex-office design and trauma-informed design were glaring, as I’ll allow you to understand from Brandi’s own words:

“In trauma-informed design, there’s privacy to be desired, but there’s also space to be in community and build relationships. There’s a strong sense of abundance and connection to nature with natural plants, woods, and natural materials. These design elements create an environment where just by being in the physical [shelter], people start to have more access to the logical thinking part of their brain.” 

“Just by being in the physical [shelter], people start to have more access to the logical thinking part of their brain.”

Trauma isn’t a fun subject, nor should it be. The statistic that usually gets thrown around to elicit shock value is that 70 percent of Americans have experienced at least one form of trauma in their lifetime. As depressing as that may sound, it only gets worse when you look closer. That statistic came from the American Psychiatric Association back in 2013, years before the pandemic. Before school closures and lost progress. Before record job loss, unemployment, and eviction. Before half of the American healthcare workers reported crippling burnout. Before 77 million cases and over 900,000 deaths. The pandemic has wrought nearly two years of collective trauma across the globe, but as far as the U.S. is concerned, 70 percent sounds like a woefully low estimate

According to traumainformeddesign.org, trauma-informed design “has not yet achieved a unified definition.” There’s no general consensus, and the answer is yet to be determined… just like flexible offices. However, alleviating stress and fostering a sense of community is the philosophy of trauma-informed design. Effectively, trauma-informed is just as much of an axiom as a design concept, but could that also be true for flexible office space? 

I was skeptical at the idea at first, but if we really look at it, flexible offices are usually the space where people come in part-time because they now have a complete work set-up at home. The home office became a sought-after feature for prospective homebuyers throughout the pandemic. Many Americans (myself included) sunk thousands of dollars into creating their home workspace, investing in things like ergonomic chairs and standing desks (or, in my case, a mug warmer and a flashy typewriter keyboard). With some exceptions, people can usually fulfill the same tasks done in the office at home, so the definition of a productive workday has changed. However, people cannot get the same opportunities for “serendipitous encounters” as they can at the office. So are flexible offices supposed to be designated places for employees to mingle? Well, no, because that negates the whole point of offices, and the primary reason workers are pushing for hybrid work schedules is to have a designated space to get away from their distractions at home to get work done. 

Maybe I had been asking the wrong question. Maybe flexible offices weren’t an aesthetic so much as a concept, just like flexible working. Maybe the reason those clickbait articles I had read couldn’t give me a straight answer was because businesses needed to consult their employees to devise an operating scenario that was “flexible” enough to suit their workforce. Maybe trauma-informed design was the key to enticing workers back to the office after they had to grapple with an unprecedented disaster that upended their lives for two years. 

To learn more about what exactly a flexible office is I talked with Allison Ballard. Allison is the Vice President & Executive Director at 4SITE by CORT, a Berkshire Hathaway Company. In the time it had taken to introduce ourselves, I felt like I sipped a much-needed shot of espresso during an afternoon slump. Even though it was over the phone and the reception would blitz now and again, her energy was infectious. 

“Now, more than ever, people want to work somewhere that’s meaningful.”

Allison focuses more on the occupier side of offices, so she was well aware of the “experimentation of space” I had been exploring. She echoed Ezinne’s sentiments that there was no straightforward design for flexible office spaces. There was no designated layout or one-size-fits-all process in building flexible office space. Yet, there was a stark change in attitudes about how offices fit into the employee experience after the pandemic. “Now, more than ever,” Allison began, “people want to work somewhere that’s meaningful.”

Now, Allison was referring to company stewardship and how employees have put more weight on company values when deciding where to work, but the proverbial lightbulb flashed over my head. As Allison and I continued talking, I heard a lot of  “yeah’s” and “m-hms” while I described some of the standard features I had discovered in researching flexible offices, but she stopped me when I brought up trauma-informed design.

“What is that?” she asked with a piqued curiosity, which was something new for me. Usually, the only question I get is, “can you hear me ok?” It felt good to be the teacher for once. I gave a brief rundown of trauma-informed design and the emphasis that spaces are supposed to promote a sense of calm and empowerment. Allison chimed in with a fervent “Yes! Office occupiers are looking to enrich the employee experience. That’s exactly what’s at the heart of flexible workplaces!” 

The “heart” of flexible workplaces is what got me. What you need to understand about me, and the sunk-cost fallacy dictates that you’ve read far enough into this piece that you’ll keep reading to find out, is that I am trained to hyper-fixate on word choice (blame my playwriting professor, his name is Paul Hufker and he says I tend to go off on unnecessary tangents…). Words are revealing. Allison didn’t say “core” or “focus,” she said “heart.” “Heart” as in “feeling.” Heart as in “compassion.” “Heart” as in “human.” As businesses finally come back, companies have learned that they need to prioritize the well-being of their people because people are the most important asset that a company has. However, those people have reassessed their values during the pandemic and realized they don’t want to spend most of their waking hours at work anymore. That’s why flexible offices are the future of work because people make the office.

The post-pandemic flexible office is borne of rebuilding from a great trauma, and one that we all experienced collectively. If you think about it, at its core, the post-pandemic flexible office is the symbol for recovering from the grip of COVID-19. Offices have now shifted focus to enhancing the lives of the people who work there, and that requires a touch of empathy. However, it just so happens that trauma-informed design principles are empathy and understanding. The corporate world is trying to give its increasingly conscientious workforce a sense of safety, dignity, and empowerment for the people who work for them, so implementing a trauma-informed design in their flexible offices would only bolster that bottom line.

Now please excuse me as I try to crawl out of this quicksand.

Staff Writer
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