Empty Seats, Forgotten Workspaces—What are the Options?

Recently, many of our corporate clients have been asking the same question:

“I have empty seats—what can I do about it?” 

The bewilderment is understandable. The much-heralded shift to hybrid work was supposed to see a grand return to the workplace, only for new COVID variants to repeatedly wreck companies’ plans. As of February 2022, only a third of U.S. employees had returned to the office at all.

Even Glassdoor—a company whose business is literally about employee satisfaction—is having to pull out all the stops to lure their employees back. 

Clearly there is no magic formula. One problem is that the “flexibility” of hybrid work has in fact proven more stressful than the classic five-days-a-week model. More decisions mean more stress, and a stronger preference for staying home. Not only does hybrid work force us to drag our fully charged laptop and headset to and from the office, but we must now plan our intentions in advance (“When I wake up tomorrow, will I feel like coming in?”)

Worse still, hybrid work makes us second-guess our colleagues’ schedules. We know from research that social connection is a key driver for people to return to the office. It also helps with relationship-building—a crucial part of corporate success. But what if our buddy chooses spontaneously to work from home today? 

All this helps explain why the future of work is so difficult for companies to plan for. But it is far from impossible. At SMMA, our approach to post-pandemic workplace design can be summed up in two words: workplace optimization.


What is workplace optimization?

Workplace optimization is about increasing the quality of every square inch of your space. It means taking a strategic approach to the problem of empty seats—not just adding a snack bar here or a collaboration space there.

Put simply, optimizing your space makes it easier for people to go to work. It allows people to do their jobs more easily in a way that may not be possible in other venues. The result is easier collaboration, more opportunities to socialize, and better personal time to get work done.

Collaboration zones at Cambridge Mobile Telematics HQ in Cambridge, MA

Workplace optimization is not just a byword for shedding space and cutting jobs. Sure, you may end up with less overall space. But that space will be used smarter. In many cases it is about improving what your existing space can do and increasing the amount of function it can provide. This goes for all kinds of workplaces: an office, lab, dining area, conference space, patio, and so on. 

Nor is it a one-size-fits-all deal. Every company is different, and so is every team. A five-person team will have different space requirements than a cohort of 50. So the question becomes: What kind of space is most efficient for my work? Three recent SMMA projects may help you find the answer:


Case #1—Nimble lab/office space

Today’s life science market is a hotbed of innovation and discovery. It is also leading the way in workplace optimization for the hybrid era. 

The award-winning Waters IMMERSE research hub in Cambridge, MA is a case in point. Designed as a pilot space for Waters’ lab/office program, the space can be easily reconfigured for new uses, products, and technologies. The design foregoes the typical “hard” barrier between lab space and office space by separating the two areas with a floor-to-ceiling glass wall. This creates a feeling of openness: Office teams can see what their lab colleagues are up to, and vice versa. 

Crucially, much of the “office” layout is designed to be highly flexible. Moveable walls and furniture allow for day-to-day adjustment based on different teams’ schedules and work styles. In unassigned areas, employees can claim their own workspace as needed. Over in the lab, flexible “plug-and-play” modules allow the space to be reworked to suit many different kinds of science.

This approach is not just about satisfying Waters’ hybrid work model, or saving on space. It is about giving every person a compelling reason to come in—namely, the ability to do their best work in a space that is tailored to the specific needs of both teams and individuals.

At 9,000 square feet, Waters has created a scalable prototype of an optimized lab/office workplace that can be easily scaled up to suit bigger life science locations with hundreds, if not thousands, of workers. 

Flexible lab office space at Waters IMMERSE in Cambridge, MA

Case #2 – Minimum space, maximum choice

Many companies are looking to reduce their space in one form or another. But downsizing does not have to mean a drop in the quality of your space. We recently helped a global fintech firm make the most a recent downsize by optimizing their Quincy, MA workplace, 20 years on from its last renovation.

The optimization hinged on finding the perfect balance between individual and collaborative work areas. We had to determine the ideal number of individual work seats while providing more and better spaces in which to collaborate—a key part of the client’s “back-to-the-office” pitch. The solution was a 40/60 balance between individual and collaborative spaces on the heavily used first floor.

This dilemma—individual space versus collaborative space—is common in workplace optimization. The exact ratio depends on the types of work being performed. For our fintech client, while most of their workforce consists of IT and finance professionals, their software engineers still benefit from collaborative spaces where they can perform “creative” work. 

The design is also optimized for the best characteristics of the building. The Quincy building is shaped like a giant “donut”, with a courtyard at its center. In the old layout, the enormous floor plate gave many workers little-to no-access to sunlight for most of the day. To remedy this, the new design places more workspaces near the edge of the building, with clear views to the outside.

Elsewhere, the design adds much-requested worker amenities such as a large café, fitness area, and mothers’ room. 


Case #3—Consolidation after a merger

Workplace optimization has a role to play when consolidating two or more locations into one central hub, or absorbing one company’s space into another’s during a merger or acquisition. 

Olympus were faced with both challenges after their buyout of Gyrus ACMI in 2008 and Image Stream Medical in 2017. The company opted to merge its three Massachusetts locations into one integrated campus in Westborough, MA, to serve as the world headquarters of Olympus’s surgical technologies division—the only Olympus division world HQ outside of Japan.

Designed by SMMA, the new building unites Olympus’s scattered teams and disciplines into one cohesive whole. For the first time, the company’s R&D workers can mingle with colleagues on different teams, whether eating in the café or working out in the fitness room.

As well as bringing together different teams, the new HQ integrates the full range of technologies from across Olympus’s medical division. In the mock operating room, Image Stream’s virtual operating technology works in tandem with medical scopes and devices made by Gyrus. This setup allows off-site specialists to direct or provide feedback on live medical procedures from any location in the world, to the benefit of Olympus’s on-site doctors, nurses, and medical students.

This approach—call it “optimization by consolidation”—also helps to remove redundancy. Instead of three cafés, three reception areas, and three parking lots, Olympus now has just one of each. 

Olympus employees ordering coffee at the company's on-site coffee bar in Westborough, MA

As workplace strategists, SMMA has helped all kinds of companies to optimize for the future of work. In every case, the goal is to maximize the quality of space in a way that makes sense for the individuals and teams using it—even if they only come in twice a week.

While there is no magic bullet for getting your people back to the office, workplace optimization is a good first step in ensuring your company rises to the challenge of hybrid work. This holds true in all kinds of scenarios, whether you are downsizing, conducting a merger, or piloting a new workplace.

At SMMA, our door is always open to new clients seeking to reimagine their workplace. Reach out to Marie Fitzgerald or Jonathan Merin, our Corporate and Commercial studio leads, to start a conversation on optimizing your workplace for the future of work.