Courtesy of Kristi Klemens/KLK Photography and Edwards LifeSciences
Edwards LifeSciences invested in its outdoor spaces to create a residential feel for employees to enjoy the Southern California weather. Outdoor and rooftop areas like this one are a popular amenity.

Destination Office: What Returning to the Workplace Looks Like IRL

Aug. 25, 2023
An anecdotal look at how companies are encouraging employees back to the office, what’s working and what employees need from their office today.
Given that we’re in the business of workplace interiors, Tangram has been looking forward to the homecoming of return-to-office (RTO) when restrictions were lifted, and tides had societally shifted. When the doors opened and hordes of employees weren’t waiting in anticipation to come back to work, we began a hard internal organizational evaluation of what we offer as a physical office.

“Our motto since the initial discussions around returning to the office has been ‘make the office a magnet, not a mandate.’ We wanted to heavily invest in our offices and culture to create a workplace experience so magnetizing that our employees would want to come back,” says Joe Lozowski, Tangram CEO + President.

Refreshes across all office locations, added amenities, and a greater focus on social events and celebrations any chance we get have helped reenergize our offices with a higher employee return, not to the pre-COVID level, but to a degree that is noticeable.

When speaking to clients and partners, it’s clear that this RTO journey is a shared experience across most industries. While we bring our expertise to how we approach today’s workplace on projects and within our own organization, we’re happy to admit we don’t have the answers to how to get employees back to the office. And neither does anyone else, as made evident by the mixed messaging you’re likely hearing.

We have a varied and valuable circle of clients and partners, so we reached out to a small group of them to ask about their RTO strategy and what’s been working for them. Here are the insights and common threads pulled from those conversations.

Most companies are encouraging their employees back 2-3 days a week, typically Tuesday-Thursday, depending on the industry.

Two to three days, Tuesday-Thursday seems to be the sweet spot. According to recent Steelcase research, 70% of employees globally are working three days or more in the office, on average, with leaders and Gen Z more likely to be in the office.

Large tech companies like The Trade Desk, a media buying platform, are more on the flexible side because it’s an office-by-office scenario, and roles like engineers are more heads down with teammates spread out globally.

On the other hand, more relational-based companies, like Creative Arts Agency, a talent agency, are organically seeing higher office usage because employees are meeting clients in-house, while Canvas Worldwide, a media communications agency, requires at least two days in office that are determined by each department head.

Edwards Lifesciences, an Orange County-based biotechnology company, is an essential business that never closed its doors, so their initial strategy of maintaining a safe campus naturally evolved into their return-to-office strategy when the time came. They implemented three designations in 2021: Onsite, Share and Flex. An employee would be Onsite if they are in office 80% of the time, four days a week. This employee gets their own cubicle or office with their name on it. Share is for two employees who share an office or cubicle and come in two days a week, working amongst themselves to choose non-overlapping days. Lastly, Flex is for employees who come in once a week or every two weeks. These employees use the company phone app to be assigned a desk in their department, with the ability to reserve a desk up to a week in advance.

Your office space is your greatest asset.

“I think the biggest thing for us is creating a space that people want to come to and they feel welcomed and it's inviting. Then they're going to come,” says Chelsey Berend, Director of Global Marketing & Communications for Ecobat, the world’s biggest recycler of batteries.

And come they did, as Ecobat is currently experiencing a 100% employee return rate to their brand-new Uptown Dallas office.

You can’t expect employees to return to the same office experience pre-pandemic, but this may be the right opportunity to rethink and reimagine your workspace to accommodate and enhance your employees’ day-to-day experience.

For many organizations, surveying your employees can help drive the data points for their wants and needs. Gensler, architecture and design firm, is renovating their Los Angeles office and enlisted their design and consulting team to meet with each studio, made up of 30-50 employees, to learn what people are looking for in their office space.

“It really is a ground-up design process,” says Mark Zwagerman, Gensler Director of Media Practice. “A lot of our clients are asking the same questions. So the whole process we're going through in our own office is very relevant to the conversations we're having with our clients. It's really helping us develop that approach on how to go about re-imagining the workplace of the future.”

LPA Design Studios, a design and architecture firm, opened their San Diego office in October 2022 and has seen the highest RTO rate across all their locations with a 90% employee return. Because of this space’s success, they’re currently conducting research to better understand how the space is being used with interactive keypads in all spaces where users can give immediate feedback on everything from temperature to furniture selections and placement.

Focus on smaller meeting spaces over large conference rooms

A 12-person meeting will most likely not bring 12 (physical) people to a conference room. Due to the new norm of mixed-environment meetings, smaller meeting and huddle rooms are in high demand.

If you’re working in Canvas Worldwide’s LA office, you’ll be hard-pressed to book a smaller meeting room last minute Tuesday through Thursday because they’ve all been reserved.

The Trade Desk is seeing higher utilization of 1-2 person Zoom rooms and 4-6 person Huddle rooms and is investing in more for that reason.

As Gensler is renovating their LA office, they’re adding more 2, 3 and 4-person meeting rooms since those are already highly popular.

Private spaces are the ultimate perk

While messaging is generally that people come to the office to collaborate, Steelcase recently published research that people spend 53% of their day working alone. That’s why it’s more important than ever that offices offer spaces where workers can go to think, clear their heads and focus more deeply.

With today’s hybrid workforce and more video calls than ever before, an open floorplan can prove too distracting, not allowing for focus or private conversations. Therefore, investing in personal spaces allows users to tackle office overwhelm, get things done and take their calls in a quiet space.

A majority of our clients and partners mentioned they’ve either invested or are planning on investing in more phone booths to allow for a quick private option. All employee needs must be considered; while many employees come to the office with the purpose of collaboration, those who are coming to complete a long list of tasks shouldn’t be overlooked.

Emphasis on soft, collaborative spaces

Employees have grown accustomed to their comfortable homes and soft surfaces, so employers are bringing the home to the office.

Ware Malcomb, a design firm, upgraded acoustics and soft lighting with dimmers in their Irvine headquarters to create a comfortable environment for their collaborative spaces.

Gensler is introducing more biophilia and softer, warmer, comfortable settings.

Ecobat broke up desks in the open office with little living rooms of open collaborative seating.

Edwards invested in their outdoor spaces to create a more open, residential feel for employees who want to enjoy the Southern California weather.

Improved tech in private offices, meeting rooms and large social spaces

Steelcase research published that over half of all meetings (56%) are spent on video, so updated technology in meeting rooms is no longer an option but a necessity.

“If you build a conference room that isn’t video conference ready, it’s a waste of time and space because you’ve got to believe that any meeting is going to be a hybrid meeting,” says Tom Porter, Edwards Lifesciences Senior Vice President, Corporate Services.

Beyond shared conference rooms, Edwards Lifesciences ensured that every private office is equipped with Microsoft Teams and an additional seating area in addition to the workstation so that the office can become a mini-conference room when needed.

The tech consideration didn’t stop at private meeting spaces for this company; they also equipped their large auditorium space with a camera that zooms in on whoever is speaking to create equity and inclusivity for all-hands meetings.

“If you don’t feel a part of the meeting, then you’re not really adding value. So it's really important that you create that environment and that's what we try to do with our space,” says Porter of Edwards Lifesciences.

Gensler has revamped all AV in their LA office to allow for simple plug-and-play, hybrid capabilities in every meeting room and large social spaces, and a general major tech refresh that allows for connection anywhere.

“We live on five different floors, so being able to walk around the entire office with your laptop and not have any connection issues and being able to step into any meeting room and have it work is kind of a big deal,” says Zwagerman of Gensler.

Choice, flexibility, and neighborhoods

Some organizations are maintaining 1:1 desking, but there’s been a 15% drop in assigned seating in the last year, according to Steelcase research, to allow for more variability in soft spaces with an emphasis on choice and flexibility. Creating neighborhoods within the office, with a mix of private and public spaces, allows for social infrastructure and choice in work style.

LPA’s San Diego office, with a 90% employee return rate, infused agility and flexibility into their designs, ensuring every piece of furniture is movable and has a place to plug in.

“There was really intentional and thoughtful design around being agile and flexible in terms of how we work,” says Wendy Rogers, LPA Design Studios’ CEO. “It's a space that's much more conducive to that flexibility and choice.”

Using employee surveys and data as the basis for their LA office design, Gensler’s employee needs—while varied—were clear.

“The fact that there’s so much diversity within our organization drove the diversity of work points that we ended up designing. I think that was the biggest takeaway, that it's not just one solution. Everybody has slightly different needs and works in slightly different ways,” says Zwagerman of Gensler. “We have lots of different types of work modes and we're trying to give a lot of variety, a lot of choice to everybody when they come to the office, and remove any barriers or obstacles that might exist for collaborating with your teammates.”

Beyond what lies within an office’s walls, the surrounding exterior neighborhood can serve as a huge employee perk. Walkability to lunch spots, coffee shops, and bars for impromptu happy hours allows for choice to continue to play a role in the workday, inside and out. This was a major factor for Ecobat in their brand-new Dallas office location.

“A part of the amenities consideration was what does the building in the neighborhood provide? A big piece for us in moving to Uptown Dallas was for people to be able to go downstairs and walk to get lunch wherever they want and get outside,” says Berend of Ecobat.

The biggest benefits of the office are culture, relationships and innovation.

“Company culture, big word. Everyone throws it everywhere. Each company does have its own vibe, its own posture, its own attitude,” says Sue-Meng Lau, The Trade Desk Senior Director, Global Design & Construction. “I don't know what the secret sauce is. All I know—and I'm biased because I build spaces—is that a physical office is not even just a foundation, it's the House. It is the manifestation of the company culture.”

Within every conversation, there was one common thread: The office is most valuable for how it cultivates deeper relationships, a tangible culture and shared purpose, and innovation based on trust.

“I don't think people are going to drive an hour and a half for free food. That's not a driver, pardon the pun, to get people in the office,” says Michael LoVaglia, Canvas Worldwide Associate Director, Facilities. “People want to socialize with their coworkers. They really have to see the value of an office in a different way before COVID.”

Experiencing your colleagues face-to-face in a space that fosters organic connection and collaboration creates a work experience that will inherently and vastly differ from remote work.

“The main thing that going to the office does is enhance human connection, makes it the 4K version versus more analog when we're connecting digitally. It’s fully immersive and you really get everything about the other person that you're trying to communicate with,” says Ted Heisler, Ware Malcomb Vice President, Interior Architecture and Design.

With human connection comes deeper and richer relationships, leading to trust and more authentic and borderless innovation.

“It isn't just about the amenities. I think it’s truly about the connection you have with the people you work with and building relationships. You have to work hard to build those relationships within a company. These people are your partners, whom you trust to have your back and at another time you're going to have theirs, right? Because you've built a relationship,” says Rogers of LPA. “And those are the things that maybe have been harder to discern over the last three years. There's a very tangible human component to what it means to come back.”

With the prospect of failure at the precipice of every innovative breakthrough, personal relationships open the door to thinking bigger sans the constraints of doubt.

“We built a campus on innovation and innovation, from everything we’ve seen, is built on one thing. Trust. Innovation comes from failure, you have to be comfortable with failure,” says Porter of Edwards Lifesciences. “So it goes back to those conversations that don’t revolve around work. It’s a combination of both, you build relationships, and those relationships create trust and trust creates innovation.”

Recruiting new talent with a tangible cultural experience

Think back to the first time you stepped foot into the office at your current company. Whatever understanding of the company you brought with you likely shifted as your senses took over and you experienced the office, culture, and synergy firsthand. The office gives an experiential component to an organization’s culture that helps possible new talent feel the company in an incredibly impactful way.

“I’m a firm believer that you don’t get the sense of a company working from a screen. It happens in person,” says LoVaglia of Canvas Worldwide.

Ecobat intentionally chose one large open floor for their new office location so their culture could be a shared and tangible experience for current and future employees alike.

“Culture has been a huge piece of creating who Ecobat is and what we stand for. It's in everything from our values to how we hire people. We can bring people in and what they're seeing helps them feel Ecobat,” says Berend of Ecobat.

Bringing a prospective employee into a beautiful office with bustling energy can be everything in convincing them this is where they’re meant to be. There is nothing that compares to experiencing an office’s culture as a participant rather than an observer.

“When you bring candidates—oh, it's huge,” says Lau of The Trade Desk. “Most candidates can feel it when they walk through our space. I know what I'm walking into. This is the vibe. This is what I'm going to be getting and I like it.”

Amenities that allow for casual collisions

Most clients and partners reported they see the highest usage and greatest connection in cafés, kitchens and coffee bar spaces. A modern workplace watering hole of sorts.

Edwards Lifesciences is a leader in workplace amenities, with over 18 campus offerings including multiple sports courts, a gym, a recording studio, a world-class café and a hair salon. There’s an intention behind these spaces that goes far beyond making a fun and convenient workplace.

“I’m a big believer in casual collisions,” says Porter of Edwards Lifesciences. “That happens in the café, it happens where there’s coffee, on the pickleball court, the track field, all those areas where you run into people, not expecting a meeting, just happenstance. And that happenstance can turn into a discussion around something bigger.”

It’s the one-off jokes, friendly banter and swapping of weekend stories as you wait for your coffee that not only builds connection, but also rapport.

“The thing we've found is you really have to work at the rapport-building piece more intentionally,” says Heisler of Ware Malcomb. “If I meet somebody at Starbucks and we’re waiting in line, you're not able to actually do anything, so you talk about your weekend or life in general. And so those things that slow you down, I think also help you capture those personal touchpoints that help make a better human connection.”

It’s reasons like this why Gensler hosts all-staff meetings in their Red Zone, a large social space, once a month. They cater lunch and bring everyone together to connect—and they’re seeing really good attendance. According to Zwagerman, their larger social spaces see the most utilization where employees meet for events and clubs.

The Trade Desk is also investing in and rethinking their Social Hubs to include flexible furniture and serve as more than just a café, but also an event space for tech meetups, happy hours and holiday parties. By finding any and every reason to celebrate and bring people together, there’s far more opportunity for casual collisions, valuable conversations and on-the-spot problem-solving without the need for a meeting request.

“I don’t think you get to know your employees as much on a screen because it’s all business,” says LoVaglia of Canvas Worldwide. “You’re not going to set up a Zoom call with your colleague just to catch up on your personal life. That just naturally happens when you’re face-to-face.”

Employees need to see purpose in their work and company

A majority of our clients and partners shared that their employees need to see purpose and meaning in their work and from the company, a sometimes intangible feeling that is best experienced through in-office synergy.

“I always say the amenities attract people to Edwards and the culture keeps them,” says Porter of Edwards Lifesciences. “If you come in here and you work for six months and the idea of patients and the commitment to saving lives isn't there by six months, then you are probably not a long-term Edwards employee. It should grab you.”

Additionally, the office experience allows for constant learning from your colleagues—whether consciously or subconsciously—and is instrumental in establishing shared company vision and values.

“There’s a certain maturity and sophistication that comes from listening and hearing from others whom you never would imagine you’re going to get anything out of,” says Lau of The Trade Desk. “It’s not obvious, it’s not immediately measurable, maybe you see it later. But you can only get that in a physical environment when you’re all sitting together and looking at the same vision.”

About the Author

Torie Hamilton

Torie Hamilton is the Communications Manager at Tangram Interiors. During her 5+ years with the company, she has shared the voices and stories of those at Tangram as well as influential industry partners and clients.

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