Designing at the Intersection of Workplace and Urban Environments

An exploration of how to create programmable outdoor workspaces that offer choice and improve physical, emotional and cognitive well-being.

The beginning of 2020 came with significant uncertainty. As we moved forward in the year, the coronavirus began to seep into every facet of our lives, impacting a myriad of everyday experiences – including how and where many people went about their day-to-day work. The end of 2020 brought with it a glimmer of hope as vaccine development accelerated and a viable path towards “normalcy” slowly emerged. Now, as we approach the second half of 2021, many are filled with cautious optimism and contemplating integration back into shared work environments.

It’s safe to assume that our post-COVID office lives will likely look different than they did pre-COVID. Many are working differently. Some have settled into this new normal, finding autonomy and safety while working from home, and others are itching to get back into the office for much-needed socialization or a place of quiet respite away from the demands of caretaking. For designers, the question becomes, how do we create spaces that can best accommodate the wide variety of preferences?

The future of a post-pandemic office is not yet fully known; however, as we look to the longer term, we have the chance to reimagine, not just what a new normal might look like, but what a better normal might look like as we return to the workplace. We likely won’t go back to exactly the way things were before COVID-19, and this presents the opportunity to consider new and innovative approaches in our office spaces, looking for ways to design at the intersection of the workplace and urban environments to inform healthier, more robust office environments.

Connecting Urban and Workplace Environments to Support Health and Well-Being

Countless studies have shown that happy, healthy employees are more engaged in their work and thus, more productive. One study from psychologist Shawn Achor found that happy employees are 31 percent more productive than those who are not. Before the global pandemic, many organizations were exploring employee wellness, but in the last year, workers have adopted increased expectations of their employers and workplaces. National research indicates health and safety priorities have shifted in response to the pandemic, with a significant percentage of employees reporting air quality, adherence to safety protocols, facility cleanliness, physical distancing, density, visitor protocols and food and beverage safety as critical considerations for returning to the office.

Employee health and safety priorities for a post-COVID workplace. Data courtesy of Steelcase’s Global Report: Changing Expectations and the Future of Work. Image © RDG Planning & Design.

As we look at moving collectively back into the office, it will be critical to renew our focus on employee health and emphasize a deeper understanding of well-being. From a physical standpoint, incorporating elements from the outdoors connects users with nature. Doing so addresses the basic need for comfort, including improving indoor air quality, which is a top concern for people as they consider health and safety priorities. From an emotional standpoint, users are missing the social connection with others. Designs may focus on bringing people together for a shared mission, to minimize feelings of isolation, improve engagement and create a sense of belonging. From a cognitive standpoint, supporting the “whole human” actually improves cognitive performance and productivity. Many are looking forward to going back to the office to enjoy a distraction-free environment that allows this kind of focus.

Biophilic design is a strategy used in the building industry to respond to the innate connection that humans have to the natural environment. Americans spend about 90 percent of their lives indoors, and designers often implement biophilic elements to create an inviting and comfortable interior. When we think of the term biophilia, we tend to think of bringing the outside in; in a post-pandemic world, we should also think about bringing the inside out, a concept more akin to Dr. Edward O. Wilson’s biophilia hypothesis. Beyond the biophilic elements of design, which seek to invoke happiness and reduce stress levels through the use of live plants and natural color palettes, designers can look to outdoor environments to address the ways humans connect with the space and more broadly, to other living things.

Asking the Right Questions to Find the Right Solution

Thoughtful planning when considering a new office location or a renovation of an existing space can lead to incredible benefits for your employees and in turn to a more productive team with increased retention. As owners and developers consider what existing or new corporate space might look like in a post-COVID world, some critical questions may be useful in getting started:

  • Are there outdoor spaces available to you? If so, consider the location, accessibility, adjacencies, and capacity of that space. Also, consider whether furniture is built-in to the space; if not, consider programming furniture selection in the design process.
  • How can relationships help create opportunity? Don’t be afraid to think outside the box and join forces with other organizations. If neighboring companies are looking for outdoor space together, a city may be more apt to create a new space that can meet the needs of new demand.
  • What services are provided (within your facility or at a reservable facility nearby)? Look for existing infrastructure elements such as WiFi, power, water and accessible restrooms that can be used.
St. Kilda Café in Des Moines, Iowa by RDG. Photo by IRIS22 Productions.

Gaining a better understanding of the answers to these questions can help determine the right solution for any indoor/outdoor workspace offerings. Now, let’s dig more deeply into how it’s possible to bring the inside out and ways organizations can leverage public/private partnerships to offer programmable outdoor space.

Bringing the Inside Out

Anticipating that as we return to office life, there may be an increased desire to experience the outdoors daily, designers must be willing to reconsider how much outdoor space we program for tasks that might otherwise be completed indoors. Though there are considerations for different palettes of materials (vegetation, furniture durability, weather protectants), the main principles for designing effective outdoor spaces largely follow the same guidelines for creating good indoor workplace environments. To encourage use, there are some key strategies organizations can use to program outdoor spaces and make them comfortable and effective places to work.

For one, it’s important to create a culture that promotes the usage of programmable outdoor space. Leadership may need to strategically activate an outdoor space(s) to ensure others know use of the environment is encouraged. Incorporating diversity of open/closed environments, offering sit-to-stand opportunities and emphasizing user comfort are all ways to encourage use. It’s also imperative to consider basic, more utilitarian items that ensure a space is maintained properly such as access to water and waste receptacles. Likewise, operational overhead doors or moveable glass partition walls can be incorporated and merge an indoor and outdoor space, allowing for more flexibility in choice and ease of movement between the two.

Retail Corporate Headquarters in Omaha, Nebraska by RDG. Photo by Tom Kessler.

Creating an outdoor workspace that can rival an indoor office is critical to encouraging use – especially when it comes to accommodating the technology individuals and teams need to be productive. Include plenty of electrical outlets, incorporate glare control strategies, offer enhanced Wi-Fi access and provide outdoor television(s) at presentation spaces with appropriate lighting solutions. With many furniture manufacturers pivoting to increase the production of outdoor furniture systems, programming outdoor space to work as efficiently as our common indoor workplace environments is becoming easier every day.

In some climates, it isn’t feasible to create year-round programmable outdoor workspaces, but we can certainly design spaces that can be used for a large portion of the year. Remember the Norwegian saying, “There is no bad weather, only bad clothes?” Designers can look to this mantra for inspiration. Incorporating weather and climate-related design elements can help offset concerns around temperature and comfort. These include incorporating heated pavement, heat blasts at the perimeter of the indoor/outdoor connections, heat lamps, portable propane heaters, or outdoor fireplaces and shade structures, canopies, or umbrellas for comfort and glare control. Organizations can also look at the creation of micro-climates by incorporating walls or barriers that can block a stark north wind while being warmed by the southern sun, fans to facilitate proper air movement, vegetation to provide shade and comfort and even water features to offer auditory respite. 

Leveraging Public / Private Partnerships

Access to outdoor spaces for fresh air and physical movement can be immensely helpful in instilling positive employee health and well-being. As many companies are weighing their options for acquiring new office space, the real estate adage “location, location, location” remains key. Office locations that offer employees the opportunity to regularly get outside will continue to rise in popularity, yet outside space isn’t always readily available adjacent to or as part of buildings. In response, cities and companies can look to local parks and public spaces as options for reservable office space. Typical weekday working hours tend to be a time when park shelters are least reserved; offering these spaces as “working spaces” benefits both businesses and cities generating new civic revenue and providing employees with outdoor spaces that become engrained in their workday.

One example of this in action is Thompson Park in Overland Park, Kansas, a vibrant greenspace set across 3.8 acres in the heart of Overland Park’s downtown. This robust urban space serves as a place where people gather, play, relax and yes, even work. In addition to interactive play features and a modernized event space, the park also includes an outdoor working space with a variety of tables and chairs, electrical outlets and Wi-Fi. Thanks to strong investments from the city, people who work downtown now have an easily accessible, technology-rich outdoor space where they can plug in and work while taking advantage of the biophilic benefits naturally found in park spaces. Taking inspiration from restaurants and bars, some organizations may also consider utilizing a streetscape/right-of-way to offer easily accessible outdoor spaces that are directly connected to the urban fabric of a city. 

Thompson Park in Overland Park, Kansas by RDG. Photo by IRIS22 Productions.

Regardless of what percentage of the workforce returns to the office full time, one thing is certain: the office we return to will look and feel different than the one we left behind. As we near herd immunity through mass vaccination and people begin to feel comfortable returning to their pre-COVID lifestyles, we’ll need to consider what lasting effects this year in quarantine have left us with. In the workplace, creating spaces that not only invite people in but also make them feel safe will be critical. A year like no other demands design like no other, requiring us to consider interdisciplinary approaches that are much farther outside the box. Designing at the intersection of the workplace and urban environments can provide users with exactly what they need: spaces that support holistic well-being by offering safety, belonging, productivity, comfort and control.

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More than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re asking better questions and providing better solutions. In response to the challenges of the last year, RDG has created a hub of resources and strategies aimed at helping organizations move forward safely and effectively. Visit our Resilient Design page and reach out to us if you’d like you’d like someone from RDG to contact you about developing a return to work plan.

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