Socializing At Work Is About More Than Just Fun And Games.

The business benefit of relationships with colleagues and how the design of post-Covid offices can foster valuable connections.

June 8, 2021

Principal, Workplace Strategist, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This is the fifth article in a six-part series on five different work modes. The first piece outlined a framework for each work mode, while subsequent posts explore a single work mode in greater depth — including focus, collaborate, learn, socialize and rest.

This post was co-authored by Kelly Griffin and Robert Mankin.

 

In the early days of office work, socializing and building friendships at work was not tolerated. In fact, it was perceived as taking attention away from the task at hand. The world has since learned, particularly during the pandemic, that socializing at work is a critical building block of trust, innovation and wellbeing in organizations. Numerous research studies, beginning with a pioneer 1920s study on a team of factory workers at Western Electric Company, show that social support and group interaction between colleagues create powerful, positive benefits not just for employees, but companies too. This includes greater social cohesion, wellness and a healthier life overall, which fuels higher engagement, productivity and organizational success.

Given these immense benefits, social activities in the workplace are essential for healthy employees and companies. However, once the pandemic forced most organizations to work from home, many people lost this vital in-person interaction. Remote work has inhibited important face-to-face social connections with colleagues, teams and the community as a whole.

In the post-Covid office, it will be more important than ever to have space to unite teams and celebrate success, to boost wellness and reduce stress. The below outlines four ways the workplace can create comfortable, welcoming experiences that encourage genuine human connection.

Provide alluring social spaces that address movement, culture and routines to foster a natural rhythm of shared connections. As social activities in the workplace are unique to each company, team and individual, it is essential to offer a variety of areas in the office — from the comforting to the unexpected — to support both routine and unplanned social moments. This can include rethinking the experience of the “journey.” Transition or “in-between” spaces typically used for travel such as hallways, paths or stairwells can become unique areas for connection. This can also mean offering alternative, social gathering zones that go beyond multipurpose meeting rooms. Read on for a few strategies to help employees build closer connections and friendships.

  • Explore existing social moments and routines — including their higher purpose and goals. As with other types of work activities, it’s key to first examine and establish a culture of socializing and building relationships in the workplace. Consider guiding questions, such as: What is the intent for socializing? What types of social engagement are most valued or preferred? How can we build social cohesion with our teams? Keep in mind the three main scales of social activities, such as larger team gatherings like community networking events, smaller group connections including lunches, and one-on-one chats like a coffee break. To help build community within and outside an organization’s walls, office spaces should address social preferences that make it easy (and fun) to organically connect.
  • Consider the journey. Even before an employee arrives at the office, the meeting room, or their desk, it’s important to consider the sequence of spaces that come before. This could include the larger experience of traveling through a headquarters’ campus from the bus stop or parking lot, through a building lobby or a shared welcoming area or café. How can these areas promote opportunities for shared social connections? One way is to create irresistible and engaging places for serendipitous discovery. For example, a workplace headquarters project in South Korea features a series of pathways that cascade up 15 stories to become a unique walking route primed for social interactions. Colleagues can stroll up and down its ramps for not just walking meetings, but for informal conversations too, and also cross paths with visitors. In addition, benches and nooks along the way provide natural moments to extend a conversation. The outdoors can be a part of the journey as well. For example, a special arrival and exit zone can simulates a walk in the woods with lush native plants, gently winding paths and natural materials like stone and wood. Ultimately, it’s not about the distance traveled, but the experience of the journey and the movement through space as a shared experience.
  • Create a compelling destination. Creating “destination” social spaces encourages colleagues to get out of their normal routine and most important, feel comfortable enough to build strong social connections. For instance, a lobby in an office building or front desk zone in a workplace can become an interactive destination that welcomes and delights employees, visitors and local residents. Inviting digital media walls and installations can be tailored with inspiring graphics that change depending on the occasion, movement or touch, to create truly customized environments.
  • Enhance the ritual of socializing through design. Finally, design can encourage a regular cadence of socializing for better idea-generation and problem solving. For example, it can be helpful to provide spaces that support everyday routines or special traditions to help remove barriers. One way is to build relationships around the ritual of hospitality, including meals or drinks. For instance, if a team typically gets a morning coffee or connects over a Friday lunch to discuss ideas, inviting, “neutral” spaces for gathering can help further these friendships to create a sense of belonging. This could include cozy seating zones inside an office that mimic the feel of gathering together in a favorite pub. Outside, a central campfire space with outdoor staircases nearby can host large employee gatherings. In addition, underutilized areas in a building’s ground floor or lobby can become pop-up spaces for partnerships with local restaurants, coffee shops and juice bars. Outdoor areas can also become valuable community resources for connection. At Samsung’s North America headquarters, nature-filled courtyards transform into areas for fitness, recreation and family activities. This creates a unique workplace that is both restorative and generative — better integrated into the social fabric for improved relationship-building and idea generation.

Socializing is critical to trust, learning and growth. The workplace of today — and tomorrow — can foster a sense of belonging, providing opportunities for employees to connect with one another and the community in a way that is unique to their values. Ultimately, teams that have strong social bonds are more likely to stay with an organization longer, generate new and more innovative ideas and deliver work more effectively.

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As Many Storefronts Sit Empty, Three Opportunities to Rethink the Ground Floor of Buildings

May 20, 2021

Design Partner, NBBJ

This post was co-authored by Jonathan Ward and Andrea Vanecko.

 

The pandemic shows us what cities without vibrant and engaging commercial streets look like – when some of our favorite spaces are shuttered and instead of spending a day popping into shops, we are met with stores displaying ‘For Lease’ signs.

The decline of in-person retail and the question of what to do with ground level retail space has been on the minds of developers, architects, and urban planners for years. However, the pandemic accelerates this crisis, with retail vacancies expected to reach a seven year high this year.

The vitality of ground level commercial space is about much more than the future of retail. These spaces are where neighborhood identity is formed, it’s where we live our day-to-day lives, where we play and meet up with friends. And how these places are curated makes the difference between streetscapes that are livable and human, and those that lack a sense of coherence and place.
This moment – between the devastation of the pandemic and full reopening – presents an opportunity to be bold in reimagining what we want our cities to look like and in rethinking how ground level retail space is zoned, used and configured.

A New Opportunity
As a team of architects, designers and strategists obsessed with the future of cities, we believe the street level of buildings should intermingle retail with social and community services, bring craft and making to the forefront and create an environment that better reflects the tastes and lifestyle of millennials and Gen Z. Here are a few examples:

  • One of the most compelling opportunities is to create more porous environments. Typically, retail spaces are small, hermetically sealed boxes solely reserved to the first floor of buildings that lack a sense of continuity and circulation in and between environments. If we look at some of the most successful and iconic spaces in cities – the Ferry Building in San Francisco, Pike Place Market in Seattle and Grand Central Market in Downtown LA – they all buck this trend. They feel organic, mixing indoors and outdoors, and are imbued with a sense of texture, discovery and exploration. These are all qualities we can translate into the street if we’re willing to think both creatively and strategically, designing for an interesting and engaging tenant mix and for different kinds of programming that move away from siloed retail.
  • What if in the same street you lived, you could also find pop-up galleries, community spaces, work zones and outdoor fitness classes? What if after work, all you had to do was go downstairs and a block away to walk into a cooking, pottery or foreign language class? By designing our commercial retail environments in a way that seamlessly integrates indoors and outdoors, we can connect tenants with an ongoing slate of physical and experiential programming and activations, from satellite art spaces connected to larger institutions to educational sessions to outdoor libraries and play spaces for children.
  • We can also challenge the idea of the ground floor as the only space available to us and explore what more vertical uses and programming could look like. We’ve seen this with green roofs and rooftop bars and restaurants, but could it also be that the 2nd, 3rd, 4th or 10th level gets programmed? Traveling beyond the first floor, we could see tenants higher up in the building that offer extended hours so there’s a vertical adventure like we see more commonly in cities like Tokyo and Hong Kong.

Roadblocks to Change
If we want to move toward this new vision for the commercial programming of cities, we must work closely with developers, city planners and city officials to overcome persistent roadblocks. Because without reform, these ideas will remain concepts instead of reality. We, both as a firm and as an industry, have an opportunity to advocate for new ways of doing work across:

  • City zoning unintentionally discourages ingenuity in this area, often operating within limited criteria for what traditional retail tenants can be. Zoning generally likes to organize cities in tidy boxes, but if we want to encourage the revitalization of these neighborhoods after the pandemic, allowing for a mix of uses at different times of day and night is one of the most effective strategies to get there. This approach will also create new opportunities for the slate of businesses across sectors that have been forced to exit their leases due to the pandemic and will be looking for a home after. Zoning can be a catalyst or a roadblock as we explore new configurations for both ground floors and vertical programming. If we want to adopt zoning modifications that allow us to create districts that better reflect the way we work, learn and play today, we should promote policy that allows for a greater diversity of uses in existing retail space and to reimagine vertical zoning within other kinds of commercial buildings. One of the biggest challenges in moving toward zoning reform is the limited way many cities interpret what retail and what vibrancy are. If we can widen that definition beyond point of sale for physical products and goods to include experiences and events, we can allow for a greater variety of tenants.
  • Especially in retail-intensive districts, there is an understandable tendency to capture immediate financial incentives by having spaces filled as quickly as possible by the highest paying tenants. But there’s also a growing movement with forward-thinking developers and property owners to reconceptualize the role of first floor space can play, away from immediate financial benefits and revenue generation as the determining factor toward spaces that will also establish the social identity of the area and bring in more people – an attribute that tenants crave. This approach is an investment in the medium and long-term longevity of these developments by prioritizing the quality of the place and experience offered therein. There’s already really promising movement in the commercial real estate sector to explore the benefits of this approach – a ULI survey finds that 60% of CRE professionals are moving towards nonfinancial measures like social value and community impact to assess the value of projects.
  • Many retail lease structures favor large, established tenants with long-term real estate needs. This approach has the important benefit of stability, but it can sometimes stifle innovation in how these spaces are occupied and programmed. For example, meanwhile uses and pop-up programming can bring in new audiences, drive foot traffic and reframe how people view a given street or district. More fluid lease lines that look beyond a major anchor tenant toward a series of smaller leases can open these districts to more engaging and innovative uses, and by having a constant churn of activity, create opportunities for people to come back again and again.

Architects, urban and town planners, designers, and the real estate sector have a unique opportunity to steward a new way of thinking about what our cities look like. And we have a significant role to play in designing spaces that supports a tenant mix that better reflects how we live today. The vision is here. It’s up to us to work together to dismantle the roadblocks to making it happen.

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Who Let the Dogs In?

As people head back to the office, a look at how workplaces can better accommodate four-legged friends.

April 20, 2021

Interior Designer, NBBJ

This post initially appeared in OnOffice Magazine

One of the most significant social outcomes of the Covid-19 pandemic is a rise in dog ownership. Many benefit from having pets keep them company while working from home, but what happens when more employees start to return to the office?

Prior to the pandemic, ‘bring your dog to work day’ was a regular occurrence for companies like Amazon and pet subscription company BARK. Now with the vaccine roll-out underway and an expected increase in companies trying to accommodate new pets, we outline design ideas to help with this transition.

Scale
First and foremost, it’s important to consider height. Workplaces that prioritize amenities for employees can also do so for dogs, just placed a bit lower. Looking at a kitchenette, for example, one strategy is to design integrated water bowls into islands at ’dog-drinking’ levels. This designates a specific, contained area for water bowls that is easy for four-legged friends to use.

Respite, collaboration, and informal meeting spaces are now a staple in workplaces. It is important to design these areas with dogs in mind. An example is the ‘amenity bar’ at BARK’s Columbus, Ohio, office. This feature allows employees to curl up in a nook and work on their laptop, with lower lounge areas for their dog to climb in nearby.

For meeting rooms with glass partitions, it’s easy for dogs to get distracted by movement and other activity happening outside. One design strategy is to add a frosted or opaque film at ground or dog height to alleviate pup distractions. This film is normally specified at human seated eye height but by extending this to be lower, both humans and dogs are accounted for.

Details

For pup-friendly offices, provide locations to hang dog leashes. With dogs being accident-prone throughout the day, it’s common for dog-inhabited offices to enforce a leash rule to help alleviate this issue and any additional distractions pups may cause. Place these leash hooks near desk space to help employees focus on work while properly looking out for their pooch.

When working from home, dogs follow their owners around. To ensure the owner is able to work productively at the office, furniture systems can be selected that include not only desks, but also built-in lounge chairs. So, while a dog-owner works, their furry friend can lounge beside them.

Durability
Some companies have upward of 1 dog for every 10 employees in the office on any given day. To ensure appropriate maintenance, source materials that are impervious, bleach-cleanable, removable, and washable. Hard flooring products on the market can maintain desired aesthetics but with the durability to withstand liquids penetrating the surface.

Additionally, when sourcing upholstery for millwork and furniture items, look at adding Nanotex and Crypton technology to the textiles. This treatment blocks liquids from seeping through the surface without compromising the comfort of textiles. As a bonus, these coatings are also stain, bacteria and wrinkle-resistant.

If topical solutions alone aren’t enough, when designing lounge spaces, make sure any upholstered item is removable. This allows for a quick wash or easy replacement.

Play
When employees are stuck working like a dog, there needs to be a dedicated space for dogs to play within the office. One example is a ‘pup play area’ equipped with platforms and integrated tunnels where dogs can run. For more rowdy pups, be sure to strategically locate a co-working zone nearby so the owner is free to work while keeping an eye on their dog. These co-working zones double as a workspace to alleviate a large number of people in an open office post pandemic.

Outdoors
Allowing for an outdoor dog park or adjacent green space when looking for the perfect tenant lease is fundamental when dogs are in the workplace. This outdoor space is a good way to let pups get out in their natural habitat, play with other canines and release energy without having to go too far.

Additionally, the outdoor dog park is just as beneficial for people as it is for dogs. The pandemic has escalated the time humans spend outdoors; a silver-lining to general wellbeing. Research from NBBJ’s Applied Research Fellowship Program with developmental molecular biologist Dr. John Medina shows that healthy individuals are more engaged and empowered, which in turn has a direct impact on their overall performance at work. When transitioning back into the office, it is good practice to keep a similar, healthy routine. Space should make you (and your dog) move. Who doesn’t love a classic game of Go Fetch?

It may be a dog-eat-dog world, but designing a successful workplace for pandemic pups has direct employee benefit: it can potentially boost office morale, attract and retain top talent, foster community and entice employees back into the office while reducing stress levels. With happiness-boosting oxytocin levels elevated by the presence of animals, they are arguably the cutest addition of wellbeing in the workplace. So, design with dogs in mind, not an afterthought. It’s officially time to throw out the “no dogs allowed” signs.

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