Is this the Kodak moment of workplace experience and office design?

Picture of Meara Hamidiani

Added on by 11 min read

Kay Sargent Proxyclick New World of Work

Right now, we're at a pivotal point as we redefine what the workplace experience and office design.

And according to Kay Sargent, Senior Principal and Director of Workplace at HOK, we need to entirely rethink the future of work itself - not just the future of the workplace. 

COVID-19 is now bringing into the spotlight some of the problems with how and where we work that Sargent and her team have been flagging for years.

For some organizations, that means it's accelerating them forward to create more sustainable, fungible spaces, and allowing work schedules that are not so binary (home working vs. office working) to help motivate and empower their workers. For others, it means taking a huge step back and retreating to the 1970s, isolating people with plastic shields, and being simply reactionary without looking at the entire picture.

To debut our latest New World of Work video Q&A series, we sat down with Sargent to discuss how we can collectively move forward - not backward - in this pivotal time, some of the biggest positives and negatives we could be underestimating, and the skills workplace strategists of the future should have to succeed.


Let’s start by talking about where we’re headed when we think about the future of the workplace. Any initial comments about what’s going on right now? 

Kay: Here's how we would frame all this. We're at a really pivotal point. I've been a practicing designer for 35 years now. There have maybe been two or three times in that entire span, where we have truly been challenged by an event or an advancement to rethink things significantly going forward. But never to the level that we're talking about right now.

The whole world is asking us what the future of work will be, they're not asking about what the future of the workplace will be. (click to tweet)

For people like myself at HOK, we spend a tremendous amount of time on future casting, looking at what could come, and the challenge for us right now is that people are so focused on being reactive that COVID-19 has been an accelerant. 

It’s been an accelerant for one of two things. It’s either going to fuel your fears and make you retreat back to the 1970s - throwing up panels and screens and isolating everybody again. Or it could propel us forward and get us five or ten years ahead of where we are now, which quite frankly, we need to do. 

We are going to make a plea for everyone to take a moment and to take a breath, and to realize that there were a lot of things that were not working beforehand. This has shed a light on a lot of those things. 


So what are some of these things that COVID-19 has shed light on regarding the workplace and work experience?

Kay: The commute, for one. Or, the fact that we're burning out and we're so stressed. The fact that we are not making as much progress on environmental sustainability as we would like. The fact that technology is rapidly advancing and we've got able to keep up with it.

And the fact that people expect better today. It's all of those things that already put us at a pivotal point. What we see right now is if we as an industry rise to the occasion - if we don’t get caught up in the conversation about plastic screens and all of that, and implore everyone to think bigger and to address those other problems that we already know are there - this really could be our Kodak moment.

So how should companies rethink what they’re doing now, and make positive changes in the workplace?

Kay: We believe that going forward, work really is going to create an ecosystem of places. So many of the discussions I’ve had in the last 12 weeks centered around everyone needing to work from home, or everyone needing to remain in the office. And the answer is, it’s not a binary choice. It doesn’t have to be one or the other.

There are a lot of gray areas, and we have to define those areas. Not everyone needs to go into the city every day. Not everyone can or should work from home. There are pluses and minuses to both, and I think so many people are getting caught up in the debate of picking one over the other. That’s a false narrative.

What we need to be encouraging people to do is figuring out, does anyone miss the commute? But on the other hand, if you don’t have that commute, the transition between work and life just blurs. That’s a whole other challenge.

With every problem, we also have to understand the possible side effects. If we de-densify the workplace, then we’re changing the acoustical issues in those spaces and creating new ones. If we throw up plastic screens everywhere, it’s more things that need to be cleaned, and these have an impact on acoustics.

We need to stop being reactionary. We need to stop being “all is one or the other.” And we need to think more holistically about a variety of solutions that everybody can choose from, whether it be for a large corporation, a small start-up, or an individual worker. (click to tweet)

The only thing that we really believe we can do - because of the variety of people, the variety of tasks, and the variety of scenarios - is to create this ecosystem that can be leveraged and used with intelligence, and empower people and companies to do so.

There’s great benefit in creating powerful places that people can come together in, another physical embodiment of your culture whereby you connect with others. (click to tweet)

How do you see workplace changes that are happening now, such as more remote work, potentially contributing (or not contributing) to employee wellbeing and productivity? 

Kay: I think we're underestimating something - we're trying to oversimplify things just because people worked from home for the last several months and survived. That doesn't mean that they thrived. There are a lot of people that really struggled. Innovation might not have been as successful and we’re already seeing that learning remotely for most students was a serious challenge. 

So we really haven’t done a full analysis - yes, we were able to work from home, but just because you’re able to do something doesn’t mean you can or should. 

People have been working from home for 50 years. What we've learned is that not everybody is suited to do it - not every company or their mission is suited to allow it. You need to put in guidelines or parameters, and if you're not willing to do that, then you're going to struggle.

What we're seeing with some of the barriers or the boundaries is that we've had them before, and they came down for a reason.

If I’m going to the office to be with people, but now I’m barricaded in, afraid to move, all of those things are counterintuitive and they probably are not going to be long-lived. Those are all practical things we should be thinking about. I think we need to be very careful.

I hope this will put back the emphasis on the notion that if a space is designed well, then we can intuitively guide people to make the right choices and decisions. (click to tweet)

I can design a place where people can be six feet apart naturally - I don’t need to put X’s everywhere. I can design intuitive wayfinding and flow through the space. We need to be able to do that more artistically - that won’t happen instantly, but it will happen over time. I think it will also increase our sensitivity to surroundings and sensory stimulation, and our sensitivity to cleanliness.

HOK has written about the increased use of smart materials or biophilia in office designs. Can you talk about the importance of these materials right now?

Kay: We highly encourage biophilia. I will say that, if I never see another perfectly vertical straight plant wall again in my life, I’d be more than happy. That’s one interpretation of it while having some control and order, versus a more organic approach. And I think we put too much emphasis just on plants. 

Nowhere in nature do you have square white boxes, but that’s what most of us end up sitting in. So whether it means including organic shapes or patterns, or wood elements, or sounds of nature, or smells, or natural lighting - these are all ways to approach biophilia.

Nowhere in nature is lighting perfectly uniform, either; there’s fluctuating lighting levels. So there’s a whole variety of ways that we can create biophilic experiences that have nothing to do with plants, or sticking a plant in the corner and calling it a day.

We need to be thinking more intelligently - how do we emulate or mimic nature or natural elements holistically in spaces? But we do want to help our clients think about how they leverage plants and or other elements like shelving to really create some of those boundaries or separations we need, versus just plastic shields that go up everywhere.

What other trends do you see eventually boosting workplace productivity or wellbeing, if at all? 

Kay: So I’m going to start by challenging one notion we’ve had for years. We’ve been so focused on productivity, and I think we do need to focus to some degree on it, but I think it’s a red herring.

When we talk to CEOs, we find that what’s keeping them up at night is their inability to innovate fast enough. Very few CEOs are kept up at night because of how much square footage somebody’s sitting in, or because Johnny can’t produce a widget fast enough. 

Airbnb didn’t create a hotel room faster - they changed the entire experience, they shifted it. Uber did not get people anywhere faster, they changed the way it was done and the convenience of it. Most of the significant innovations we see are not focused on producing the same thing faster, but more about changing experiences, making them more convenient and better. 

Today, we need to innovate fast enough to stay relevant. And it's hard to innovate when everybody is isolated. So this ability or desire for people to come together, ideate, and create is really pivotal in today's day and age. That's what we should be focusing on. (click to tweet)

If the environments we’re creating now don’t allow people to innovate, don’t allow access to decision-makers, and don’t break down the silos to enable people to do things more quickly, then they're really kind of all for nothing.

What are the biggest lessons to take from all of this? 

Kay: I think one of the hidden things that not a lot of people have spoken about in this COVID-19 world, is the notion that when push came to shove, we did what we had to do. 

If in January, I went to one of my big corporate clients and said, ‘In March, we’re all going to try an experiment and we’re all going to work from home for a week,’ we would’ve had task forces and committees, and all of these things put in place for it to happen.

But we had no warning, and we had to do it in a day. A lot of our corporate clients are really amazed at the fact that we did that - we broke down the silos at our companies, and we moved to remote work at an astonishing speed, without a big committee or task force. 

What a lot of companies have realized, I think, is that their internal silos, structures, and processes are inhibiting their ability to act quickly and to make decisions. But quite frankly, when push came to shove, they did it.

And many would say that they feel more connected to leadership, because leadership has had to come out from behind their suites and be front-facing to really communicate to their employees. 

I think smart companies are realizing that they can do things a lot faster if they need to, and they need to figure out how to keep that momentum up. I think this is a huge lesson smart companies will take away. (click to tweet)

What are some of the technologies you’re seeing become increasingly important as we go back to the office?

Kay: Let’s talk about the big picture, and take the car industry as an example.

You can buy a car nowadays that unlocks immediately if you have a fob in your pocket. You get into the car and everything in the car adjusts to your preferences. The seat, the mirrors, the steering column, and your preset preferences for the temperature, lighting levels, the radio.

Now, let’s think about this in the office. Most of us are still crawling around on our desk, trying to find an outlet to plug our laptops in. Nothing responds to us. The office is where we spend a significant part of our day, so we are far behind in that realm. 

If we have assigned seating and fewer work points because there aren't as many people there at any given time - some people might be working from home or might be in a conference room all day and not see a desk - then maybe we can have better work points. Maybe these work points are more intuitive and maybe when I walk up to that work point, it knows it's me. 

For example, when I arrive at my office, it knows that I'm coming because I've already signed up to be there that day, so facial recognition technology acknowledges that it's me. It lets me in. I can go right in and it tells me it’s reserved a locker for me, so I can put all your things there. When I walk up to the door, it recognizes my face with biometrics - I don’t even have to touch the door. 

I go to my workspace. It knows my preferred height for the desk, it connects to my phone, the height of the monitor adjusts to meet my ergonomic needs, my phone calls are routed to that location, the lighting level is adjusted, the temperature preference, the airflow might be increased or decreased. My content is already loaded on the computer, I don’t have to log in.

When I leave the space, it alerts the system that the desk is now empty and needs to be cleaned. And so then it can tell the cleaning people to come over.

Thankfully, we have the ability to do all of this in the office today. We just need to do it.

And do you think this situation will be the catalyst for these types of technologies? 

Kay: I would love to think that this is an accelerant. Some companies have already started going down this road, trying to create these types of experiences. What we need is for other people to pick up the charge and to pick up the gauntlet to continue that forward.

Then there’s this notion right now that nobody wants to touch anything. How do you create a touchless environment?

I think COVID-19 will absolutely be an accelerant for how we move forward. We have projects that have yet to come where hopefully all of these technologies will be applied, and we really could create the spaces of the future.

But the challenge here is that, even before COVID-19, we were asking ourselves if we even need to keep building buildings. We were talking about adaptive reuse. So I do believe, hopefully, any building that is built in the future will be an intelligent smart building, but there will also be a lot of effort put into going back and adapting existing buildings.

The most sustainable building we can have today is one that already exists, that we don’t have to build, that we can just improve and extend the life of. We have to figure out ways that we can do that. (click to tweet)

So, the final question. As a workplace strategist and designer, what do you think the skills people in similar roles need now and going forward?

Kay: I think they need to understand human dynamics. I think that, for far too long, we have ignored the true dynamics. We're improving certain elements within the workplace and have been focused on things like productivity. But 80% of a company's money goes to their people.

If people don't feel comfortable or don't feel safe or don't feel at ease, they will not create and they will not be productive. They will not be as engaged or empowered.

The happy, healthy, engaged, empowered worker who feels safe will be more productive and innovative than a disgruntled, unhappy, unproductive person that feels they're in harm's way. We know that. And what we need to do is to really truly focus on human dynamics and on human-centered measurements in our industry.

If I do anything to negatively impact the productivity of your people, where 80% of your money is going, I can cost you more money than I save you. We need to think about how we are putting people in the best scenario to be as innovative and productive as they can be.

We really need to think about how we are tapping into people's true potential and leveraging that to the best of our ability. How do we change that and how do we embed lifelong learning, or even sabbaticals into our careers? (click to tweet)


Senior Principal  |  Director of WorkPlace at HOK

With more than 35 years of experience, Kay is a recognized expert on workplace design and strategy issues. She is an award-winning designer who has worked with several Fortune 500 companies to optimize their global real estate portfolios and create innovative work environments. As Co-Director of HOK’s WorkPlace team, a practice that supports organizations undertaking multiple projects in various locations, and a member of HOK’s Board of Directors, Kay is responsible for helping clients redefine how, when and where their people work, and supports a holistic design approach that integrates an organization’s people, processes and technology.

Kay is considered an industry thought leaders on workplace. She has authored multiple white papers and articles on a variety of design-related topics including wellbeing; next-gen workforce; technologies impact on the workplace; space fusion and the rise of the human factor.  

Kay currently serves on the AVIXA Board of Directors; the National ASID Foundation Research Taskforce, the IWBI Mind Advisory Team, the International Boards of CoreNet Global, and IFI - International Federation of Interior Designers/Architects, and the Advisory Board for WorkDesign Magazine. During her career, she has also served on the Boards of IIDA and NCQLP and the Advisory Board of Virginia Tech School of Architecture and Design and NVCC.  She is an active member of IFMA and co-founder of the IFMA Workplace Evoluntionaries, WE community and serves as an Executive committee for WE. Kay is committed to mentoring the next generation of designers and as such mentors multiple individuals within HOK and across the industry.  She is also a Founder of the DC Chapter of UPWARD, a global network dedicated to the professional advancement of women in the workplace.


Like this article? Spread the word.