Kara Eberle-Lott, Associate Principal at Cushing Terrell

The pandemic changed everything we thought we knew about the role and function of the office. Here workplace designer Kara Eberle-Lott, associate principal at Cushing Terrell, shares what she is seeing from her workplace clients and where office design may be headed next. Abbott Construction recently worked with Eberle-Lott and her team to build Cushing Terrell’s own new workplace in Seattle.

How has the pandemic changed our expectations for how we use office space?

Pre-pandemic, employees didn’t need a reason to come to the office, you just came in to sit down at a desk to work. Now, with the help of technology, independent work can happen anywhere, which means employees need a reason to come in—be it a social event, a team meeting, or a quiet space to work in a phone room. As a result, companies are prioritizing community spaces, meeting spaces, and individual quiet spaces as they reconfigure their offices.

What impacts of the pandemic do you think were temporary and which do you think will become normalized?   

Among the more temporary impacts of the pandemic were the implementation of social distancing measures and the “work from anywhere all the time” mindset. While hybrid/flexible work arrangements are now more the norm, companies will likely want to bring teams together sometimes, just not all the time. The office will continue to play a role in this centralization as well as facilitate team camaraderie and collaboration. General flexibility in where we work will persist, however. This shift had already begun pre-pandemic with the increase of tech jobs and the innate flexibility of that kind of work. But the pandemic accelerated this flexibility, and it’s not something that will ever go away.

What are some of the biggest design challenges in terms of people returning to the office?

Designers have attempted to predict what would be needed in the near and long term and subsequently make the “best” use of space when usage was ebbing and flowing in new and somewhat dramatic ways. Almost every client is asking us to design for “flexibility,” to design spaces that can evolve and change as workers continue to evolve and change as we settle back into a new normal in a post-pandemic world. However, “flexibility” doesn’t always deliver a user-friendly space as successfully as one that is designed for a particular use. Incorporating a variety of workspaces into one overall design is challenging but also important to accommodate multiple ways of working.

Many employees cite increased productivity as a big incentive to work from home. How can the right office design improve productivity?

Productivity can’t always be measured in a quantifiable way. It’s important to remember that creative time is productive, and the right office design can inspire creativity. The right office design can offer a variety of spaces and environments to accommodate as many roles and work styles as possible so people have options throughout the day to experience chance encounters, learning opportunities, and necessary focus time.

What are some of the features or focus areas for your clients currently?

One is a focus on equity, inclusivity, and accessibility. Another is including some of the comforts of home in addition to office benefits such as daylight control, technology, air quality, lighting, and optimal virtual meeting accommodations. On top of that, clients want spaces that very intentionally influence health and wellbeing.

Aside from heavy renovations, are there any simple adjustments employers can make to their offices to improve the employee experience?

My advice: lean into the feeling of a home, a place that is comfortable to be. For example, incorporate a kitchen space that also allows you to eat away from your desk, a nook that provides the option to take a phone call on a sofa rather than in your office chair, or access to the outdoors so that employees can take a wellness walk over lunch. Add plants, replace private offices with phone rooms/hoteling spaces, improve technology throughout for easy Wi-Fi connectivity and the ability to conference and/or plug in with no difficulty. All these things are available to workers when they are at home and represent a sampling of the features they are reluctant to let go of to return to an office environment.

What do you see coming in the future of workplace design?

Flexibility coupled with spaces that address specific needs. This will manifest itself, in part, in the layering on of quiet or small/focus areas to accommodate quiet time but otherwise giving employees as many opportunities as possible to gather and co-create. Overall, I expect an increase in collaborative spaces with different formulas applied to calculate “needed” space per team size. Additionally, we can expect an increased focus on equity and accessibility.

While it’s impossible to really see into the future, with research and observation, we can adapt design to evolving human needs and stay out in front of new demands. Within our firm, Cushing Terrell is conducting a number of research studies, such as an exploration of neurodiversity in the workplace and the psychology of architectural design, to help inform what may be ahead.