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Key Workplace Trends for 2020

January 27, 2020
  • Workplace

It’s a New Year -- and that means new conversations about the state of the workplace. From employee choice in the office to the role of community, here are four trends we expect to have an impact on employers, employees and those who work within the commercial design industry.

1. Focus on Retention over Attraction

Historically, organizations have prioritized attracting top talent. That’s certainly important. But retaining key employees can have an even bigger impact on an employer’s fortunes. That’s where organizations should focus their energies this year.

The job market has never been tighter. Unemployment is at a record low and is projected to stay there for the foreseeable future.

Replacing a talented employee is expensive. Not only does an employer lose that productive worker’s output -- he has to spend big bucks searching for a successor. According to data from SHRM, employers spend 1.5 to three times the base salary of good employees finding their replacements.

Imagine if a company were able to reduce its turnover by just 5 or 10 percent. The resulting savings would be substantial. Smart organizations will make retention their watchword in 2020.

2. Choice > Activity

In 2019, unassigned seating, hoteling and touchdown spaces seemed to be the hottest trends at the office. But most employers have been hesitant to make the leap toward “activity-based” work. They believe that every employee still needs a dedicated workstation -- and that their cultural norms inhibit employees from choosing how and where they work.

A recent KI study found that 78 percent of workplace strategists believe no more than half their clients use any semblance of activity-based workplace planning within their organizations. Forty-four percent say that less than 25 percent of their clients use the practice. One survey respondent said his clients were fearful and scared of unassigned seating.

The next generation of workers wants privacy. KI’s research into Gen Z college students found that only 8 percent prefer an open office. They’d rather work in their bedroom than anywhere else. They want a space they can call a home-away-from-home.

Gen Z isn’t alone. Half of millennials say that a sense of belonging would keep them at their job for at least five more years. Employers who design with this in mind -- say, by allowing workers to make their workstations their own -- will find that they build rapport and trust with their employees.

In 2020, we anticipate organizations are more likely to adopt “choice-based” work -- an agreeable middle ground for today’s work environment.

The choice-based model allows organizations to assign a personal workstation to each full-time employee. But it also gives people the choice to work in non-traditional areas. Millennials may love lounges, cafés and common areas, while Gen Z-ers might prefer nooks with a privacy screens -- or even traditional cubicles.

The emergence of choice-based work is one reason organizations have scaled back the size of personal workspaces. Smaller workstations provide additional free space to create new environments that support different workstyles.

3. Community as Strategy

The line between our personal and professional lives continues to blur. Companies that adopt a workplace design strategy that helps employees balance the demands of family, health and well-being, will be winners in 2020 and beyond.

Last year, KI hosted panel discussions across the country with IIDA. The conversations focused on the role design plays in creating and sustaining community. We heard time and again that people crave connection with one another.

Employers can foster a collective sense of community through design. Designers should start with a simple question: “What is the culture I’m designing for?”

Culture encompasses everything from a company’s logo and other visuals to emotional reactions to that company. Workplace managers must understand the relationship between an organization’s brand and its culture in order to create a community that will fulfill its ideals and satisfy its employees’ needs and preferences.

An office designed to foster community can give employees an experience unique to that organization. One participant in our Community as Strategy panel in San Francisco shared a story of marketers who give pitches on a stage in a former concert venue. Unique design strategies like these affect employee wellness, retention, productivity and more.

Finally, organizations are increasingly connected to their wider communities. It’s important for companies to keep their neighbors in mind when furnishing new spaces. Ideas like accessibility, equality and representation can link organizations more closely with the communities they reside in.

4. Redefining Innovation

The design community overwhelmingly believes that furniture plays a critical role in creating “innovative” spaces. According to a recent KI survey, 96 percent of architects, designers and dealer partners indicate that furniture is the key element in an office because:

  • Users interact with furniture the most.
  • Users have some control over furniture.
  • Users can adapt the design of furniture to meet their needs.

In 2020, the industry needs to redefine “innovation.” The respondents to our survey believe the term has become a buzzword trotted out to describe trendy new products, rather than a term reserved for true industry disruption.

We conducted our survey as part of an effort to identify what true “innovation” means to the furniture and design community. There are times when products need to be a special size, have a certain function or offer an aesthetic different from that for standard products. Does that qualify as innovative?

At KI, we believe innovation means creating something that serves the need of one client -- and that may never be made again in the exact same way. Truly innovative furniture caters to a client’s exact needs and specifications -- potentially with a product that doesn’t even exist within our standard portfolio.

The process of modifying or co-creating furniture can be frustrating for designers. Yet only 8 percent believe the need for furniture modifications is decreasing.

Employers and employees alike receive huge payoffs from customized -- and customizable -- offices. Northwestern Mutual’s revamped headquarters in Milwaukee gave employees virtually 100 percent control over their environment with adjustable desks, screens, dividers and chairs. That has resulted in happier, more productive employees.

“With employee engagement, you think about allowing people to work their best wherever that may be,” said Cal Schattsneider, Northwestern Mutual VP of Campus Planning and Operations. “And that got us thinking about flexible, agile workspaces that can be designed or changed depending on what the next project or work effort might be.”

The Year Ahead

In 2020, identifying and accommodating the needs of employees will be key. The trends we’ve identified clearly show that employees are demanding more of their employers and of the workplace.

We predict that organizations will strive to design and create spaces that adapt to worker’s preferences while building a sense of community. That’s a development we should all welcome.

by Jonathan Webb  Director of Workplace & Healthcare Markets

Jonathan Webb leads KI’s strategic business units for workplace/private sector and healthcare. Jonathan studies workplace and healthcare trends, uncovers product gaps, and develops solutions with the KI team. Jonathan takes part in advanced workplace and corporate training strategies and documents his findings through white papers, articles, and other publications. His recent publications, Understanding Active Design: The Rise of Human Sustainability and Collegiate Design: The New Driver for Workplace Design, have put Jonathan in the media spotlight. Partnering with thought leaders like AECOM, his publications cover diverse subjects including sit/stand benefits, designing training environments, and defining work styles. Jonathan holds an MBA from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh School of Business and is a LEED-accredited professional.


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