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Design matters

Taking a peek at “cool” offices around Dane County, and what global firms are predicting for the future.

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From the pages of In Business magazine.

Perusing IB’s past issues is always an adventure because of the gems often uncovered — from hair and clothing trends to ads touting the latest and greatest room-sized computers, to remembering companies no longer with us and celebrating those that are still doing great things.

In 1990, for example, IB ran its first Office Showcase, a contest saluting excellence in office interior design. DEMCO, RMT, and Pleasant Co. received recognition that first year, when businesses were saluted for spacious lobbies, bright and airy break rooms, a professional reception area with “courtesy” phones, a well-lit space, and plants throughout. Popular materials included dark mahogany wood, brass, carpet tiles, movable walls, mini-conference rooms, and even “occupied/vacant signs for boardrooms.”

How we work now compared to 29 years ago has changed dramatically, but the reason for good office design really has not. It continues to be about attracting and retaining employees, especially in today’s challenging jobs environment where unemployment recently reached a 50-year low.

Consider this: There are now five generations in the U.S. workforce, from baby boomers approaching retirement age to Gen-Z (those born in the mid-1990s to the early 2000s). As businesses look to remain relevant over the next several years, they recognize that this cross-generational workforce has more in common than not, and designs are encouraging interaction and mentoring.

This year, IB takes a global view into the future of office design and showcases local businesses whose attention to workplace details may be playing a role in Dane County’s bustling economy.

What do employees want?

As an employer, if you don’t already know the answer to this question, it’s probably time to ask because it could be affecting your bottom line.

A recent study conducted by Gensler, a global architect and design firm, found that poor workplace design across the U.S. can cost employers as much as $330 billion in lost productivity each year.

Design. Does. Matter.

Who doesn’t want to work in a “cool” space? Whether a new office or redesign, reasons and budgets vary from company to company, but employees are generally looking for flexibility, collaboration, and a space they’re proud to occupy.

Compared to offices of the past, today’s design trends are more welcoming, purposeful, and employee-focused, from the flooring materials used to the air circulating up to exposed ceilings. Designs emphasize natural components and frequently combine wood, stone, glass, and metals with splashes of bright colors.

Workers are interested in sustainability, the environment, and localism, and companies are delivering. Reclaimed wood can even tell a story, such as the barn wood used at ZEBRADOG that dates back to President Abraham Lincoln’s day.

Other common features promote collaboration and socializing, yet still allow for private and quiet spaces and daylighting that bring the outside in. Plants may never go out of style, and have evolved into living walls in offices that can accommodate (and care) for them. It’s also important that cool spaces provide a variety of seating options and work areas, from ergonomic computer chairs to easy chairs or sofas.

“Creating a great workplace experience requires a focus not just on space and effectiveness,” notes Gensler in its summary of its 2019 U.S. Workplace Survey. “The best strategies align space, culture, interaction, and behavior to create a high-performance workplace experience that optimizes people’s performance.”

Gensler ranks the five top design amenities with the greatest impact in order: innovation hubs; maker spaces; quiet/tech-free zones; outdoor workspaces; and focus — or huddle — rooms.

Artificially intelligent design

The future of design may include artificial intelligence (AI), as well, to help with space utilization. Eventually, AI may also be able to suggest improvements during the design process.

“With connected workplaces enabling the collection of more data, this can help build artificial-intelligent software focused on improving workplace design,” notes “The ability to continuously monitor how a workplace is used means we can see changes and analyze their impact in shorter time frames, making an office space more efficient.” Adaptable workplaces and furniture are also needed to complete the picture.

Humanyze, a U.S. company founded in 2011, creates “sociometric badges” for workers, based on monitoring office interactions. The goal is to increase workplace performance by capturing data through infrared sensors placed under desks, microphones, Bluetooth, and other technology to anonymously track how employees move throughout a space — where they go, speech patterns, and posture, according to

Humanyze clients cross-reference that data with sales, revenue, and retention information to determine which encounters and behaviors are making contributions to the company, and those, we assume, that aren’t.

Inviting HR to the design table

Office design that provides freedom of movement needs to be encouraged, allowing employees the ability to work in multiple locations, whether they sit or stand. Recognizing this, some global companies have decided to include human resources in office design decisions to help imagine a healthier workforce.

This type of “design thinking” redefines HR’s role from process developer to experience architect, suggests “It empowers HR to reimagine every aspect of work: the physical environment; the way people meet and interact; how managers spend their time; and how companies select, train, engage, and evaluate people.

It’s no secret that a sedentary job or lifestyle is unhealthy. Savvy business owners and designers can help avoid those unintended consequences by encouraging movement throughout the workday.

On these pages, we've showcased of the work of a handful of businesses, designers, and contractors who work hard to make Dane County a “cool” place to work.


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