How to Think About the Future Workplace

In the first of a new series on the future of the workplace, SMMA’s Jonathan Merin explains how companies should be thinking about their workplace post-pandemic—and why listening to your employees is crucial.

Over the last 150 years, the workplace has come full circle. From the Industrial Revolution, which broke the model of people working where they lived, to the commuter age and rise of the suburbs, the workplace has long relied on the assumption of physical presence. 

Not anymore. The pandemic has upended traditional ways of working and challenged many of our core workplace assumptions. No longer do employees have to “go to work” to do their job well, at least not every day.  

What, then, will the workplace of the future look like? For employers, this means understanding how bringing your people together in person benefits both them and your business. The answer, in my opinion, is that in-person contact helps to build better relationships, and that people work better together when they have these great relationships—especially in work that involves problem-solving. 

  • Collaborative work and dining area at new Olympus Massachusetts headquarters

What we mean by work relationships

One of the reasons so many people work well from home is that much of their work is done step-by-step. If your work involves performing a set of defined tasks, or following instructions, then you do not need to rely on others to get it done. This is not to minimize the value of this type of work—only to say that it can be done just as successfully from home.

By contrast, work that is about solving problems must rely on those in-person relationships that only a physical workplace can provide. If your day does not follow a program, that is when you need closer support, mentoring, feedback, and collaboration. In almost every case, this is more easily achieved in person.

This is the true value of relationships: Generating solutions to problems. When a solution is not clear-cut, fresh ideas are needed. And ideas are better fostered through good work relationships built on trust. By being around other people, trust between your employees is more likely to grow, and your company is more likely to reach its full potential.

Example #1—Choice seating

Stress-conscious employees are unlikely to flock back to a physical workplace that does not offer a space in which to spend time away from their desks. Designed by SMMA, Olympus’ new U.S. Medical Headquarters in Westborough, MA features several breakout areas and private work rooms catering to different styles of work.

Talk to your people before rushing into design

When designing for the future workplace, there is no one-size-fits-all program that works for everyone. Workplace cultures vary from company to company, and employee needs may differ depending on the firm or industry. For employers, the key question—What does it mean to be together?—can only be resolved through a dialogue with your own people. 

After all, it is common to hear companies say that their most valuable asset is their people. In that case, why not tap into that all-important asset before designing their new workspace? 

Talk to your employees. Ask them some fundamental questions about their work. These might include: 

  • Why do you come to your workplace?
  • Why do you not come to your workplace?
  • What do you find most beneficial about being around others in person?
Rendering of life science company lobby with breakout areas and choice seating

The goal of these conversations is to understand what people value highly in their work lives. Without employee feedback, you will struggle to pin down what it means for people to be together again. This process will involve some serious thinking about your future workplace—well before you start designing.

You may find that feedback varies based on certain demographics. Parents, especially working mothers, have found themselves unfairly stretched by the pandemic. Don’t expect these employees to happily forgo the flexibility of home working and the childcare advantages that come with it. 

Millennials and Gen Z’ers, meanwhile, many of whom have made the tradeoff of living in subpar accommodations for shorter commutes to air-conditioned, amenity-rich offices, may be more enthusiastic about returning. But a mid-career professional living in the suburbs with access to a private, luxurious home office could probably do without the long commute.

Example #2—Work café

Addressing the increased demand for social workplaces, SMMA’s design for Relay Therapeutics’ new location in Cambridge, MA features a work café. Not just a place for eating and drinking, the area serves as a flexible meeting and breakout space that draws Relay’s scientists out of their labs and allows all employees to work, collaborate, and create.

Collaborative work and dining space at Cambridge MA life science firm

Piloting: A calculated risk

As workplace designers, how do we get ahead of pandemic-induced changes? How do we create enticing workspaces that successfully evolve to meet new demands?  

One answer could be piloting. Take a room, or three rooms, and try something new. Gut the whole space and put in all-new technology. Then take a data-driven approach by using productivity metrics to judge the success or failure of the venture. If you are unsure what metrics to look for, ask this: What does it mean for someone to be productive in my business or organization?

Piloting involves a certain risk, and you may have to be willing to sink the investment. Many businesses, understandably, do not want to build something only to have to undo it six months later. But the unavoidable truth is that your space is going to change faster than you expect because your business is changing faster than you expect. 

  • Scientists working in a lab at SmartLabs South San Francisco building

Learning from life sciences

The Greater Boston area is dominated by life sciences—an industry in constant flux. Unchanged, however, is the need for lab workers to physically go to work. COVID-19 vaccines were not developed in scientists’ spare bedrooms. Life science workspaces so key to innovation (labs, R&D spaces, etc.) will continue to be located on site.

SmartLabs, a science company, are a good model for what life science workplaces might look like in the future. SmartLabs offers highly flexible lab spaces on short-term leases—an ideal environment for small start-ups to grow. This model lets cash-strapped tenants modulate their investment while gaining access to specific lab spaces and infrastructure.

More generally, commercial landlords of all stripes can also benefit from short-term leases. This helps solve the problem of leasing spaces to tenants who do not yet know what they are doing when it comes to new ways of working. 

Again, embracing short-term leases requires a shift in attitude. Tenants are increasingly looking for options and flexibility, two things that cut against the long evolution of the commercial real estate industry. We need to adapt to these nascent trends, even if it means breaking old habits.

Example #3—Wellness spaces

One advantage of home working is easier access to outdoor spaces during the working day. The roof deck at the new 321 Harrison Street development in Boston, designed by SMMA, provides a connection to nature in the heart of the city. These spaces should become a staple of future workplace design, as they offer a much-needed opportunity for employees to unwind and recover.

Socialization is the new functionality 

One of the most important business lessons of the pandemic has been that real estate is far more than just a commodity. This is great news for designers. After all, our goal is to create great spaces for people to be at their best—it is the whole point of what we do. 

With this has come the realization that function (What do you do? How do you do your job?) is no longer the primary driver of workplace design. With the exception of labs, function can now be accommodated anywhere thanks to technology and collaboration tools. Instead it is the social aspect of the workplace that has risen in importance.

Going forward, the environmental factor—what drives people to come in versus needing to come in—will be the most important thing for us to get right. Fortunately, after six months of piloting and measuring productivity, you should have a good idea of whether your employees have found a good home/office harmony.

The same principles apply for holding onto talent. Perks do not always retain people—but culture does. Employers are therefore obliged to provide a great experience in the workplace. To figure out what that looks like for your business, reach out to your people and spend more time in listening mode.


Read Pt. 2 in our series on the future of workplaceWhat We Learned From Our 'Back To Work' Survey