So Happy Together: Post-pandemic Workplace Landscapes
Four recent projects reflect how employees want to collaborate in the post-pandemic workplace landscape.
After Treasury Board president Mona Fortier announced last December that all federal public servants would return to the office a few days per week, Jennifer Carr, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, filed a bad-faith bargaining complaint against Canada Revenue Agency for its “one size fits all” return mandate.
As the headlines attest, the post-pandemic return to the office has been fraught. Why not take a carrot rather than stick approach and preempt return-to-office strike threats by providing an office whose design seduces workers into returning voluntarily? A place “that gives employees compelling reasons to come back to the office—to ‘earn their commute’—by empowering them to do their best work,” suggests Caitlin Turner, senior principal, Director of Design, Interiors at HOK Toronto.
Businesses thrive on a healthy collaborative culture. While focus work may be done more productively at home, it’s difficult to work collaboratively and build relationships from a remote home silo. In the office, workers learn from mentors, network with peers, imbibe the corporate culture and share in the esprit de corps while catching the boss’s eye and climbing the corporate ladder.
“No longer does one size fit all. Prior to March 2020, collaboration focused primarily on two space types: the conference room and the open collaboration area,” say the authors of the 2022 whitepaper by IA Interior Architects titled The Evolution of Collaboration: Meeting Considerations in the Post-Pandemic Landscape. “As organizations return to the workplace, collaboration settings have to adapt and support a new way of working.” Then the report mandates a laundry list of collaboration-space types to cover every conceivable task:
- Presenter and audience: formal presentations, town halls and external customer facing events;
- Open collaboration: ad hoc and impromptu meetings, stand-ups and changes of scenery;
- Formal training: instructionals, question and answer, interactive sessions and hands-on onboarding;
- Traditional meetings: check-ins, reporting and alignments, and interactive conversations;
- Workshop and brainstorming: Ideating, problem solving and pursuing innovative solutions.
Au revoir, Florence Knoll and the clean-lined, hard-edged, geometric buttoned-down Modernist aesthetic. These offices sport a more casual, “uncorporate” corporate look. “Open, dynamic spaces with a hospitality or residential feeling that drive collisions and connections giving people serendipitous moments to interact with their colleagues are table stakes at this point,” says Turner.
Recognizing the importance of serendipitous meetings isn’t new. As early as 2001, New Yorker trend guru Malcolm Gladwell, speaking at a reception in Steelcase Canada’s head office, said, “If you want to foster innovation, your people need to spend less time at their desks and more time chatting idly.” As the following four projects show — Bonduelle’s Station B by Lemay and Zendesk by MRDK in Montréal; and in Toronto, Boston Consulting Group’s Canadian headquarters (BCG) by HOK and a biotechnology company by IA Interior Architects (IA) — that message still applies but jacked on steroids.
With the exception of Zendesk, these projects are multi-storey offices with an atrium or lightwell enabling vertical serendipitous encounters as well as the usual horizontal ones. Bonduelle exploits its atrium to maximum effect with a wide staircase forming a hinge-point on the lower levels, where the stair treads broaden into stacked seating with colorful upholstered segments that encourage sit-down encounters. The oversize steps act as amphitheatre seating for the ground floor’s gathering space adjoining the test kitchen. Ascending to the upper floors, balcony-like tiers of stacked market crates overflowing with plants wrap the staircase, making for a dramatic Hanging Gardens of Babylon vista while referencing the agricultural origin of the firm’s product lines.
As the office for a business selling packaged fruits and vegetables, Bonduelle, not surprisingly, uses a biophilic connection to convey the brand message. The messaging starts, Lemay’s Marie Leveillé Tremblay says, “with a design guided by the metaphor of a tree’s interconnected ecosystem” taking root at ground level with a gathering place and testing kitchen. The four-storey staircase acts as the tree’s trunk. Open workspaces branch out into smaller team zones with glass-enclosed greenhouses for private meetings. Carpet patterns depict farmers’ fields from a bird’s-eye view.
Biophilia looms large at Zendesk too, where a large space called the garden has intertwining, very robust walls of greenery (verging on Little Shop of Horrors) to demarcate private spaces for individual focused work and for collaborative meeting spaces. Traditional desks were kept to a minimum and assigned workstations were replaced with bookable desks.
“Collaboration and event space would be the emphasis for the new design,” Zendesk’s design brief states. “Flexible spaces offering relaxed work environments at a residential scale, similar to those people had become accustomed to working in at home, were provided throughout the office.” The spaces build the brand by harking back to Zendesk’s Danish origins with blond (white oak) millwork and Fifties Scandinavian-looking ladder-back easy chairs with loose upholstery.
As for the Biotechnology Company’s biophilic credentials, the design brief explains that “The Canadian landscape and culture’s love of outdoor spaces inspired the design. The colour palette reflects shades seen in nature.” The interconnecting stair climbs along a tactile feature wall with projecting cuts of locally sourced wood, “a nod to the redwood trees native to Canada’s West Coast forests.”
“The color palette reflects shades seen in nature and acts as a neutral background for bold, energetic, and saturated tones,” often mingling with a sense of rumpus-room playfulness, as in a lounge with a rustic tree-trunk slab tabletop flanked by mix-and-match, brightly coloured chairs (strange bedfellows with the white acoustic-tiled dropped ceiling); and an ad hoc meeting room with sliding gray, black and yellow wall panels resembling giant pegboards.
HOK’s design for BCG broadens the definition of “biophilic” and embraces less-familiar concepts: hackable, materiality, neurodiversity and stylization. “Now, huddle rooms and meeting rooms are baseline,” Turner opines. In addition to formal and informal workspaces in every possible configuration, HOK created “innovative, tech-enabled, flexible ‘case team rooms,’” says Nina Abdelmessih, BCG’s Chief of Operations and External Relations, where teams can collocate for the duration of a project and work in a variety of ways, including heads-down individual work, collaborative brainstorming sessions and hybrid team meetings.
“These rooms have hackable furniture, both soft and fixed, so that people can break their tables away for different kinds of work sessions,” adds Turner. “Their shelves feature books, baskets and plants as elements of stylization,” a term she defines at www.hokforward.com as “the inclusion of artwork, plants, objects, textures and other design elements that bring a space to life.”
Searching “neurodiverse” (autistic, dyslexic, Tourette syndrome and so on) brought up zero stories in Interior Design and just one in Architectural Record (however Canadian Interiors covered it in 2022), so HOK is on the leading edge here. “We feel strongly that designing for neurodiverse populations will become part of the Accessibility Act,” Turner says. BCG accommodates hyper- and hypo-sensitive people with workspaces ranging from private, where a worker can fidget in peace, to active and buzzy; with acoustics ranging from absorbent to reverberant; and even with lighting colour temperature ranging from warm to cool.
While plant life plays its part at BCG, Turner also groups natural woods, curved shapes and soft, diffuse lighting under the biophilic rubric. “They remind people of natural forms and have a calming effect.” Hence the café’s oversize Parsons tables with massively chunky legs. “It’s very much like restaurant planning where you have large moments to help ground the space,” she explains. The tables’ size also signals to BCG’s young-hipster cohort that the etiquette in restaurants with long communal tables prevails. It’s cool to sit near a stranger and strike up a conversation with, “Hey, I’m in accounting. So, what are you working on?”
The tables sit on a flooring sector of handmade clay tiles. Along with the leathers, wools and linens in the café’s materials palette, and the handcrafted tables themselves, the tiles evince “materiality” that enhances comfort and relaxation in the space. The tufted banquettes, custom handmade table bases resembling oversize spindles, and round-back chairs upholstered in thick woven fabric add to the Easter eggs in this project that soften the base building’s sharp elbows.
- Bonduelle’s Station B — Claude-Simon Langlois
- Zendesk — Alex Lesage
- Confidential Biotechnology Company — Ben Rahn /A-Frame
- Boston Consulting Group — Karl Hipolito / Joel Klassen