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Flex Spaces: Designing for ‘Collectiveness’


Happy businesspeople working together
Image: H_Ko -
Here’s an image you might want to keep in mind for post-pandemic office occupancy and design planning: senior citizens doing their morning laps around a deserted shopping mall. Can’t you just picture the dreary emptiness and hear the ringing silence?
For Melissa Marsh, founder and executive director of PLASTARC, a social research, workplace innovation, and real estate strategy firm, this “seniors in the mall” experience is an object lesson in what not to do when designing offices for lower capacity. That’s not the kind of experience that will compel workers to come into the office, she said in the latest in an ongoing series of conversations with WorkSpace Connect.
Organizations must think about why employees want to go back into the office, and those reasons have changed considerably with mass work from home (WFH). “People are saying, ‘I’m going to the office for peace and quiet,’ not, ‘I’m going to the office for collaboration’ — and that’s the opposite of what they would have said six months ago.”
For organizations that have designed offices around concepts like collaboration and engagement, thinking about what’s next requires a “shift of scale,” Marsh said. The question they must ask themselves is: If each person is only coming into the office two days a week, “then how do you create a sense of collective, and of everyone belonging?” The trick is designing flexibility into the office design, she added.
For example, many organizations are thinking about the all-hands day as needing to be part and parcel of the post-pandemic cultural experience, Marsh said. To achieve a sense of collectiveness, they might designate one day per month as a time when all employees need to come into the office. The all-hands day becomes an event that encourages engagement and adds vibrancy to the in-office workday — but, it is also a spatial problem to solve, she said. The challenge is: “How do we make a space that feels good at 20% occupancy and that feels good at 90% occupancy?”
Obviously, this isn’t something that organizations can put in place at the moment with COVID-19 still rampant, but it is something they’re planning for, Marsh said. “They’re thinking through the domino effect of what happens when people are only coming in two days a week, what happens with this, this, and this. At the conclusion of that domino effect, they’re saying, ‘We’re going to have half as many desks as we have had in the past, … but in this new model we’re also going to have big collective spaces and more lounge spaces to flex the work environment so that we can have days when [most of] the population is on-site all at once.’”
The “space purgatory” that organizations find themselves in today isn’t going to be forever, Marsh emphasized. While some organizations are in a holding pattern and not doing anything net-new for now, she said, others are “building buildings and fitting out office spaces and signing leases.” These are not decisions for the short term. “They’re not planning for next year; they’re planning for 2030.”