Since the widespread adoption of remote work, discussions about the future of workplaces are frequently binary, pitting employers against employees in a zero-sum contest over time spent physically in offices. This reductive approach misses important questions about the collaborative nature of work, the importance of connection to purpose, and the role the built environment plays in enhancing both.
In short, why and how we gather in the workplace is much more important than how often.
In this context, the role of the office is arguably more important than ever. Huntsman Architectural Group Associate Principal, Alison Woolf puts it this way: “We have all learned how to communicate digitally while working remotely, and that experience is fairly consistent based on available technology, but working together meaningfully in person requires more specific solutions, tailored to each organization’s culture. The two are fundamentally different experiences.”
Three recent projects – each with Woolf in a lead design role – exemplify the diverse and nuanced approaches organizations are taking to shape the future of work. From accommodating distributed workforces, to an in-office-first approach – today’s forward-thinking organizations are leveraging not only technology, but purposefully built environments to ensure their employees connect and thrive.
Space as a Transformational Tool
With the goal of working “where and how you need” Tolleson Design, a creative agency, sought a new office space that effectively supports a mostly distributed workforce while facilitating multiple ways to interact with clients. Relocating from the bustle of San Francisco to the picturesque harbor town of Sausalito just north of the city, the new space is a versatile tool for both clients and staff, many of whom now commute by ferry. With autonomy over their work location, employees are not bound by any required in-office days. This results in a smaller grouping of unassigned workstations and more of the footprint being allocated to communal areas.
Forming the core of the office, a large “brand lab” is used for working sessions with clients, immersive analog and digital experiences, as well as occasional community-focused events like book signings or art exhibitions. Two large counters house kitchen necessities and provide added versatility: “They separate the space into zones and also create a central hub during larger functions,” adds Woolf.
The lab is flanked by conference rooms, team areas, phone booths, a photography studio, and bike storage. By strategically pivoting to include more-client facing settings and investing in the right location and amenities for creative staff, Tolleson Design’s new environment reflects their company culture and prioritizes meaningful in-person interaction.
All the Comforts of Home
Taking a dramatically different approach that nurtures synergy through dedicated in-office days, Horsley Bridge Partners, a venture-capital firm, prioritizes regular in-person collaboration and community to successfully achieve their business goals. To elevate the in-office experience, the workspace was designed to a build-quality more typical of custom residential interiors, with utmost attention paid to acoustics, lighting, physical comfort, and security. “Every space was carefully considered with the idea of matching or exceeding the comforts of home. There are no ‘back-of-house’ areas,” explains Woolf.
Horsley’s employees spend time in the office three set days a week in dedicated workstations and team rooms (unique spaces for groups of six to eight) and work collaboratively side by side. There are only three private offices which are also shared. Glass partitions and an open layout enhance transparency and connectedness. Additionally, a host of employee-centric features like lockers, phone rooms, wellness areas, and a generous café contribute to a soothing and inspiring atmosphere, making in-office days something to look forward to for everyone.
A Focus on Wellness
To prioritize in-office work for a confidential client, a strong focus on employee well-being and a connection with nature was imperative. “Since being physically present is a priority, the design brief was to provide meaningful amenities for employees to thrive,” states Woolf. This translates into a fitness center, outdoor spaces, EV charging, bike storage, and a daylit café with healthy food options. The building’s high ceilings and natural light create a serene atmosphere anchored by a dynamic staircase and living wall. In addition to their comforting effect, plants and other biophilic elements delineate zones and provide visual privacy. Dedicated offices and workstations are complemented by a host of meeting spaces and alternative work settings empowering individuals to customize their work experience. Landscaped rooftop decks allow employees to take advantage of the area’s mild climate for occasional meetings outdoors. This intentional design solution enhances workflow and collaboration and aligns with the company’s objective to offer a meaningful and healthy workplace experience.
Leveraging cutting-edge workplace strategy and design expertise, these case studies showcase radically different approaches in today’s changing work landscape. “Each environment is purposefully designed to reflect, very specifically, that client’s culture and goals. As a result, the spaces are unique, both visually and functionally,” offers Woolf. In each case, the result is a new generation of intentional and human-centric workplaces, providing what home offices or third workspaces struggle to achieve – a sense of community and belonging.
About the Authors
Sascha Wagner, along with Alison Woolf, co-authored this article. Sascha Wagner is the CEO and president at Huntsman Architectural Group, while Woolf serves as associate principal at the firm.
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