Visibility is the name of the game as corporate hierarchies are altered to entice workers back to the office.
January 23rd, 2002
If we cast our minds back to the offices of the pre-pandemic era, we remember bigger buildings and larger floor plans, days when every seat was filled and we could hear every phone call, meeting or 3pm snack that our desk mates had throughout the day. But if we were physically much closer to our colleagues, we can also remember being distanced from our bosses, with the executive team separated in corner offices, partner suites or even on executive floors. While proximity gave us close relationships with our colleagues, the lack of it removed the c-suite from our orbit, taking them out of the everyday office experience.
Fast forward to 2023 and the pandemic has democratised the work environment, with employees taking control of how and where they work. Remote work has also demanded a rethink of working styles, introducing new technologies and systems that have pushed us toward a more collaborative, intuitive and agile style of working.
As we begin the slow migration back to some semblance of office life, these working styles are here to stay, and with them a radical rethink of corporate strategies. Workplace furniture specialists Steelcase are predicting these changes to manifest in a dramatic shift in executive office design, where visibility and accessibility is the name of the game as the behaviour and presence of executive teams becomes a key factor in encouraging workers back into the office.
Over in Michigan, the Steelcase team are hard at work, studying the results of their workplace behavioural prototype. Set within the Steelcase Learning and Innovation Centre is a workplace utopia, a working office environment where the latest in commercial design and thinking can be tested in situ. Coined the “Leader Commons”, this space is a new-look C-Suite, an open-plan and dynamic space that is designed to encourage collaboration and bring a new level of visibility to the executive team.
In an extension of the democratisation of work, the Leader Commons introduces a new way to design that centres the needs of the employee. While traditional design tended to focus on what leaders’ wanted, Steelcase recognised that – in this “post-pandemic” world – this approach is a barrier for transparency and connection, which are important factors in facilitating the return to work.
Working with the Applied Research & Consulting (ARC) group, the Leader Commons was born out of an initial research process, which used discovery exercises, workshops, surveys and interviews to better understand the challenges leaders and employees faced and how space can be designed and organised to meet these needs.
“We know organisations need to rebuild the social capital that was lost while everyone worked from home,” says Cherie Johnson, Steelcase Global Design Director. “Traditional leadership spaces don’t offer the transparency and accessibility people want today.”
And so the Leader Commons begun, bringing with it a highly customisable approach to working, workplace design and rethinking the office dynamic. Comprising a series of unique workspaces which were customised according to leadership and working styles, the space showcases different possibilities within this design future, with each one striking a different balance between accessibility and privacy.
“Every individual workspace was designed to enhance performance as well as provide sanctuary,” says Johnson. “But they are unique in how they achieve that. Every workspace provides similar amenities and tools, but differs in how we tailor visual privacy, and how they are represented as individuals. Curating a space that embodies their personality and creates a personal connection when seen on video calls or in person was an important part of this new hybrid experience.”
Overall, the nexus for this redesigned c-suite comes from the “neighbourhood” concept, a popular spatial idea that organises offices into clusters or groups according to commonalities such as job roles, projects, amenities or working styles. When applied to Steelcase’s objectives, office neighbourhoods presented a fasttrack to building community and culture by encouraging movement, interaction and managed visibility.
The design team worked to create a floorplan that would speak to the changing needs of the workplace, while still adhering to office essentials: leaders need to be able to engage in individual and team work; the space should be highly adaptable to suit changing needs; private and focus areas should be provided; spaces need to balance physical and digital working styles to create a more seamless integration of employees who are working both in person and remotely.
In meeting these needs, the Leader Commons has evolved to include 7 key topographies which are centred around a key footpath to encourage incidental interactions between leaders and employees. These topographies offer home bases for the C-Suite and executive assistants for private working, as well as varied meeting and collaboration spaces to promote teamwork and transparency across the office. From “courtyards” that offer mobile boundary spaces for flexible meeting areas, to “front porches” for more informal and open interactions, the neighbourhood approach ensures traditional office proximities are broken down without sacrificing on space, privacy and productivity.
Of course, the concept behind the Leader Commons was only made possible through a product selection which facilitates agile and dynamic work environments. As a leading innovator in products for commercial and corporate spaces, Steelcase had long anticipated the need for a shift in traditional office design, and their products stand ready to help make this shift a reality.
Full pods with glass doors and windows balance privacy and visibility in this new age of working, while Steelcase Flex Personal Spaces with Privacy Wrap, Steelcase Flex Active Frames and the Steelcase Pod Tent provide shielded privacy in more open environments. Height adjustable tables allow for switches from casual drop-in conversations and more dedicated working zones, and lounge furniture invites colleagues and employees to have open interactions with a company’s executive team.
Productivity and employee comfort is prioritised with Steelcase’s ergonomic offerings like the Karman Chair and the Gesture Chair, while employees can sink into lounges and armchairs for teamwork and down-time.
Digital working is integrated throughout this prototype space, with integrated technology creating “Communication Kiosks” that allow for a fully hybrid work experience.
While the future of workplaces remains in a state of flux, innovative environments such as the Leader Commons provide a forecast of what is around the corner, ensuring products are produced in line with the needs and desires of this new democratised workforce. One thing’s for sure, forget the gym and the cafeteria, the rebuild of a workplace culture is starting from the top, and like everything, it’s got to be seen to be believed.
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