Top Workplace Trends for 2014

RTKL’s workplace interiors experts come together annually to examine trends we’re seeing across our broad, diverse client base. For 2014, the trends are evolutions of those issues that have helped define the workplace over the past few years. Understanding where our clients’ issues are helps us develop more informed workplace strategies and thoughtful designs that not only look beautiful and meet real estate goals, but also help our clients meet and exceed their larger business goals.

RTKL’s top eight issues impacting the workplace in 2014:

  1. Continuation of the Great Mobility Debate
  2. Enduring Whiplash from the Open Office Debate
  3. Continuing Evolution of Collaborative Environments
  4. The Brain Drain Really Occurs
  5. Health and Wellness Programs Expand
  6. Seamless Integration of Technology
  7. Greater Emphasis on Employee Engagement
  8. Push for Performance Driven Design

Throughout the year we will continue to focus on these trends, particularly technology, engagement, and performance driven design. Stay tuned for more of our thoughts regarding what they mean for the workplace environment. For now, a sneak preview:

1. Continuation of the Great Mobility Debate

The great debate about mobility, particularly work from home programs, garnered major media attention with Marissa Mayer’s Yahoo! announcement and continued to gather steam as HP and others followed suit. RTKL expects this debate will continue to rage as companies struggle to find the right balance between flexible work environments/mobility and collaboration/team building in the office.

At RTKL, we find through both research and practice that there is no one right answer regarding mobility and our clients must carefully consider their business goals, culture and other factors in deciding whether to permit or encourage flexible work options.

top-workplace-1Findings in favor of mobility focus on the impact of flexibility on satisfaction and productivity. Flexibility in the workplace and job satisfaction are linked; the National Study of Changing Workforce finds that employees with high access to flexibility are three times more likely to be highly satisfied with their jobs than those with low access. The Center for the Built Environment finds satisfaction is directly linked to self-reported productivity: for each 15% increase in satisfaction, productivity improvement was reported to increase by one to four percent.

Research also indicates that physical proximity is very important: Tom Allen’s research from the 1970s continues to be discussed: the Allen curve demonstrates that the amount of communication between individuals decreases exponentially as distance increases with the threshold at 50 meters (164 feet). Christian Catalini’s research at the University of Toronto demonstrates the profound influence of proximity on the rate and direction of innovation and collaboration. His research also indicates that networks can continue to exist even as individuals who are part of the network move. In a mobile work environment, this means that employees with existing networks are likely to continue to collaborate with their existing connections, while mobile workers without networks will have greater challenges.

2. Enduring Whiplash from the Open Office Debate

Appian | Reston, VA

Appian | Reston, VA

The open plan office is nothing new; nor is resistance to it. In 2012 and into 2013 publications such as Susan Caine’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking were major topics of conversation, particularly as to how the open office can present challenges for those needing to conduct heads-down, concentrative work. Major publications such as the New Yorker continue to publish articles focused on some of the potential negative aspects associated with open plan office design. The usual culprits: noise and distractions. Commentary typically focuses on the challenges open plan design can present for doing heads-down, focused, concentrative work.

RTKL’s clients continue to consider open plan offices for many reasons. One of the first is typically about creating value through real estate – not only through cost avoidance (open plan offices are often more efficient square footage-wise than enclosed offices) and improved environmental performance (for example, less square footage to heat, cool, and light and greater access to daylight and views), but also by providing spaces that enhance the way work is done.

We understand that open plan offices can be of tremendous value to our clients, but we also realize that they are not a one-size-fits-all solution. By designing facilities that offer the appropriate mix of spaces – some for collaboration, some for heads-down/concentrative work, some for small private conversations, and so forth.  We continue to work with our clients to understand their business processes and goals in order to find a unique design solution that meets their goals and supports activity-based working, regardless of the amount of open plan office provided.

3. Continuing Evolution of Collaborative Environments

Collaboration continues to be a key emphasis for our clients. Collaboration enhances knowledge sharing, thereby improving productivity and innovation (at least in theory). Companies seek opportunities to enhance both formal and informal collaboration through the built environment. Again, proximity is key. As long ago as the 1980s, companies were testing ideas around improving collaboration. Scandinavian Airlines developed a “main street” environment where all collaborative spaces for its headquarters were consolidated in a single area, with the intention of driving collaboration. Post occupancy evaluation showed that only 9% of informal interaction and 27% of scheduled interaction occurred in the main street area. This is not exactly the result companies are seeking when they invest in these types of spaces.

Addressing this need for proximate collaboration, RTKL designs environments that use some of the following principles:


  • Locating collaborative spaces within work groups, rather than centralized on a floor or in a conference suite
  • Delineating collaborative and team spaces within the open office plan using furniture solutions; providing greater long-term flexibility
  • Providing multiple types of collaborative settings such as lounges, meeting rooms, war/project rooms, allowing employees to select the appropriate work setting based upon their activity
  • Creating smaller meeting spaces (accommodating 4-6 people) rather than large formal conference rooms for groups of 12 and larger

4. The Brain Drain Really Occurs

SHRM reports the retirement of Baby Boomers as one of the top five concerns for companies, with 68% of human resources professionals indicating that this will have a major impact on the U.S. workforce over the next five years. For years, the impending retirement of the Baby Boomer generation (those born between 1945 and 1964) has been causing businesses angst. Due to the Great Recession (and other factors), many Boomers chose to delay retirement. The economy has seemingly picked up and/or Boomers are tired of the workforce, or realizing that their health is a gift that does not last forever and more and more are starting to retire. This not only has major impacts on business continuity, but it also has consequences for the physical workplace.

This is a theme we hear time and again from our clients: average employee age is high and tenure is senior; how can the workplace promote knowledge transfer, support our Baby Boomers and satisfy the desires of our up and coming leaders?

The workplace can help support knowledge transfer in a variety of ways (see earlier trend on “Continuing Evolution of Collaborative Environments”). Creating a variety of spaces that support both formal and informal collaboration and encourage interaction and relationship building can provide ways for junior and senior staff to learn from one another.

With respect to designing for a variety of generations in the workplace, the key is to understand the existing culture while keeping in mind the desired future culture. The Oxygenz survey queried 5,375 respondents from across the world, focusing on industry sectors such as engineering; media marketing and communication; finance; information technology; and art and design. Findings about Generation Y and the workplace confirmed long-held assumptions:


  • They aspire to work in a “bright, light and open working environment.”
  • They are generally more open to shared workspaces rather than dedicated individual workspaces: 27% of respondents indicated that they are ready to share a desk; an additional 18% indicated that they would consider desk sharing.
  • They like open, informal collaborative spaces: 73% of respondents note that they favor informal meeting areas to formal conference rooms for meeting.

As Boomers retire and Generation Y begins to fill middle and senior management roles, the physical workplace environment will continue to shift.

5. Health and Wellness Programs Expand

The continuing high cost of health care coverage in the U.S. and the implementation of health care legislation are the top two issues impacting the workplace, according to SHRM. The ongoing focus on reducing healthcare costs impacts the built environment of workplace as well. Companies are seeking to provide spaces that encourage health and wellness.

Part of this is through sustainable design, particularly providing healthy buildings with occupant controls and access to daylight and views. Research from the University of Oregon finds that up to ten percent of employee absences can be directly attributed to lack of views to the outside.

Another aspect of workplace environments that our clients are utilizing to promote health and wellness is the inclusion of amenities that benefit employee health. This includes spaces such as fitness centers, wellness rooms, health suites, outdoor activity areas and cafeterias with healthy food options. There is also an enhanced focus on ergonomics – not only providing ergonomically correct workspaces, but also regularly educating users on proper positioning and the ways to adjust furniture.

RTKL is helping our clients make wellness an unseen part of the workplace environment, much like sustainable design. We strive to provide spaces that naturally encourage activity. Examples include:

National Democratic Institute | Washington, DC

National Democratic Institute | Washington, DC

  • Connecting stairwells that are visible and appealing
  • Centralization of services such as to encourage employees to get up from the desk regularly throughout the day
  • Signage programs that educate employees on benefits of exercise
  • Wayfinding and signage that promotes walking for exercise within the office environment
  • Furniture with sit-stand options

Businesses are seeing that investing upfront in amenities and careful consideration of design is keeping employees happier, healthier and more productive.

6. Seamless Integration of Technology

top-workplace-6Technology has become a critically important part of the work process.  When it works, it is wonderful and drives productivity; when it fails, we sit at our desks and tear out our hair.  As we work with our clients, we are finding a wide variety of adoption of technological innovations, both within the built environment and provisioned to individual employees.

Gartner’s strategic technology trends for 2014 begin to address this: the top strategic trend being mobile device diversity and management. As employees become more mobile and workplace design more flexible, a seamless integration of technology tools and usage policies are essential for success.  This ranges from provisioning the employees with the right tools to work wherever, whenever they need to, as well as including the right tools within the space.

RTKL works with our clients to develop custom solutions that enhance functionality, sustainability and efficiency by creating synergies between systems and spaces. Successful systems design begins with a coordinated approach—a balance between tomorrow’s technology and the time-tested, robust solutions of today.

7. Greater Emphasis on Employee Engagement

Employee engagement has been a major buzzword in the architecture and interior design industry; no longer is it only for major organizational change. To help our clients engage employees with workplace change and other changes in the built environment, RTKL offers change management services, and we are seeing a tremendous increase in the interest for these services. For several years, our clients saw change management in the built environment as being solely communication around moves; essentially letting people know how to use new spaces, how to use tools and then a welcome kit.

We are now seeing a greater emphasis on truly engaging the employee. This includes a thorough change management program with more training, and enhanced communication planning – all focused on building understanding of the change (and “what’s in it for me”) and ensuring employees are ready and able to make the change. Gallup found that companies with the most engaged employees have significantly higher productivity, profitability and customer satisfaction than those with the least engaged employees.

top-workplace-7Companies are allocating more resources both internally and externally as they are learning that without changing the way employees operate, built environment changes are much more challenging. Our focus is in helping our clients develop and implement robust change management and communication plans, particularly those clients going through dramatic changes in either the built environment or policies about how to use the built environment.

8. Push for Performance-Driven Design

Before investing in major workplace change, companies are doing their research: Will this change help meet our specific business metrics? What will be our return on investment? Benchmarking has long been a key aspect of this: finding examples of similar organizations who have implemented change and demonstrating how it has worked for them is helpful in the decision-making process; however, benchmarking often provides only a small part of the data companies want to learn. There is an abundance of information available regarding cost metrics such as reduction in square footage per person or cost averted by real estate reductions; softer metrics such as productivity, innovation, creativity and collaboration are much harder to measure.

Currently, these metrics are largely self-reported. Field measurements for productivity are challenging in a knowledge work environment; there are typically no widgets to count. Additionally, isolating the impact of the workplace environment from other variables is very difficult. As such, most studies measuring productivity in the workplace involve asking employees if they feel more productive and what made them more productive. For example, in the Oxygenz report, the top three factors Generation Y employees listed as triggering productivity were the people in the workplace, the ambiance and atmosphere in the workplace and the technology provided.

This is useful information; however, it is not empirically proven, which makes it a tough sell in many business environments. Some of our clients are turning to performance measures such as employee review ratings, human resources data such as sick days, and measures such as number of patents awarded or sales figures. Research from Carnegie Mellon University shows the potential for use of knowledge-based testing to measure the impact of workplace change; examples of potential tests include number recall, typing speed and accuracy, memorization or creative thinking tests.

As our clients become more focused on how the workplace can create and support change, we continue to work with our clients to understand their needs, develop a business case and measure the metrics that matter to them.

Tell us what trends you are seeing in your journeys through the world of workplace and stay tuned for more of our thoughts on some of the aforementioned top trends.

Jodi Williams

About Jodi Williams

Jodi Williams brings over 15 years of experience in workplace strategy, facility planning, and change management. She leads strategic planning efforts for public and private sector clients, and has been a featured speaker at industry events such as IFMA World Workplace, Greenbuild and NeoConEast. In her spare time, Jodi enjoys playing with her daughter, long walks on the beach with her husband, being judged by her cat, and expending excess energy on the soccer pitch.