We love working with designers whose work inspires us. Gensler is one such firm, and Design Director Sarah Brengarth’s experience especially stands out to us. Her approach to designing post-pandemic workplaces draws inspiration from the culture’s evolving conversations around equity and diversity. By designing with flexibility in mind while exploring solutions that integrate the physical with the digital, Sarah seeks to make today’s workplace experience seamless and intuitive while accommodating the new hybrid, digital work model with style and ease.
Tell us about your most recent project, or the project you’re most proud of?
I’ll give you two. The first project was for an energy company in San Ramon. We developed a series of community hub spaces that were designed to draw employees back to the campus. They function like an amenity and co-working spaces. As we all know, one of the biggest things that we’ve heard coming out of the pandemic is that employees miss collaboration and socialization, and really miss kind of connecting with company culture. So these community hubs were a way to help facilitate that and allow for those employees to come back and reconnect.
The second project is one I’m currently working on. It’s for a technology client, who has a space on a single floor in an existing building that they occupy
in San Francisco. There’s been a lot of discussion about similar issues we encountered with the San Ramon client: What is the draw that’s bringing employees back to the office? The answer is the same: People missed reconnecting, they miss collaborating in person, they miss socialization. So, we’re looking at ways to still meet the company’s one-to-one seating assignment ratio, but carve out areas where we can provide flexible furniture and really unique environments and amenities that start to draw employees back to the office, things that they wouldn’t necessarily have access to while they might be working from home.
What are some challenges you face in designing workspaces today, especially with regards to the new hybrid work model?
One of the biggest challenges is designing for flexibility. Because a lot of our clients are in an experimentation mode or a pilot mode right now; they’re not really sure how employees will use the workplace once they actually do go back. Flexible furniture, demountable partitions, and lightweight and modular architectural solutions have been our design go-tos. They serve a purpose now, and could easily be manipulated in the future to allow for the space to evolve based on how the employees prove that they will use it.
Another challenge that’s very specific to hybrid work is integrating AV and digital connection in a meaningful way, both in enclosed spaces and the open office. We asked, How do you facilitate collaboration when you know that there’s always going to be someone on screen? And how can we ensure that digital connection is equitable? Some of our solutions to these questions include digital whiteboards (cloud-connected touch screens) and installing multiple cameras and microphones into conference rooms.
What do you think employees will need most from their new hybrid workplaces?
One of the things that we’ve learned over the course of the pandemic is not everyone works the same and not everyone’s remote work environment is the same. There will still be some employees coming into the office to do focused, heads-down work. There will still be employees that might have a day full of calls, which technically is collaborating with your teammates, but choose to do that type of work from home.
What we need to have now is more intention behind the spaces that we’re designing, and more diversity. A truly modern, post-pandemic workplace would have a variety of rooms for different types of work: VC rooms that are dedicated to allowing an in-office employee to join a meeting that’s going to be fully hybrid, spaces like study carrels or libraries that allow people to tuck away when they really do want to be uninterrupted, and buzzy open offices that provide socialization and impromptu opportunities for collaboration.
What was something a client said to you recently that surprised you?
One thing that I have found to be somewhat interesting is a majority of companies are adopting an unassigned desk approach, but not big tech. I think that is because they want to invest time into gathering data based on how their employees are using their spaces before they make major changes to their workplace standards. So while a lot of big tech is exploring and experimenting and running pilots, they’re waiting to gather the data from how those pilots have been utilized before making any large scale changes to their kind of overall space and system standard.
In today’s hybrid work world, what does storage mean to you?
Storage is going to be critical as we move forward, because we’re looking at flexible environments that will need to evolve over time as companies learn how their employees work post-pandemic. I think storage is going to have to do the same. Storage will need to be offered at a multitude of different sizes and scales. It will also need to be flexible, easily adapted and changed, and be implemented very quickly to serve clients in their most immediate need once they go back to the office.
Creating a very seamless experience is going to be key, as well. As designers, we need to start thinking outside of just the four walls, if you will, of the office, and think about the experience as a whole. The hybrid, digital work experience should be intuitive and very seamless. Because it’s kind of a pain, right? If you have an app on your phone that you need to check into the office, but then you have a different way of reserving rooms, and then you might have a code or a different way of reserving storage, and then another way of potentially reserving the desk or the work point that you want to work from for that particular day. So figuring out a way for all of those platforms and all of those systems to speak to each other, I think, is also something that we need to be thinking about.
Where are you finding inspiration lately?
Many of my pre-pandemic sources of inspiration have not changed. But I would say that my inspiration base has broadened. Now, I’m very interested in thought leadership in regards to inclusivity and diversity within the workplace. Gensler has an amazing research arm of the company, which I tune in to and learn from constantly. The surveys that are being conducted and the diverse individuals that are writing articles about the politics of all types of spaces fascinate me.