The lasting impact of good office design

Built in the 1950s by architect and industrial designer Eero Saarinen, the General Motors Technical Center in Warren, Michigan has been the automotive company’s innovative headquarters for nearly 70 years. The role of the GM Technical Center as an integral hub of operations for nearly seven decades is testament to the thoughtfulness of the original design team. For an organization like GM, which has been built on the success of its vehicle designs, having an exceptional physical space may seem natural. However, fully embracing a philosophy for a well-designed environment is more elusive than many companies realize.

The Color and Trim studio at GM Technical Center is an outstanding example of an innovative space that has been carefully designed to meet the needs of end users. It’s where designers choose their colors, review trends and find inspiration while selecting fabrics, textures and materials for new vehicles. The designers adopted many avant-garde features, including rounded walls that establish a central circular space and movable panels, a unique element at the time. This design stage helped evaluate the light on the proposed materials and created the ability to use natural light as well as simulated light, illuminating the many ways light would present itself outside the car. The intention of the GM Tech Center was not to imitate a studio design that already existed, but to experiment with new spatial characteristics that would positively influence their long-term work.

As the ever-changing landscape of the return to the office continues to settle, one thing that constantly becomes clear is that the office plays an important role for businesses of all sizes and in all industries. Most companies recognize the importance of having high quality workspaces. Writing down the value of the office wastes a huge financial investment and hampers the creative potential of the team. To benefit from the positive impacts of a workspace, companies need to fully assess the base the office provides for their team and how they can maximize that space. This means going far beyond simply choosing carpet and paint samples.

What comes to mind when you think of a well-designed desk? The method to making an office memorable is a combination of deliberate, intentionally positioned elements that invoke a mood in the occupants. The space must successfully articulate the essence of the organization and manifest the culture and brand. Like the GM Tech Center, each workspace should be designed to specifically support the onsite activities necessary to drive positive business results. Compiling these details builds an environment rooted in good design.

It can be particularly difficult, especially given the pandemic, for companies to know what to do with their office. Repurposed old desk designs that may have been imported from another company without recalibrating them to meet the needs of today’s workforce just don’t work. A strategic approach can bridge the gap between what is known and what is unknown to provide a built environment that drives business.

Design Thinking, a concept introduced by Tim Brown, Executive Chairman of IDEO, describes creative problem solving by reconciling multiple angles of any challenge. With any design firm you work with, you should have the ability to step back and set a direction aligned with the needs of the organization.

The first questions to ask are: What is the space for? How will it be used? What does your company’s return to office plan include? What amenities will attract team members to the office rather than staying in the comfort of their home? Do you have the kinds of spaces people need to be productive and engaged? Is the space worth it for the employee who has to commute rather than work from home?

The next question to consider is: what type of behavior will be supported? Here it helps to understand how individuals will function both independently and collectively. Most companies recognize the importance of having high quality workspaces. Video calls have become standard practice for the new way we work. Knowing this, how does your office support the on-site team with their video calls? Taking the time to understand what people will do when they enter the office will help you organize the space around those desired behaviors.

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Finally, office designers need to think about the impact of space on employee well-being. Wellbeing was not something that was talked about at length before the pandemic, but it has since become central to workplace conversations. This may mean including enough natural light and air, or it could even mean including wellness rooms that allow individuals to experience private and quiet time in the office. Additionally, there is a plethora of research on how design can affect our mental health. Studies have demonstrated a relationship between the properties of space (scale, proportion, protrusion, and curvature) and human emotions.

Right now, the office is at a crossroads. In many ways, this represents an opportunity to retain what was previously successful in the physical workplace while capturing new practices that advance the world of work. The role of design is essential in creating destination spaces that enhance the human experience and help all to flourish. The journey to holistic design becomes the combination of the art and science of design. Art is the aesthetics, selections and specifications that construct the visual language of the built environment. Science is the function and experience of the built environment, how space is traversed and how it supports individuals in all the rituals and behaviors they need to navigate it. Both are half of a good design.

In 2014, the GM Technical Center was designated a national landmark, celebrating the unique history, aesthetic value and craftsmanship of this iconic building. The lasting impact of the building speaks to how long good workplace design can benefit those who use it. Prioritizing an office design that is impactful and relevant to the work that will be performed is the only way to create spaces that are both enjoyable and useful for decades or more. Good workplace design isn’t easy, but the benefits it can bring to an organization are worth the effort.