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Customization is the key in tomorrow's workplace

The importance of mobility, flexibility, and sustainability in the world of corporate design are already well-established. A newer trend that’s gaining deserved attention is customizability, and how it will look in the coming years, writes GS&P's Leith Oatman.

October 22, 2014 |
Gresham Smith Blog

Over the summer, I had the opportunity to speak about future workplaces as a panel member at ULI Florida’s 2014 Summit. I was excited to join my peers from across the state in what was a worthwhile and eye-opening discussion, and I was encouraged that the resounding takeaway was “design matters.” In this new world of work, one size doesn’t fit all; employers need strategically designed spaces that support their goals in unique ways.

For years, corporate design trends have been largely generalized as “me-to-we,” which I believe is an oversimplification. While it’s true that there’s still a transition away from workplaces dominated by private, secluded offices and toward more open, collaborative space, there’s so much more going on. Companies – and specific groups/departments within companies – are seeking varying degrees of mobility, flexibility, sustainability and customizability, making good design solutions much more complex than they once were.

We know that technology and urban density are propelling a major shift toward worker mobility. Designers need to be smart about space allocation and do our best to design workstations that can be used by a rotating string of people – Jim today, Jessica tomorrow – making sure there’s space available to be shared. This, in turn, ties into the notion of flexibility and balance.

We all fantasize about how much we could accomplish if the phone would stop ringing, emails would stop dinging, and colleagues would stop popping in. And research has proven that the ability to concentrate and reduce noise results in increased innovation, job performance and job satisfaction. So alongside the open workstations and group meeting spaces, there must also be “heads down” spaces, private alcoves, places for focus and respite. Design that lets workers seek out the balance they need to do good work is essential.

Most companies these days are also looking for sustainable design to some degree. Not every client wants or can afford a full-blown LEED Platinum space, but there are plenty out there thinking about energy costs and long-term savings. And what’s already a very long list of sustainable design capabilities continues to grow every day. Environmentally-focused solutions are a significant part of the design conversation, and that won’t be changing anytime soon.

But the importance of mobility, flexibility and sustainability in the world of corporate design are already well-established. A newer trend that’s gaining deserved attention is customizability, and how it will look in the coming years. During the panel, I made what some might consider a controversial statement, but it’s something I believe nonetheless: the CRE market simply hasn’t kept up with the workplace design revolution in terms of tenant improvement allowances (TIAs).

Customizability gives tenants of a corporate space the opportunity to “make it their own.” Unfortunately for many tenants, that process has become quite cost-prohibitive. They incur enormous costs in personalizing their office space, and it’s money that they’ll never get back if and when they vacate the building. It’s because TIAs, for the most part, don’t cover enough.

I believe that TIAs should, at the very least, allow for the kinds of improvements that enable companies and their individual employees to feel comfortable. Things like demountable walls and furniture and even wall murals allow a company to express who they are. One of GS&P’s clients, Sykes Enterprises, Inc., wanted their new call center in Lakeland, Fla., to be energetic, collaborative and healthy in order to attract and retain younger staff members.

Elements like brightly colored, geometric-shaped seating and wall-mounted TV screens helped to create the ideal environment. The call center would have been a very different place – a much more generic place – without the ability to reinforce the SYKES brand throughout.


GS&P customized the Sykes Enterprises call center in Lakeland, Fla., with plenty of unique design features that support SYKES' and its employees' personalities.


Another key aspect of customizability occurs at the individual level. Employees are happier and more successful in a space that reflects their identity and inspires creativity, rather than one that’s bland and impersonal. And the millennial generation, more than any other generation before it, places serious value on self-expression.

Just like people want their home to be a reflection of who they are, the same applies to workspaces. Employers are increasingly focused on validating employees’ unique contributions, and giving workers the opportunity to customize their space supports the notion that uniqueness is valued. A company that fosters self-expression through design is truly on the cutting edge.

It’s also worth noting that I think the money spent upfront on TIAs is a worthwhile investment for landlords too, not just tenants. A successful tenant with satisfied employees will be a happier customer over the long term, potentially leading to longer leases and positive referrals. And an attractive, sustainable workspace will certainly be a more valuable property over the long term.

Every company’s recipe for workplace success is unique, so every solution must be tailored. As we move above and beyond the “me-to-we” conversation, our work as designers becomes more complex and more important. The combinations of mobile, flexible, sustainable and customizable features are seemingly endless, and it’s our job to identify the mix that will best support success today, tomorrow and years down the road.

About the Author

Leith A. Oatman, IIDA, LEED AP, has more than 25 years of experience and is a principal of GS&P's Corporate and Urban Design studio in Jacksonville, Florida. In addition to developing business for the corporate studio, she actively manages and designs large to small multi-disciplined projects in corporate and hospitality sectors. Leith has been honored as one of the Jacksonville Business Journal's Women of Influence, is a board member of the Ronald McDonald House Charities, Inc. and is a Distinguished Alumni of the University of Florida's School of Design, Planning, and Construction.

Gresham Smith Blog | Gresham Smith
Gresham Smith

The Gresham Smith blog is about starting discussions. We want to get people thinking about issues and trends that are impacting the design services industry and the market sectors Gresham Smith architects, engineers, interior designers, planners, consultants and environmental scientists serve. Great ideas are typically enhanced through conversation and often stifled by singular views and opinion. We hope you'll join in this conversation and help us to create a meaningful dialogue.

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