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Space Fusion: Finding a Recipe for the Ideal Workplace Experience

HOK’s Los Angeles office hosted Metropolis Magazine’s final Think Tank panel discussion of 2018.

Before coming to HOK’s Los Angeles studio in 2016, Senior Associate Lisa Krutky Reed spent more than a decade designing restaurants and hotels. This time immersed in the hospitality sector helped her get out in front of an emerging trend in workplace design: space fusion.

“We’re no longer designing for just staff or clients,” said Krutky Reed. “We’re viewing everyone in the space as guests and designing their overall experience. This begins with how you arrive in the space, where you go for meetings or heads-down work and whether the amenities you need are available as readily as they would be in a hotel. These are things we don’t see when we look at the programming matrix off to the side of a space plan.”

Implicit in this hospitality-focused approach is the idea that organizations must continuously woo today’s employees to keep them around, pointed out Metropolis magazine Editor-in-Chief Avinash Rajagopal, who moderated the “Space Fusion: Reshaping the Workplace” panel discussion that took place in HOK’s Los Angeles studio. “There’s a certain temporariness about their engagement with the organization,” said Rajagopal. That’s the culture we’re in today.”

The Dec. 6 event was part of Metropolis’s Think Tank continuing education series focused on workplace, hospitality, education, wellness and urban design/mixed-use. Joining Krutky Reed and Rajagopal on the dais to explore the impact of space fusion on the future workplace were Kristin Christopher, HR and recruitment manager at Respawn Entertainment/Electronic Arts; Brian Tolman, vice president of design and construction at Convene; and Ryan Smith, executive vice president—investments, Western US, at Hackman Capital Partners.

As lines between work, life, education and play continue to blur, design elements from previously distinct space types are blending together. HOK’s WorkPlace group conceived the term space fusion to describe this cross-pollination that’s occurring as elements of hospitality, education, healthcare, retail and other sectors filter into workplace design to help designers create multidimensional, experiential environments.

Beyond Bells and Whistles

Space fusion runs deeper than simply incorporating a hospitality-inspired lounge, café or gym in the workplace. Respawn Entertainment, a video game development studio acquired in 2017 by Electronic Arts (and best known for the Titanfall franchise), is competing with gaming companies as well as the entire tech industry to attract the best software engineers. In addition to the usual amenities, its buildings in Chatsworth, California, include a motion capture studio. There’s also a gaming center—a casual, shared space with couches, a console and a large-screen TV—where many of the game designers’ most productive conversations occur at impromptu meetings. “It is a space where people from all parts of the game development process can come together as a group as opposed to just focusing on their individual piece,” said Christopher, the company’s head recruiter.

These types of spaces aren’t amenities, noted Rajagopal. “They are key operational spaces. So let’s dispel the idea of space fusion being bells and whistles. It comes into the core functions of a workplace.”

Krutky Reed agreed that amenities are the low-hanging fruit, and that designers should avoid taking a prescriptive approach that tells clients they need a specific type of space—whether it’s a fitness center or a cafeteria—solely because that’s what their competitors are doing. Instead, thinking outside the box and understanding each company’s business drivers leads to the best design solution. “As designers, we have to dive deeper and understand which experiences we need to provide users to make a space successful,” she said. “If we miss the mark on how people engage and interact, decisions about real estate and design become less relevant.”

LinkedIn Carpinteria
LinkedIn Office, Carpinteria, California

Work-Life Integration

Convene partners with developers and landlords to provide full-service, highly amenitized meeting and workplace solutions in several large U.S. cities. “By blending hospitality and workplace spaces we bring a sense of humanity to the workplace,” said Tolman. “Why can’t a modern office building look more like a fully-serviced lifestyle hotel?”

Convene’s business model of providing conference and meeting spaces, cafés, bars, fitness and wellness centers, and even doctors’ offices, within a workplace extends the concept of work-life balance into work-life integration.

“From a hospitality perspective, that role of concierge, community manager or cultural ambassador suddenly has a critical role in the workplace,” said Krutky Reed. “These people are coming from hospitality schools and with hospitality training.”

Appropriate Flexibility

Unless it’s designed to be easily adaptable, a new workplace can be outmoded the day it opens. Krutky Reed flagged an inherent challenge in workplace design. “Let’s say your technology changes every six months to a year and your business model is changing every two or three years. Then employee work styles and functions shift every 10 years. Another baseline is that buildings stay the same for 30 or 40 years. That’s a huge disconnect.”

“Over the last eight years there has been some type of construction or redesign of our offices every year,” confirmed Christopher.

While designers can’t control changes in business drivers or corporate real estate decisions—and it isn’t possible to completely future-proof a workplace—they can position clients for long-term success in the midst of this volatility by equipping the space with flexibility to evolve over time.

“The ideas of flexibility, choices and making sure we’re hitting pieces of the corporate culture all can remain intact regardless of the walls or built environment,” said Krutky Reed. “Those are things we can do to prolong the life of what’s being built, with the idea that there’s no one-stop solution.”

Tolman strives for what he deems “appropriate flexibility” for Convene’s workplace projects. “How could you possibly afford full flexibility or predict what a space needs to do?” he asked. “You can scenario plan with clients in the early planning stages. Show them how that space can accommodate four or five solutions and tell them they don’t have to pick one now. … If the space is designed with appropriate flexibility, you can pick the work style much further down the road.”

Smith described Hackman Capital Partners’ approach to providing flexibility as a building shell and core developer. “Not typically knowing who our ultimate client will be, we build for maximum tenant flexibility. … We have tenants who are in the same markets and spaces yet have vastly different needs. … We push ceiling heights, push cores to the edges and try to give them a blank canvas.”


Pritzker Group Office, Los Angeles

Learning Environments

With the heightened focus on encouraging creativity and innovation within organizations, Rajagopal asked the panel about the importance of infusing the workplace with elements from learning environments that help employees discover the next big idea.

“Our workforce is typically coming from a four-year college system,” said Krutky Reed. “Technology is changing every six to 12 months. You can’t fire a group every time a new set of technological skills comes online. In corporate environments there will be a transition where the onus is on the company to provide ongoing education and training and the spaces that support it. Maybe it’s a big huddle area, tiered seating with surround sound or an online platform.”

“What does education look like when it is occurring every day and everywhere, and not just on a campus on the hill?” Tolman asked. “We require 65 hours of new training a year for Convene’s employees.”

“Education in our office also happens through interaction with each other,” said Smith. “I have an office but usually I’m on my laptop sitting out with the team so we can collaborate.”

Health and Wellness

An audience member asked the panel about helping organizations preserve their human capital by designing to promote health and wellness in the workplace.

“HOK is at the forefront of WELL,” responded Krutky Reed. “We worked with Delos to help develop that standard. Whether or not we’re going for certification, it’s built into the equation for our workplace design. We look at the baseline physiological impacts: Is there access to daylight, are you close to water, does your computer change to a sepia tone when evening light settles in? Those are great baselines that we know increase productivity. There are clear metrics—an obvious fusion between workplace and healthcare. Data shows this is the right thing to do.”

Krutky Reed highlighted the need to reduce the technostress employees feel from the daily barrage of screen time, emails and meeting requests. “There are fun, interesting ideas we can look at to alleviate stress and create more joy. … We’re going to see more of those optional amenities become required offerings for mental health. That conversation is starting.”

After the Americans with Disabilities Act became law in 1990, many architectural practices began to offer ADA compliance services. “As with what happened with accessibility, wellness and sustainability now are moving from being extras to becoming part of the base design,” said Tolman.

Techno-Fusion

The panel talked about how technology can enhance space fusion.

“Using tech in a hard, fast, physical way is becoming obsolete,” said Krutky Reed. “If our design solutions have to be measured and tied into built-in power and data, the space will quickly get outdated.”

Convene has “dis-integrated” technology from furniture in its spaces, said Tolman. “The technology changes too fast and the furniture doesn’t. So we have stopped integrating it.”

The company installs beacons and wireless sensors to understand how people use its spaces. “Heat maps on the plan show us in real time how people are using it,” said Tolman. “This helps us do constant, iterative tweaking of the design.”

Custom apps on people’s personal devices also can enrich their experiences. “It’s your badge to get in a building and you can book a conference room and see which spaces are available,” explained Tolman. “Book a class in the wellness studio, a spot for bike storage or a window seat. This smooths the bumps in people’s days and preserves time for family.”

Krutky Reed implored designers to step back and think about how technology can actually help create a better workplace experience. “The main question is whether it’s adding more stress and things to do when we don’t need one more ping in a day or another layer of data to analyze that might not be meaningful?” she asked. “Or are we are using technology creatively to alleviate pinch points?” Software that helps people book conference rooms based on their specific meeting requirements, for example, can create a more efficient process while freeing employees for higher-level tasks that improve the overall environment.


The Think Tank panel discussion took place at HOK’s studio in Culver City.

Elevate the Workplace and Community

As we look toward the future, planners should be thinking about whether all these workplace amenities erode or support a community. With both cuisine and space, after all, the goal for fusion is to blend various elements to create something better—something special.

“The objective always should be to elevate the experience,” said Krutky Reed. “Is it more cultured and sophisticated? Are we pushing things forward? Or are we lowering the bar and saying everywhere you go you need to be able to plug in, connect to the internet and do some work?”

Krutky Reed observed that it can be better to keep certain activities siloed. She pointed out, “sometimes you just want a cheese pizza.” In any case, designers should avoid over blending spaces in unsophisticated ways that don’t advance how people work or fail to complement amenities already available in the neighborhood. Challenging the real hospitality needs of the space compared to what’s already being offered in the community creates even more memorable experiences.

Watch a video of the 90-minute Think Tank discussion on Metropolis Magazine’s Facebook page (event starts at the 17:30-minute mark).

Thanks to the Metropolis Think Tank sponsors: Design Within Reach ContractDXV, GROHE US, Lutron, Sunbrella, Visa Lighting, Wilsonart

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