Workplace design for secure, flexible spaces

The security of our customer’s workplaces, employees, and their visitors is Envoy’s number one priority. Through the lens of the IT, facilities, and security experts doing this work, our new blog series, Safe Spaces, Secure Places, explores the many ways today’s workplaces protect their data, people, and physical spaces.

The second blog in our Safe Spaces, Secure Places series features a Q&A with Mike Coons, Associate Director of Design Strategy at Knotel. We focus on workplace design, how the shifting real estate landscape impacts how organizations are designing offices, and how to design with security in mind. 

Gone are the days of the multi-decades lease. The desire to create exceptionally-curated, thoughtfully-branded, and customized workplaces, however, is here to stay. Good workplace design blends many of the ingredients needed to meet business goals. This includes facilitation of productive work environments to create positive employee experiences. Workplace design encompasses the intentional physical and evocative qualities of an office space. This involves the way a workplace looks and makes us feel––from the type and placement of furniture, or the location of the front desk, to the lighting and temperature.

What’s changed in the real estate landscape to cause leases to dramatically contract? As the speed and complexity of business increases, the resulting market pressure on organizations is driving lease periods lower and lower. Put simply, to remain agile and competitive, it is no longer tenable to commit to a long lease or invest in property.

We spoke with Knotel’s Mike Coons, Associate Director of Design Strategy, about what has driven the trend toward shorter-term commitments on office space. We also discussed why new offerings in the space can’t compromise on secure, functional, and design-forward environments. 

Coons’s career has been split between design strategy consulting and corporate real estate, and he currently sits in a Product role at Knotel. With a background in urban planning, he points to similarities between the engaged citizenry of a compelling urban experience and a successful workplace. Keeping this in mind, he stresses an organization’s top-level objectives are realized by the nuanced needs of individual employees. Individuals’ demand for choice and personalization in every experience continues to expand––and, Coons portends, this is why service will increasingly inform workplace experience design. 

At its core, providing office space for organizations means matching a company’s business objectives with physical components and experiences that support productivity. The “aha” moment for Coons, came while he was a part of an in-house real estate team and had to wrestle with misalignment in the strategic planning phase between resource investment and growth. 

The bottom line? Business is increasingly complex and fast-paced. Where real estate solutions once represented solidity and semi-permanence, today’s organizations feel pressure to be increasingly agile in their physical workplaces. Knotel is more than up to meet them where they are. 

The power of choice: employees, like consumers, want more

What’s an element that people consistently ask for in their workplaces?

MC: Wellbeing-focused amenities to avoid workplace burnout, such as a wellness room, or quiet space. The other trend we see is in the power of choice and optionality. Consumers have changed to wanting more control within an open environment. At the risk of oversimplifying, I think this is related to the empowerment in our cell phones, for example. 

This goes beyond generational demographics—we shouldn’t be explain it as only a “millennial” relation to work. We now have more control over our environment than we have in the past. Our work then becomes about how we deliver what people need in order to be successful. We have to have a breadth of choice, and it has to be intentional. 

Workplace design with security in mind

How does physical security show up in workplace design, and does technology ever solve for that?

MC: Absolutely, and physical security is challenging to negotiate. We tackle these workplace security considerations right away in the process. Most of the physical build happens prior to knowing who will be in the space. We need to know early on if there’s impact to that.

More organizations than not want to make sure they control who has access to their space. No one wants to have multiple access cards to get around their workplace; one for the elevator, another for their suite. That’s not an ideal experience. We want to focus on the employee experience when designing with security in mind to mitigate this. 

The path to workplace strategy and design alignment 

Why do you think we’re seeing a shift towards impermanence in our workspaces? How does Knotel’s “no-lease” model impact the workplace status quo?

MC: I spent part of my career on the in-house real estate team at a Fortune 100 company. Despite a strong strategic growth plan, one of our main challenges was a tremendous portfolio mismatch: too much space in the wrong area, not enough where we wanted to grow. 

A light bulb went off in my head: even at a tightly-run organization, where they wanted to invest resources and where they intended to grow didn’t align nicely to the lease cycle. 

Companies have pressure to be flexible, but they also have to be competitive. In particular, competitive for hiring and retaining talent. We, individual employees, are all so much more demanding of what that experience looks and feels like. These needs can be in conflict in that there can be a tension between how the space needs to perform and what people want. 

We’re seeing an evolution in the ubiquity of the flexible workplace model. The market will continue to evolve, and there will be more competition. The real value is matching employee-level needs, like technology, experience, productivity, and wellness, with a product that can turnover faster and be more flexible. 

This is where Knotel comes in. At our core, we provide flexible workspaces that allow companies to grow on their own timeline, rather than one influenced by what’s been done before. 

The trend is very clear: the workplace that companies need in order to grow their businesses must be flexible. We’re now talking about committing to years instead of decades. 50 years ago, it was not atypical to have a lease last 30 years; now, a lease term is likely in the single digits—and still companies are clamoring for more flexibility.

On not sacrificing quality in more temporary workplace design

How do you help a company reflect their vision and values in their workplace design? What questions do you ask when you begin a design project for a new client?

MC: The old model was to engage with a design firm to watch how you work for months, and the design was precious. You are promised that everything will perform exactly how you like, and therefore you should put capital in it. This is the fantasy that everything agreed on in that world. 

The challenge now is to change the fundamentals, such as material costs like furniture, to meet much faster turnover. If a company only needs furniture for two years, does that mean they should go with cheaper options that won’t last as long? 

I think about how can we be the partner for organizations to make sure we can invest in those fundamental components that will last as long as we need them to. 

Purpose-built amenities (but not another co-working space) 

Do you think workplace design can impact efficiency, productivity, and engagement? 

MC: Flexible offices are highly appealing at a business level, because this model provides financial flexibility. Optimizing productivity is the main goal. Sustainability and health and wellness supports productivity, so we’ll definitely see more and more attention paid to those initiatives. 

One of the insights of our founders was that regardless of tenure, organizations need to feel like the space is their own. They need to talk to companies about their brand; it’s not about Knotel saying, ‘well, this is our offering, and that’s it.’ 

When it comes to work styles, we’re interested in hitting different scales of the organizations. Look at the C-suite, for example. We look at and ask about what is important at each level of the organization, from management to employees. One of the real opportunities is to leverage our experience, and creating models to explore how each arrangement would work. We can leverage what we know about how the best workplaces function by design. 

We design as well as manage the space, so we provide best practices 45 days from when you inhabit the space, or at six months, to continually assess if the spaces we design to work well are actually delivering.

Ways to avoid the rote workplace amenities list (read: no ping-pong tables)

How does workplace technology play a role in your design strategy?

MC: Because of increasing emphasis on what the end user feels and how they are productive, we’re going to see more hospitality in workplace experience design. In order for anyone to be competitive in commercial real estate, we’ll have to focus on how to create an amazing experience. Gathering and collating what employees want and then translating that information into experience information is the key here. Does anyone actually want a ping pong table, or is this a standard practice that isn’t relevant any longer? 

Technology is important for table stakes, but it can be one of the most nuanced parts of what we provide, such as WiFi. We provided a flexible term, but we also need to consider how we refine the experience and incorporate technology so that it’s not just novel, but makes processes better. 

How many times have you heard someone say to join a meeting, “All I want is an easy button. I just want to press a button and go into a room”? I think companies like Envoy are clearly addressing how to take these onerous tasks and make them more seamless. I’ve visited a number of companies that have subpar interfaces for visitor management.

We need to think about workplace utilization. An example: the reception area is often more than a one-use physical space. There’s a triangulation between what employees, organizations, and visitors want. We are seeing more and more organizations using reception not only for visitor management, but as a dynamic space for the whole company. 

Part of what that shows is that we want the space to be activated by people, first. How can technology combine to provide the breadth of workplace experience we’re all after? I remain excited about considering the digital modules that can satisfy a broad range of needs.