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Top 10 Trends Influencing Workplace Design


Related: 10 Space Fusion Trends Influencing HOK’s Workplace Designers

As part of our WorkPlace group’s efforts to keep clients informed, we continuously develop and follow new research in workplace design. We study behavioral science, organizational design, change management, performance metrics, demographics and technological advances – always with an eye toward how they affect the workplace. This helps us understand how business is evolving and prepares us to answer the question that all of our clients ask: “What are the latest workplace trends?” Here are our top 10 recent favorites: 

1.  Top talent is shrinking.

Many large countries — including the US, China, Japan, Germany and Italy — will face talent shortages as their workforces age and experience declining growth rates. In the United States, the labor force is expected to grow only 0.7 percent between 2010 and 2020. Skills predicted to be in demand include management, legal, sales/marketing, operations and technical computer proficiency.

This talent shortage will challenge organizations to find and keep the best people. They will need to engage employees with workplaces that support their wants and needs. 

Creating vibrant offices is one tactic to recruit and retain talent. Providing flexibility and choices for where, when and how work happens is also critical for attracting the best and brightest people.


2.   Employee engagement matters.

Engaged employees can boost a company’s bottom line by up to 20 percent.3 These employees are emotionally invested in and focused on creating value for their organizations. In a survey across 142 countries, however, only 13 percent of employees reported feeling engaged in their jobs. 4

Disengaged workers — those who are negative or even hostile to their organizations — outnumber engaged employees by nearly two to one.4 Companies with disengaged employees experience 30 to 50 percent more turnover. 3

The workplace can engage employees by acting as a communication tool that aids in celebrating individual or team contributions, broadcasting organizational goals or objectives, and providing spaces for effective collaboration. Involving employees in the design or retrofit of a workplace also provides a wonderful opportunity for engagement. 


3.   More people are working remotely and not at their desks.

At any given time, about one-third of all knowledge workers in private and public sectors are working remotely. Only 30 to 40 percent of employees with assigned spaces are actually using them.5

Mobility is crucial to today’s workforce. In addition to their offices, employees are working in airplanes, in hotels, at client sites and at home. They need to be supported with technology and business processes that allow them to work effectively wherever they are. 

In the workplace, mobility may require more “unassigned” or touchdown space for individuals who are out of the office for a significant portion of the day. Organizations also need flexible space for employees who might be visiting from another floor, building or campus.


4.   Flexible work boosts engagement and satisfaction.

Flexible work – allowing employees to work when, how and where they choose – generally receives a positive response. Thirty percent of employees with easy access to flexible work arrangements report feeling very engaged in their jobs. Compare this to the 19 percent engagement among those with moderate flexibility and the 10 percent engagement among those with little access to flexibility. Sixty percent of employees with high access to flexibility are very satisfied with their jobs, compared with 44 percent of those with moderate access and only 22 percent of those with low access.6


5.  Activity-based work settings are on the rise.

Because the nature of today’s work is so complex and unpredictable, a single, all-purpose workstation doesn’t cut it for most knowledge workers.7 Workplace designers need to provide a variety of “activity settings,” or purpose-built areas for specific activities accessible to all.

Activity settings might include impromptu meeting areas, formal meeting spaces, project rooms, individual work spaces or break areas that make up for the shortcomings of exclusively cellular or open-plan environments. One size does not fit all.


6.   Buildings can help or hinder productivity.

Buildings can improve overall productivity and performance by as much as 12.5 percent or reduce them by as much as 17 percent. That’s a 30 percent swing between employee performance in the best and worst buildings.8

Interestingly, the same factors that enable productivity can inhibit it. Some background noise, for example, can boost productivity for routine or administrative tasks. Yet that same noise can be highly distracting when employees are conducting research or writing tasks. Lighting is generally viewed as positive, except when it causes glare. That said, the most common building-related culprits for hindering productivity include issues with thermal comfort or air quality, lack of natural light, noise, spaces that feel crowded and poor ergonomics.

7.   Lighting matters.

Better workplace lighting (both natural daylight and artificial light) has been linked to a 15 percent reduction in absenteeism in office environments. Other studies have reported productivity increases ranging from 2.8 to 20 percent attributed to optimum lighting levels. 10

The presence of ample daylight and windows, as well as opportunities for active and passive contact with nature, sensory change and variability, all have a positive impact on people’s well-being.11


8.  Acoustics are vital.

Office acoustics contribute to performance and well-being in the workplace. To support complex knowledge work, many people seek out quiet places. The ability to have planned or spontaneous interactions without disturbing others is important for teamwork and relationship development.12

In environments with white noise, or sound masking, employees report improvements of up to 38 percent for the performance of simple tasks and 27 percent for complex tasks.13 Sound masking is not the only way to reduce unwanted noise. Office layout, flooring materials, walls, ceilings and behavioral protocols all can make a difference.


9. People are the most important metric.

A 2 to 5 percent increase in staff performance can cover the total cost of providing for their workplace accommodation.14 Financial losses due to absenteeism and “presenteeism” (a loss of workplace productivity from employee health problems or personal issues) account for 4 percent of operating costs.15hok-top-10-trends-13

Though the design and construction of buildings comes with a significant cost, this pales in comparison to the cost of compensating  employees who are not engaged, healthy and performing at high levels.

10. Change management works.

Benchmarking studies by research company Prosci have found that workplace projects with an effective change management component are six times more likely to meet their objectives and succeed.16

If you were given a new piece of software with no instructions on how to use it, would you be able to get the best out of your investment? Probably not. The same goes for a new workplace. When employees are experiencing new furniture, adjusting to a renovated office or moving into a different building, they need help learning how their new “tool” is supposed to work. The better they understand their space, the technologies that support it and the policies and protocols for how to use and behave in it, the more likely they are to get the most out of their work experience.


If there is one macro-trend that encompasses all of the trends listed here, it would be the growing emphasis on people. Workplace design and strategy can play a huge role in helping to maximize the comfort and performance of occupants. Engaging with employees on how the workplace can best support them is a great way to start.



1 Bureau of Labor Statistics, ‘Labor force projections to 2020: a more slowly growing workforce,’ 2012.

2 The Sloan Center on Aging and Work at Boston College, ‘Talent Management Study,’ 2009.

3 Towers Perrin, ‘European Talent Survey: Reconnecting with Employees: Attracting, Retaining and Engaging,’ 2004.

4 Gallup, ‘State of the Global Workplace,’ 2013.

5 GSA Building Services, ‘The New Federal Workplace,’ June 2009.

6 Galinsky, Ellen, et. al., ‘National Study of the Changing Workforce,’ 2008; ‘Workplace Flexibility in the U.S.: A Status Report,’ 2010; ‘Workplace Flexibility: From Research to Action,’ 2011.

7 Davenport, Thomas H., McKinsey Quarterly, ‘Rethinking Knowledge Work: A Strategic Approach,’ February 2011.

8 Carnegie Mellon/CBPD Building Investment Decision Support (BIDS), ‘High Performance Buildings,’ 2004 and 2012.

9 CABE, ‘The Impact of Office Design on Business Performance,’ 2011.

10 WGBC, ‘The Business Case for Green Building: A Review of the Costs and Benefits for Developers, Investors and Occupants,’ 2013. Thayer, B (1995), Romm, J & William, D (1994); Oseland, N (2001).

11 Heerwagen, Judith H. , Ph.D., ‘Design, Productivity and Well Being: What Are the Links?,’ March 12-14, 1998.

12 U.S. General Services Administration, GSA Public Buildings Service, ‘Sound Matters: How to Achieve Acoustic Comfort in the Contemporary Office,’ December 2011.

13 CABE, ‘The Impact of Office Design on Business Performance,’ 2011; Loewen, L & Suedfeld, P., report, pp. 381-395, 1992.

14 CABE, ‘The Impact of Office Design on Business Performance,’ 2011.

15 WGBC, ‘The Business Case for Green Building: A Review of the Costs and Benefits for Developers, Investors and Occupants,’ 2013; Carnegie Mellon/CBPD, ‘Building Investment Decision Support (BIDS), High Performance Buildings,’ 2004 and 2012.

16 Prosci, ‘Change Management: The People Side of Change,’ 2012.