Reimagining the Workplace

“Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.”
– Sigmund Freud

It’s easy to think that our 2019 selves had it so good. Our children went to school. We flocked to movie theatres to watch the latest blockbusters. We filled stadiums to cheer on our favourite teams while ordering over-priced beers. And we endured airports and crowded flights as we took our families on holiday.

To pay for all this, we dutifully commuted to our places of work where we spent the majority of our waking hours. Few of us knew the term “Zoom,” and our home wifi was for watching Netflix.

The onslaught of the pandemic in early 2020 turned life upside down across virtually every dimension. But perhaps the most immediate and pervasive effect – was the impact it had on where, when and how we work.

But in truth, previously, our places of work were far from perfect. We can trace the fundamental basis for the design and environments of most workspaces back to the industrial revolution and the era of assembly line workers governed by a managerial class. Many, if not most of our work environments, have not evolved beyond those industrial origins even though we are clearly in the era of the knowledge worker, where collaboration and creative problem solving are skills required for most roles.

Add to this the reality that in the war for talent, business leaders and HR professionals are keenly aware that environment, location and culture play a crucial role in a company’s ability to attract the most talented employees.

L’Institut Idée, a boutique consultancy with unique discovery tools, formed a collective in April 2020 with progressive architectural firm Red Studio Inc. and interior design firm Kirsh Design. We wanted to answer the question: How can we use this time to reimagine the workplace, not only for a post-Covid world but to be the kind of places in which talented people would choose to spend time?

We began by using our proprietary methodology called the Structural Mapping Process® (SMP) to uncover the emotional drivers that are associated with a desirable workplace. What emerged from the study and our subsequent strategy sessions was that the idea of “work” in its previous incarnation was mechanical, geared primarily for productivity and efficiency. But instead of treating the workplace like a “well-oiled machine”, we have to switch our thinking and see it as a living ecosystem that is dynamic, ever-changing and evolving.

To that end, we discovered that the future workplace must first consider these emotional needs:

  • • Beyond safety – While it’s undeniable that spaces must be reconfigured to allow for safe physical distancing when needed, the notion of emotional safety is equally important, i.e. creating environments where people can safely take chances, experiment and try new things.
  • • Propelling creativity – Employers cannot expect creativity, problem-solving and innovation from teams unless the spaces themselves are designed for people to imagine and collaborate freely.
  • • Craftsmanship, comfort and camaraderie – Human-centered design, by definition, pays attention to quality craftsmanship, humane materials, human comfort and the ability for people to ‘break bread’ together.

To deliver on these emotional needs, we developed core principles for the reimagined workplace across three essential dimensions for life in our era:

  • – Human health – the physical and emotional well-being of those who work in a given space
  • – Planetary health – the environmental impacts of our choices when it comes to places of work
  • – Economic health – the ability to generate wealth, at an individual, collective and corporate level

Through this prism, what emerged from our work was a comprehensive set of principles for any business leader, HR professional or designer to follow when designing and operationalizing the new workplace. While too numerous to include in this article, the principles ladder up to four overarching imperatives that are the cornerstones of the reimagined workplace:

  • 1. From work as a machine to work as an ecosystem
    Business owners and leaders need to think of the workplace as a dynamic, living ecosystem housed in well-crafted and considered spaces that encourage positive and supportive behaviours.
  • 2. From a nice-looking to a multi-sensorial space
    Simply because a space is aesthetically pleasing doesn’t mean it’s human-centred and sustainable. We must pay attention to factors such as natural light, fresh air, purposeful acoustics to ensure both physical and psychological comfort.
  • 3. From fixed to adaptive components
    Spaces must be designed, outfitted and furnished to be easily reconfigured for different purposes, with design aesthetics that meaningfully reflect the company’s DNA and smart technology to increase safety and enhance the ability to collaborate.
  • 4. From location-based to multi-dimensional processes
    Creating the right design and furnishings (furniture, equipment) isn’t the end of the story; we must think through the rituals, practices and operations within a workplace so that we instill a sense of pride and belonging as well as ensure safety and efficiency.

Our architects and designers then applied these principles to an actual office floor plan, the headquarters of L’Institut in Toronto. They developed sketches and renderings that bring the concepts to life. As a result, a concept paper emerged that provides a new ‘blueprint’ for how to bring to life the reimagined workplace.

While the ultimate impacts of the pandemic are yet to be seen, we do know from history that times like this often see unprecedented evolution and innovation across sectors. We aim to ensure that in 2021 and beyond, we never go back to the workplaces that were, but instead create them as they should be.

For those interested in reading the full report, please contact:

L’Institut Idée
Penelope Fridman
Red Studio Inc.
Denise Santini
Kirsh Design
Donna Kirsh