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Office designs foresee change by 'future-proofing'

Tanya Rutledg, Houston Chronicle
Published 9:30 pm, Thursday, November 7, 2013

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  • Mike McKeown and Kim Hogan of HOK say decisions about fundamental workplace design should include suggestions from employees. Photo: HOK

    Mike McKeown and Kim Hogan of HOK say decisions about fundamental workplace design should include suggestions from employees.

    Photo: HOK

 

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As companies pay an increasing amount of attention to fostering efficiency and productivity in the workplace, many factors have newfound importance when it comes to designing and setting up office space.

One of the most important aspects is "future-proofing" the work environment to build in flexibility for needs that may arise in the future, said Mike McKeown, a senior workplace strategist for HOK, a design, architecture, engineering and planning firm.

Future-proofing relates not only to technology needs but also to the physical layout of an office. For example, based on employee work habits, an office can be designed with a few large conference rooms, or, as an alternative, numerous "huddle rooms" where employees can "touch down" and share ideas.

"To do this, we have to help companies understand and articulate where they see their business headed," McKeown said. "People in general have a tendency to reference what's right in front of us right now. We have to get companies thinking outside of that."

McKeown and Kim Hogan, HOK senior vice president and director of interiors, share their ideas on how companies can set up new offices or reconfigure existing ones with the future in mind.

Think healthy

Hogan said there is a growing link between employee well-being and performance, and companies have to respond to that. That includes paying attention to indoor air quality and thermal temperature as well as providing employees access to health and fitness facilities.

McKeown and Hogan say the decision about fundamental workplace design elements should not be made just by the CEO and the human resources executive. Instead, it should be a group effort that includes input from employees across age groups and departments.

"It's about getting multiple people in the room with multiple experience levels and age-grouping," Hogan said. "Employees of different ages think differently, act differently and behave differently. So it's important to have those conversations that bring in different levels and experiences in one room."

Feel the energy

Some energy-related elements that barely received a nod of attention in the past are now at the forefront of the decision-making process when it comes to setting up office space. That includes efficiency in energy use, water quality, lighting and even recycled furniture.

These topics may not have even surfaced in office-planning conversations 10 years ago, but they are at the top of many lists today. And they are being driven by employee concern.

"The employee base today is much smarter and more educated about environmental topics," Hogan said. "They are asking, looking and observing what companies are doing versus what they say they are doing."

McKeown added that employees are requesting information from their employers about these elements, and making it known that there are expectations related to them.

"There is a lot more transparency within organizations now," he said. "Before, an employee might show up and use the workplace without really knowing much about it and wouldn't even think to ask about things like air quality. But now, employees are asking for more access to that sort of information."

Little can be big

Although focusing on ways to boost employee productivity, efficiency and morale typically comes into play when companies are setting up new workspaces because of a relocation or expansion, Hogan and McKeown said employers can add small touches to existing workplaces that will make a difference.

Whether it's adding a splash of color, installing new desks (sit/stand desks that allow employees to work while sitting or standing are newly popular), adding some branding or messaging elements, or repositioning existing resources to take advantage of underutilized space, a small change of scenery can go a long way.

Hogan said a Houston client recently approached the firm about creating a more collaborative workplace, which resulted in pulling down several walls to create more transparency and communication among employees.

Overall success

"There are always things you can do," Hogan said. "What's important to understand is that people are beginning to relate the work environment to the overall success of the business."

McKeown said optimizing an office setup really boils down to the employees.

"It all goes back to the people and how to make them more productive and more engaged," he said. "By optimizing their experiences, it makes them feel like they are really part of the organization."