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Cool Offices Entice People Back to Work, Promote Creativity

A large indoor playground with an octopus ship.
​The Pirate Ship Discovery is one of 16 creative work areas at Inventionland in Pittsburgh. It houses the special operations team; originally it was meant to house team members who worked on toys and children's products. Photo courtesy of Inventionland Institute

​A Morocco-themed relaxation room. A pirate ship where members of the special operations team works. An office designed with feeding, sleeping and play areas for dogs.

Then there's the Detroit design firm whose conference room is located amid the golden cubbies and trays inside the vault of a former loan company.

Pophouse interior design firm in Detroit. Photos by Max Ortiz, courtesy of The Detroit NewsEmployers are getting creative with office design—signaling to their employees that they support their out-of-the-box work, as well as their comfort and well-being. Urban Outfitters introduced plants and elements of wood to offset the industrial feel of one of its lounges at its Philadelphia headquarters in an old Navy yard.

Urban Outfitters lounge in Philadelphia. Photo courtesy of AdzunaPittsburgh-based Inventionland, which bills itself as the world’s largest invention factory, uses imaginative design to spur creativity among its designers, artists, writers, illustrators, photographers and seamstresses. 

Workers can brainstorm in Chipper’s Treehouse, which is made entirely of whiteboard, including the table and chairs. The Inventalot Castle, with its turrets and drawbridge, houses offices for the education team, and the Knights of the Round Table room is the meeting place for larger groups, product unveilings and other activities. Some of the 16 themed work areas feature waterfalls and grass-lined sidewalks. 

Nursery Nook. Photo courtesy of Inventionland Institute in Pittsburgh "The general purpose of the design of the whole building was to inspire creativity," said Madeline Weiser, Inventionland Institute spokesperson, whose office is in the Schoolhouse. "The Pirate Ship Discovery was originally meant to house team members who worked on toys and children's products. However, over time, each set now houses a specific department. 

"For example, Creativity Cabin houses our package design department … [and] if we need to create an invention for a nursery product, we can still go into Nursery Nook," which is designed as a giant shoe, "and collect inspiration from the atmosphere there."

As the 15-year-old organization evolves, so do its workspaces.

"We have a floating concept model of Inventionland," Weiser said, "… and the sign on it says, 'Model in Progress,' because we're always growing."

Comforts of Home

Don't expect to walk into organizations and see rows and rows of individual desks as in the past, said Todd Heiser, principal and managing director of design firm Gensler's Chicago office. Post-pandemic offices are going to include open, semi-enclosed and closed workspace.

"The office is starting to look more residential," Heiser said. "People have been [working] in their kitchen, been on their couch, on a walk."

Employees want that choice to continue when they return to their organization. They want to be seen as "people with kids and pets and not as metrics. I think when we come back [to the workplace] … companies are going to be much more people-centric."

And when done well, the creative office environment can help employees thrive at work.

"We know thriving is linked to well-being, creativity and positive interactions among colleagues. That affects performance. Thriving is very much affected by physical space," Heiser said. "Well-designed meeting spaces … promote feelings of vitality and makes the experience at work really a positive one, and at the end of the day that drives the experience of what it means to go to the office."

Wellness Focus

Employee burnout has been a big issue in the last year, and office design likely will involve focusing on wellness, agreed Andrew Hunter, co-founder of job search engine Adzuna, which compiled a list of the coolest offices in the U.S. in 2021.

"That may be in the form of introducing well-being spaces to help workers relax and switch off, or it could be via the creation of onsite facilities … to give workers more flexibility and reduce the pressure of child care needs" as parents return to the workplace, he said.

Additionally, offering a variety of zones where employees can take a break can "help with relationship building, particularly important for younger workers for whom building workplace friendships and networks is vital," he noted.

While those face-to-face interactions are important, companies must get creative to entice employees back to the office.

"The best offices offer a variety of intimate, private spaces for holding a phone call or small meeting, as well as wider flexible spaces for collaborative working," Hunter told SHRM Online. "Many business leaders and HR teams are investing in designs and mechanisms that pave the way for increased productivity, collaboration and ingenuity. This means creating more varied spaces—including areas set aside for brainstorming and creative work, quieter nooks where workers can escape the noise of an open plan, and places to relax and recharge."

Different spaces fit different needs. Cards Against Humanity has a Morocco-themed room, creating a kind of hippie vibe in its 12,000-square-foot warehouse in Chicago that employees can use to take a break. Whole Foods provides private booths for employees at its Austin, Texas, headquarters where employees can make phone calls or work privately.

Morocco-themed room at Cards Against Humanity.  Photo by Nicholas James Photography, courtesy of Adzuna

Whole Foods booth seating. Photo by Art Gray, courtesy of Adzuna

"People want choice. … They want a balance," Hunter said. "When they go to that office, they want that office to drive creativity. The workplace more than ever before is going to have to be worth the commute … and support the whole human and deliver on a lot of things the best workplaces were doing before we entered the pandemic."


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