How can workplace designers balance the desire of users to customize spaces with their organizations’ needs for efficiency and unity?
A half-century ago, Robert Propst’s Action Office II plan for Herman Miller gave employees the flexibility to, for the first time, customize and reconfigure their workspace to suit their needs. As people have evolved, we have always sought out places where we could feel safe. It’s in our wiring. It makes sense—now more than ever in the wake of COVID-19—for employees to want to personalize a workplace environment to feel comfortable and secure in the space where they spend so many waking hours. A recent research effort described in the Harvard Business Review attributed the feeling employees have that a “space aligns with their self-image and enhances their sense of belonging” to their “place identity.”
Now that most of us have been working from home for months in environments we have either designed or ‘hacked’ to serve us, what will be the new role of personalization in the workplace? With many companies considering moving to a balance of in-office and remote work, there will be a stronger emphasis on creating workplaces that feel safe and supportive of the individuals who work there.
How can workplace designers balance people’s expectations for safety, flexibility and personalization with their organizations’ needs for brand identity and a level of uniformity? All while bringing a rigorous design approach based on a ‘big idea’ inspired by the program, context and fundamental design principles?
We asked three HOK workplace designers what personalization means to them and how they’re addressing it with clients.
Why do people personalize their office space?
Mackenzie: Spaces that are devoid of atmosphere and culture make people feel the need to personalize. As we become a more neurodiverse workforce, spaces that are bleak and understimulating or overdesigned and oversaturated with stimuli cause people to create more comfortable environments.
Luke: People also need the space to physically support their job tasks. Examples of this are agile environments that are hackable and changeable to respond to the needs of the collective rather than an individual or team. We continue to see products and technology adapting to make it easier to personalize space for specific tasks.
Mike: In most cases, the users just don’t think the environment captures their personal aesthetic. Or these individuals, for whatever reason, just don’t feel like they are able to contribute to the larger identity of their company. This may be even more prevalent once people come back into their offices after months of working from home.
What are examples of personalization?
Mike: Even free-address work environments need to have moments for personalization, like an art wall or display in a break area. Without these moments, the space may feel like a showroom. And with the increased cleaning that will happen in offices as people return after the lockdown, we don’t want them to feel too sterile.
Luke: Exactly. An office should not feel like a generic, white box space. The space should respond to the program, the content, the company’s ethos and brand values, and the way its people work. I have recently seen curated art, an employee pet wall and digital content updated to recognize individual employees for their accomplishments.
Mackenzie: We want to give people the ability to personalize their work settings, rather than individual desks. Creating different settings for them allows them to change their experience by moving to a different place. It’s all about providing choices.
We also need to respond to the needs of neurodivergents, like people with autism or ADHD. Depending on where they are on the neurodiversity continuum, people may not be able to tolerate any clutter when they’re trying to concentrate. For others, that stuff may make them feel at home and reduce their anxiety. To create environments where everybody can excel, we provide options.
Luke: For WPP’s new offices at 3 World Trade Center in Manhattan, we designed an agile workplace with every conceivable kind of space for private or collaborative work. There are so many choices about how and where to work—they can even work on an outdoor terrace (above). Layered on top of that task-oriented personalization is that each of the 13 office floors feels distinct. Though the space standards and furniture are the same, each floor has a different vibe aligned to its occupants’ brand.
Mike: We can get finer-grained and talk about personalizing rooms. Too many corporate conference rooms look the same. But there are design moves we can make to interject personal touches and give each room a unique feel and energy.
Luke: Those details matter. Think about fashion and how a suit is personalized. It’s a small monogram inside the lapel. It’s not like your name is embroidered on the back of the jacket!
Mike: Less really can be more. We don’t need to have big, in-your-face super graphics. It’s the tiny moments that people discover over time and are crafted for them that elevate the experience.
Luke: All these things are great, but how a space needs to be used trumps everything. Colors, finishes and furniture are more subjective. Everyone has a different opinion. We want to tie those aesthetic elements to our big idea or concept story for a space to align with the client’s vision and goals.
How do you engage employees in the workplace personalization process?
Mike: The ability to personalize a space typically is spelled out in a company’s space guidelines or standards. This personalization could relate to its brand identity, culture or region. We don’t want an office in L.A. to look like one in Chicago.
A workplace also needs to acknowledge some preferences of the individuals who work there. We try to fully engage these people early in the design process. This engagement varies based on the type of company and how it uses space. But this is the best way to give employees a feeling of ownership and get better results.
Luke: Front-end engagement of end users improves our ability to create ‘we’ space instead of ‘me’ space. If we discover that people are strong advocates for genderless bathrooms, for example, and they later see it in the space, this shared experience can reflect who they are more strongly than having a plant or tchotchke on their desk.
Mackenzie: Employee surveys, focus groups and observations help us learn how people use spaces and how they would like to change them. I get the best, most detailed information from in-person focus group meetings with the future occupants of a space. We can have real conversations about how they socialize and work—and what is inhibiting or would help them do their jobs.
Luke: For larger projects that span multiple floors or buildings or lots of specialized spaces, we often work with ambassadors appointed from specific groups. Together they form the project steering committee.
Mackenzie: It’s important to differentiate between employee engagement and design solutions. Employee input doesn’t tell us which materials should go on the wall. But we want to know whether they work in small teams, large groups or alone? Do they print lots of paper or use whiteboards? Then we can personalize the space based on their actual needs.
Luke: People have strong opinions on what looks good. But it’s our job to align their input with all the different elements that go into the design story and support the brand. We also integrate longer-term goals for durability, flexibility and sustainability that they may not be thinking about.
Mike: As the experts who have been brought in to help, we are often able to create solutions that improve how they work. We want to use what we learn to make the experience better for them.
Are there generational differences in the desire to personalize a workplace?
Luke: I have observed a minimalist movement among younger people. A lot of Gen Zs and Millennials are considering the environmental impact of owning products. This emerging mindset also places more value on a digital presence. The physical space surrounding them doesn’t need to reflect who they are. That can happen through their Instagram or Twitter personas.
Mike: Younger members of the workforce have more of a desire to have experiences rather than surrounding themselves with products. When they travel, they want to take photos in cool places from that location. They come home with pictures of experiences, not souvenirs.
Mackenzie: We often see the opposite with people who have been in the workforce longer and have an urge to personalize their space. In the workplaces of companies with high retention rates across several generations, the number of personal items tends to rise over time. The mental approach seems to be that, “The more stuff I have, the more established I am.” But younger generations are shifting to a mindset of becoming part of a bigger whole. They want to contribute to the overall culture.
Luke: More young people choose where they work based on an expression of their personalization. It makes sense. People wear clothes that represent them. They eat food that represents them. They buy technology that represents them. Those who have the luxury of choice often opt to work with companies they believe in. Our general human instinct is to find like-minded people for shared experiences.
How is new technology impacting personalization?
Luke: There is so much data being collected about us every day. Looking at how we start to use that data to inform space is going to play a big role in personalization.
Mackenzie: I already receive frequent Microsoft Office reports on how productive I have been and how much time I have spent collaborating. A smarter version of this digital personal assistant would be helpful. Like when I book a conference room, the system already knows which temperature and lighting level I want and what technology I need.
Mike: Think about something like the Google Nest thermostat that ensures the office temperature is comfortable during business hours and turns it off at night. Smart lighting or furniture could automatically adjust to your preferences.
Luke: Digital customization can happen though things like Power over Ethernet (PoE) intelligent lighting systems with LED lights that people move and adjust.
Mike: AI technologies are going to fill in the gaps that we don’t want to deal with. When you book a meeting during lunch hour and attendees accept, it will automatically order enough food to be delivered to that conference room. You don’t need to coordinate with an admin—it’s just there.
Luke: The office could start to resemble an Amazon Go convenience store, where you walk into a space and everything is configured for your preferences. We can already use our mobile phones as digital hotel room keys. We’ll be able to unlock doors and turn on computers with our eyes. All this, including the use of biometrics, is coming to the workplace.
Does personalization need to be policed after move-in?
Mackenzie: One-hundred percent, yes. Too much personalization can distract others. If somebody’s desk has 74 Beanie Babies on it, I physically can’t do my work because it bothers me that much. It also can be dangerous. New infection control cleaning protocols in offices will likely limit the personal items that people keep on their desks and in their work areas. I have toured offices where people had candle collections in a building that was not sprinklered. We want to offer people flexibility to personalize without distracting or endangering others.
Ideally, a company will have an office manager who monitors personalization. If people are going to be hacking a huddle room to fit their needs and customizing various spaces across the office, there has to be someone managing and putting it all back together—or it will fail.
Luke: Defining personalization parameters makes it better for everyone. Rather than giving them a blank slate, we give employees a tool kit they can use to customize their environment within a unified aesthetic.
Mike: An office manager can make sure everything is looking good and feeling unified. Take that a step further and think about a community manager—a person who focuses on group activities that provide opportunities for people to interact in the office. Many companies are starting to have community or experience managers who focus on curated personalization and champion the culture.