Many organizations have spent the past few years wrestling with how to clearly define the best uses of in-person time when the pandemic showed that work can be done remotely. Offsite meetings bringing colleagues together clearly have an important role in establishing team trust and engagement. And new research shows that intermittent in-person work—working remotely and coming together for regular meetups— improves a team’s collective intelligence.

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Amid these evolving understandings of what should be done in offices, how should we think about the role of the space itself? We spoke with Kevin Ervin Kelley, author of the book Irreplaceable: How to Create Extraordinary Places that Bring People Together and cofounder of the strategic design firm Shook Kelley, which has designed offices for companies including Bank of America, JM Smucker, Cadbury, and USAA. Here are key excerpts of Kelley’s comments, edited for space and clarity:


The office experience starts before you get to the building.

Many people consider going to urban employment centers frustrating, aggravating, costly, time consuming, or wasted time. The biggest issue is wasted time. We then start asking, ‘What are those payoffs?’—the physical, social, emotional payoffs. What’s really key for us is to start the experience before they even get to the building. We start looking at the parking issues. What is it like to arrive? When you go to Disneyland, the experience starts long before you get there. We create what we call ‘threshold experiences.’ The customers might have been on the 405 and they’re irritated, but then they start to get closer. So we start trying to communicate to people with little signs and little gates and little arrivals and messages about how to make each day a masterpiece. We start to get very specific as you get closer. We start in a parking garage, a parking deck.

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A low scheme is when we don’t have a lot of money. We start figuring out what we can do with paint. You can do a lot with paint and messages and you can communicate to your populace by painting on the buildings, changing the color of the concrete, changing the door handle, changing the striping. Messaging is really key, not over messaging, but literally starting with a message like ‘Make each day a masterpiece.’ A medium scheme would involve a little more dramatic experience, maybe it’s carpet, maybe it’s really changing the doors, maybe it’s making it less utilitarian. It’s less utilitarian and more experiential, which may mean grander staircases, murals, art, the sense of reception.


Offices facilitate social connection, including dating.

We have to look at even dating issues—it sounds strange, but much of our workforce is young, single, increasingly single, increasingly marriage-less, kid-less. Downtowns and urban environments are marriage markets. And getting people together creates a camaraderie. We spend an enormous amount of our time working—even more so than we did before—so there’s a power of that camaraderie.

The real question to ask is—and employers need to ask this, downtowns need to ask this—what are humans missing? Not what’s new, not what’s out there, but what are they missing? And what we find in tons and tons of research is they’re lonely. They’re worried about being able to meet their magic others, whether those are friends or other people. They want to have good times and they really, really want to have authentic experiences, which seems to be harder and harder. Workplaces have a long way to go to appeal to those dynamics.


Moving sinks and break facilities into common spaces and finding antique tables encourages connection.

Socially facilitative places don’t have to entail over-the-top gestures, but often start with looking at basic rituals, routines, and social devices that spark connections between people. Regarding offices, these rituals can include activities and social opportunities such as getting morning coffee, water-bottle discussions, break-room table conversations, accidental hallway discussions, lobby meaning opportunities, print-room gossip, and even post-bathroom chats. Conversations often happen in these non-work spaces or on the journey to them because they offer ‘intersectional moments and encounters’ in an office where employees cross paths, make eye contact, and initiate discussions.

For instance, we banish the word ‘break room’ from the office lexicon because it’s normally a small, windowless space in the back of the building that doesn’t facilitate discussion but makes people feel awkward. Instead, we install bar-top counters in open spaces with front and back sides that work well to give people the spatial comfort to interact with each other at a comfortable distance. We even notice that corners of the bar are where people like to hang out. Some people like to be outside the bar top, whereas others like to jump into the role of the coffee barista, demonstrating their knowledge or mastery.

We prefer installing coffee bars/tea stations as part of a bigger living-room area or ‘social lounges’ with flexible couches, side chairs, rugs, cultural libraries, and curious artifacts. These flexible spaces can also be transformed into regular meetings, presentations, and learning events that feel less corporate and hierarchical and more club-like. As much as possible, we have been shifting the thinking and frame about the office as a ‘workspace’ and more as a club, fort, or headquarters for tribe members to meet up and outline their game plan.

If we can’t do bar top counters, stools, and living-room spaces, we’ll make the lunch room/break room tables a fascinating discussion point. We’ll go to the antique yards and find giant wood doors that are thick, aged, and storied and turn them into tables so staff feel like they’re eating at a big dining room table at a castle. Some of the best conversations I’ve seen happen in offices are when the break-room table and chairs have been turned into a special table. We’ll often mix antique tables with mid-century modern chairs to give the space immediate conversational value for prospective candidates. Then, we’ll line the walls with regular participatory photo activities maintained, curated, and promoted by employees as a way to get to know each other. These events might include childhood photos, summer vacation photos, favorite music albums, and college sports predictions. We like to create outdoor patio locations, when and where possible, to allow employees to get some fresh air, have lunches, meetings, or have social events.

We are increasingly removing hand-wash sinks from private bathrooms and putting them in semi-private common areas where people can talk. We’ve had great success with this approach in restaurants and bars, but we have also included it in offices. More people talk and have quick but valuable conversations in these common spaces than most might expect.

Read a full transcript of our discussion, including a contrarian take on open-office layouts and how offices reflect companies’ dysfunctions. Sign up for Charter’s free newsletter about the future of work. Read our full coverage of artificial intelligence and work.

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