Great workplace design can combat the ‘Great Resignation’

October 25, 2021, 4:01 PM UTC
“Companies that hope to win the talent wars must focus their energies on rethinking and improving the start-to-finish experience of being at work,” writes Andy Cohen.
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As we all navigate the ongoing uncertainty of getting back to work during a lingering pandemic, many companies are seeing greater turnover than ever before in their staff. Organizations of all kinds are experiencing the effects of what some have called the “Great Resignation.” And according to a survey by PwC of 1,000 U.S. workers, some 65% are looking for a new job. 

Both in this time of limbo and in the post-pandemic future, the physical workplace has a significant role to play in supporting and improving the health, happiness, productivity, and overall well-being of employees. By reimagining the office as a destination rather than an obligation, and by creating a space that embodies company values and culture, companies can attract new hires while inviting existing team members back into an environment that truly prioritizes the human experience. 

Destination rather than obligation 

Whether companies aim to bring their people back to the office full-time or pursue a hybrid model, one thing is for sure: The most desirable workplaces will be those that foster collaboration, support the health and wellness of users, and empower employees with a sense of choice. 

For more than 15 years, Gensler has studied workplace needs and behavior. Our research shows that during 2020, people working from home full-time spent 37% less time collaborating with colleagues than before the onset of the pandemic. So how can the design of an office promote ideation and cooperation between a diverse group of coworkers, turning your physical space into a place that helps people to do their best work? 

Choice in environment is key. Instead of the old open-plan model, with rows upon rows of anonymous desks, the new workplace might be re-envisioned as a series of flexible, adaptable spaces, where people can gather in the area that is best suited to both the task at hand and the size of their team. Many of our clients are asking us now to redesign their offices to contain a variety of spaces, from more private, individual areas and small meeting rooms meant for two or three people that support focused work and one-on-one collaboration, to larger living-room type spaces that might host larger team innovation sessions during the day and social gatherings after hours. 

Respondents to a recent survey by the Gensler Research Institute indicated that enhanced health measures and ventilation systems, followed by private work areas, top the list of upgrades that would make them feel comfortable returning to the office. And in all of these spaces, we see the need for cutting-edge technology: videoconferencing tools to promote equitable hybrid interactions, sensors to detect and respond to individual preferences for temperature and lighting, health and safety monitoring systems, and more. 

Design moves like these can make a significant impact on the ease, comfort, and productivity of colleagues’ time together in the office, which is a high priority for employers. According to findings from the Gensler Research Institute’s new U.S. Workplace Study, top performing companies are three times more likely to increase their real estate footprint in the post-pandemic period. Likewise, our survey shows that top-performing employees are more than twice as likely to prefer the office for deep concentration and creative tasks. These findings are consistent with past research: Great workplaces must support both collaboration and focus work.

Design that reflects company values

As a state of uncertainty begins to feel like our “new normal,” individuals are starting to look for the next professional opportunity—but their priorities have shifted. Now more than ever before, prospective employees are evaluating companies’ commitments to creating a more healthy, sustainable, and equitable world. The physical office has an important role to play in reflecting and demonstrating a company’s purpose, culture, and identity, in a way that is unique and authentic to each organization.

Generational data can be especially enlightening in this regard. Considering that people ages 25 to 34 represent the largest age cohorts in the workforce, what matters to them must matter to leaders hoping to attract and retain talent. According to Deloitte’s 2021 Global Millennial and Gen Z survey, nearly half of all millennials and Gen Zs workers have made choices about their type of work and the companies and organizations they want to work for based on their personal ethics. These groups identified health care as one of their top three personal concerns, along with climate change and unemployment.

Design has a deep connection to health, the environment, and equity. Given that buildings are responsible for some 40% of all greenhouse gas emissions, from the materials used in construction—that is, embodied energy—to everyday operational energy needs, our industry has an incredible opportunity to take a leadership role in creating a more resilient future, while also responding to the priorities of future occupants. 

Just as consumers today are more informed than ever before, so are workers. Creating a truly forward-looking office requires more than recycling bins and other such window dressing. We are helping companies make a significant, lasting impact from day one by designing buildings that use healthy, sustainable materials with low carbon footprints, from building structure to interior furnishings. And by incorporating other features on the forefront of design innovation, like data-driven building systems to make the most efficient use of energy, we are helping companies to live out their values while also future-proofing their real estate investments.

Prioritize the human experience

Companies that hope to win the talent wars must focus their energies on rethinking and improving the start-to-finish experience of being at work. Now more than ever, people can, and are, making empowered, purpose-driven choices about their employers. The design of your office—from the flexibility and comfort of the spaces where your team members spend their time, down to the very materials that make up a building—can set your company apart in this bold new era of prioritizing the human experience. 

Andy Cohen is co-CEO of Gensler, the largest architecture and design firm in the world. The firm’s Gensler Cities Climate Challenge (GC3) pledges a commitment to the elimination of greenhouse gases associated with the built environment, with every project Gensler designs to be net-zero for energy and water consumption as quickly as possible.

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