The integration of people, place and policy will define the new workplace era

A new era for the workplaceWith a new decade comes a renewed focus on talent for workplace designers. Employers are beginning to better understand the value in hiring neurodiverse employees for creative and strategic thinking. They also understand that creating physical and digital workspaces, which blend the principles of universal design (making spaces accessible for the broadest possible range of individuals), and encouraging wellness are essential for attracting top talent and giving their business a competitive edge.

A recent study found that design can make employees up to 33% happier at work, and happy employees experience 31% higher productivity. The world is becoming more educated and interested in wellbeing and self-actualisation. As a result, we’ll see a significant impact on workplace design – from what working environments look like to how their function, form, impact and use are adopted by employees and client visitors.

As a consequence, there are several key workplace trends that will inform the creation of the modern work environment: supporting cognitive and neurodiversity, encouraging wellness beyond the physical, and the desire for user-centric design.


Supporting cognitive and neurodiversity

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In 2020, we’ll see diversity expanding beyond race, gender and age to address neurodiversity and divergent backgrounds. We anticipate an increased drive for difference that has impacts across the workplace, including new hiring trends, inclusivity policies, increased flexibility, and fresh approaches to office design to support a range of employees. The most innovative companies will seek to attract candidates from varying backgrounds, with different experiences, education and ways of thinking.

A growing interest for authentic diversity and difference – and hiring beyond neurotypical parameters – means companies need to create workspaces that support employees across the spectrum and a culture that celebrates diverse brains and thought patterns. Expectations of typical behaviour should not colour how we see talent or define community.

In our modern time of rapid change and disruption, companies that continue to hire “birds of a feather” who all think alike will struggle to anticipate change, disruption and industry blind spots. Progressive organisations will seek out divergence in the form of varied thinkers that bring “rebel ideas” – ideas that challenge hierarchies and creates constructive dissent.


Putting people at the centre

Workplace design has shifted from something businesses view as an aesthetic choice that only offers a certain level of prestige and visual appeal to an important asset in achieving both broader business goals and the goals of their employees.

Aesthetic will always be important, but a truly great workspace must be user-centric, results-driven and evidence-based in order to enhance productivity and performance. This will encompass a blend of knowledge and practice from spatial understanding, neuroscience, psychology, UX, storytelling, architecture, branding, HR and more.

The design industry is encountering a shift in focus from efficiency and attractiveness to the entire user journey. We must map out the end-to-end experience and identify pain points or areas for improvement along the way. From the moment someone walks into the office, we’re considering the hypothetical and real ways they can be impacted by the physical space around them.

It’s more important now than ever for workplace design to support user experience and overall employee wellness. The demand for an optimal experience throughout the entire workday is eminent, and workplace designers have an increasingly valuable role because of it.


Looking beyond physical comfort

In the past decade, younger people have seen a 47% increase in major-depression diagnoses and the rising generation is set to be the biggest of burnouts. Organisations need to assess the cause of such burnout and mental health attrition, and not just the effect. We must find the root of the issue to effectively combat it. Part of that process involves assessing user behaviour through usability, accessibility, and desirability.

Designing an office space is about understanding how people interact with it, identifying stressors, and finding ways to combat them. Physical and cognitive comfort regularly go hand-in-hand; however, we’ll begin to see a greater emphasis on social and ergonomics, with other factors in the workplace. For example, if you want to make a quiet place where people focus, make it feel like a library – soft spaces, low lights, task lights at your workspace. If you create the impression of something familiar, people will understand how to use it intuitively. We are designing beyond physical comfort for social and cognitive ergonomics and considering the integration of place and people.

Future workplace design will focus on comfortable environments that reduce mental load, anxiety, distress, distraction and decision fatigue. This requires intuitive design, a universal approach and a natural understanding of wellness. Intelligent designers will work from a place of empathy with a broad spectrum of knowledge on how to create, prevent, and problem-solve.


Wellness meets universal design

 Workplace wellness is now considered to be a tangible design solution. Elements like sound, air quality, physical activity, and light are important in a design, but just as important are the less tangible elements. We must design spaces that help people feel safe, reduce anxiety and encourage collaboration. Designing for wellness and universal design are natural companions, as designers focus on creating environments that promote wellness while making them usable for a wide array of individuals. For example, instead of having a stair with a ramp around the corner leading to the accessible entrance, you just create a ramp, or integrate the two so the experience is the same whoever you are.

As design concepts improve and the focus on health and wellness grows, employers will look for ways to make workspaces more enjoyable and liveable to keep top talent. They’ll need to ensure staff wellbeing, productivity and continued good health.

Today’s C-Suite leaders are faced with an array of challenges, from employee retention to rapid burnout. The solution lies in creating an adaptively built environment that can respond to fluctuation and rapid change. Through greater diversity in hiring, policy that promotes diverse thought, and spaces that encourage diverse styles of working, 2020 will be a year focused on wellness in the workplace. Companies must put people and their experiences at the root of workplace design in order to flourish in the decade to come.

Image: M Moser