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Applying Urban Planning Concepts to Office Design

Two Architects Discuss How To Make Offices ‘Stickier’ by Creating ‘Communities of Work’

Indoor/outdoor space at the Schaefer office in Cincinnati gives employees access to daylight, fresh air and a variety of places to work. (Courtesy of BHDP Architecture)
Indoor/outdoor space at the Schaefer office in Cincinnati gives employees access to daylight, fresh air and a variety of places to work. (Courtesy of BHDP Architecture)

Placemaking is a concept that seeks to connect people with the spaces around them. Used in urban planning and landscape architecture, the goal is to transform public spaces by bringing vitality to an area, and to tap into humans’ desire for vibrancy, energy and dynamism in outdoor and public spaces.

At the crux of the notion is the goal to foster community, to build strong bonds between individuals, those around them, and the spaces that draw them in.

So why, then, do we not apply the same concepts to the office spaces we work in, where most knowledge workers spend a majority of their time — or at least used to before the pandemic — in an effort to generate more cohesive and innovative companies?

“People tend to just throw out that word — place — and for too long we have focused only on the physical space. We have to take into consideration the social and cultural aspects of a place as well, because they all have to work together and support each other,” said Patrick Donnelly, owner and client leader at BHDP Architecture in Cincinnati.

“So when you think about a space, what are the activities that are happening there? What is the cultural meaning of the place? How do the physical attributes reflect that? We have to drill down into all of these attributes to make sure that we're getting that full, robust, comprehensive picture of a space designed for its people,” he continued.

This is even more important in an era where remote work is prevalent and employees seem to be resisting coming back to an office only to sit in a cube. Just like a lively town square, the office needs to be a space pulsing with energy, one that draws in employees, builds bonds among colleagues and supports them to do their best work.

As Donnelly says, though we are all technically enabled to do our jobs remotely right now, “I believe we’re not as creative when we’re always apart. So, we want to create places where we can have better meetings, better opportunities to gather together and share ideas — not just intellectually, but emotionally and socially, too. Then we need to create the complementary places that enable different types of work to happen and allow us to be effective. And the design principles that have been applied across communities to make cities more vibrant — and as a result make people’s lives richer — can be applied to office buildings to think about them in a different way than we have for the past few decades.”

Donnelly, together with his colleague Justin Ferguson, lead strategist at BHDP, spoke with LoopNet regarding how to create “communities of work,” based on shared design principles that they have personally applied to cities and urban landscapes throughout their careers to make cities more vibrant. They explained how those ideas can be introduced to the workplace to create offices that entice employees, resulting in higher quality work.

“The workplace needs to tap into how to be a communal space that brings a benefit to its community, which is made up of the employees.”

Justin Ferguson, lead strategist at BHDP Architecture

Multi-Use Spaces

People gravitate toward cities that are dynamic and offices should offer a similar level of variety for their inhabitants.

“Neighborhoods are more interesting when there's a coffee shop, library, park, school, housing and offices, and all of that together,” said Ferguson, who previously led the Center for Civic Design at Ball State University in Indiana before joining BHDP. “So in offices, you don’t just want to have banks of desks and rooms. Mix in a social hub or amenity spaces, like eating areas and café-type areas with coffee. And then offer a variety of desks, open collaborative spaces and closed collaboration spaces, maybe also with access to the outdoors.”

The varied nature of a work environment, where different activities are happening simultaneously around each other, is “the same vitality that you would want to see on a main street,” described Ferguson. “It makes people want to stay there when you have restaurants and retail, shopping, art galleries, etc. That’s where people want to hang out.”

The concept of multi-use within the office space will be what draws employees out of their homes and entices them to come to the office, underscoring the concept of creating a “sticky” workplace, or one that people want to keep coming back to.

“Think about the reasons that people have been working at coffee shops for years. It’s a ‘third place’ [or places that exist between work and home that people use to create community], its comfortable, there are drinks and snacks, there is the energy of people hanging out there, and it makes people feel like they are a part of the local community,” Ferguson explained. “So, we are making offices like that. The workplace needs to tap into how to be a communal space that brings a benefit to its community, which is made up of the employees.”

Ensemble Health.jpg
A central stairway in Ensemble Health Partners' Cincinnati office serves as a gathering point and doubles as a functional meeting space for employees. (Courtesy of BHDP Architecture)

Experiential Graphic Design

Public art has the power to draw people to a place, or define the vibe of an area. Think about the infamous bean sculpture (officially named Cloud Gate) in Chicago, or the Wynwood Walls outdoor art museum in Miami, which made the neighborhood known for its murals and hence became one of the city’s hottest areas.

In offices, companies can leverage the power of art to bring culture to their workspace and communicate their company values through experiential graphic design. The idea behind experiential graphic design is that it communicates something about the environment and connects inhabitants to a space, so examples can include wayfinding signs, interactive graphics, or themed branding.

“How do you tell a story about your company? How do you integrate art to brand your space and make that art reflect the organization?” posed Donnelly. “Beyond just creating beauty and interest in a space, experiential graphic design will build brand loyalty among your employees, tell a story about your organization, get everyone on the same page and get them excited about coming to work.”

‘Neighborhood’ Design

Donnelly referenced the work of urban theorist Kevin Lynch, who, in his 1960 book “The Image of the City,” dissected well-planned cities such as Boston and Los Angeles, and pinpointed the characteristics that made them appealing, like the importance of landmarks, pathways and nodes.

Many companies have organized their office layouts around a loose imitation of a neighborhood, where teams are grouped together and have specific design elements in their spaces, representative of their work, and are located around office touchpoints such as art, amenities or unique conference rooms.

Even individual workspaces can be designed based on one key neighborhood foundation: the house.

Donnelly illustrated the concept by saying that he was currently sitting at his desk in an open office space, referring to it as a front porch. He noted, “I’m in my own space right now, but that space is very accessible to other people. Whoever wants to come talk to me can, but if I need to go take a call or put my head down to focus, this space behind me is enclosed, and I can go ‘step inside,’ so to speak.”

“Third places,” like a coffee shop, for example, are also a key component of good neighborhood design that can be replicated in the office environment. Break lounges and cafes, library-like common areas and outdoor workspaces, for example, offer environments for employees to get away from their desk and work in a third place.

Adaptable spaces off a main thoroughfare provide options and flexibility throughout the day for the employees of Fifth Third Bank in Cincinnati. (Courtesy of BHDP Architecture)

Placemaking and Culture

Social connections are what is needed to save the physical workplace, said Donnelly. Returning to the office isn’t a return to work, it’s a return to people. So how do you get your employees to “catch the culture,” as he puts it?

“A theme in the physical designs that we are working with now looks at what humans really need and what they miss when working from home. It’s hard to ‘catch the culture’ of a place digitally, especially if you are a new employee, so you need to have a physical embodiment of your company culture.”

But Ferguson warned not to fall into “the trappings of culture,” like only putting up a brand sign in your office, or in an example taken from urban design, “putting up string lights and thinking you’ve made a place. Just because you have the artifacts of a culture doesn’t mean you have actually created a culture.”

So how do you actually pull it off without it being a smokescreen?

“Creating a culture in the workplace is only going to come from looking at patterns of behavior,” Ferguson continued. “It comes from multi-directional relationships and communication. That's the only way that you're going to get that, and you can't do it by just superficially decorating.”

He said that the place to start is with the organization’s employees, who are the ones utilizing the workspace every day. “We can't come in and just say, ‘hey, we're making you guys a place to work’. We have to first understand how the organization functions, how their business practices work and what their goals are. All of those things lead the design.”

“People make place. You don't really have a place if you don’t have people. A healthy, fully functioning community is one that relates people to the place and people to one another.”

Patrick Donnelly, owner and client leader at BHDP Architecture

Access to the Outdoors

When deciding on their return-to-office plan, one of the most common things BHDP heard from its own employees was that they loved being able to work on their front porches or back patios during the day.

“Access to the outdoors and the restorative power of greenery makes you healthier and helps you to innovate,” said Donnelly. “So, making sure that’s available to employees, and that there is WiFi out there for them to work, or even just providing a walking trail nearby for a walking meeting, is crucial. It gives people the opportunity to put their devices down and talk through something without trying to multitask, which is so much better for our creativity.”

Providing a change of scenery also goes a long way in helping employees clear their heads, transition from one project to another or focus better. Where available, Donnelly suggests creating similar outdoor arrangements to those found inside, with shared seating, technology access and individual seating for concentrated work.

All of this goes to promote wellbeing, which Donnelly said has shifted from a conversation about just physical wellness to a more holistic picture that includes psychological and emotional wellness and how it’s supported in the workplace.

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