design trends

How will workspace design shape the way your office looks and feels in the new decade? Here are our trend predictions for 2020 and beyond.

Feeling a bit introspective? The start of a new decade, more so than any other new year, brings the chance to look forward and wonder where this new era will take us. Workspace design is no different: We spend on average 30% of our time at work so how is the space we work in evolving, and what will that mean for us?

We've identified four macro trends we believe will shape the design of your workplace. Looking beyond the hard business benefits of productivity and financial success, areas that were previously regarded as 'softer' and less able to be measured are coming to the fore, and businesses that ignore them do so at their peril. We predict the following trends will shape not only 2020 but the decade ahead and beyond.

Macro trend: Employee wellness

No longer just a nice-to-have, a focus on employee wellness is an integral part of any successful business today. Micro trends such as biophilia, improving office sound quality, temperature optimisation, and access to natural light, are all areas that spring directly from the need to nurture the wellbeing of your people. Businesses hope to gain benefits not only in increased productivity, but also attracting and retaining top talent.

Caring for your people goes beyond just an awareness of their physical comfort. A recent Levell study found that 60% of workers experience performance drops as a result of chronic stress and burnout in the workplace.

Even smaller companies are taking note of this, and workspace designers are offering solutions for all budgets – ranging from expensive wellness rooms to design nudges that encourage taking the stairs or engaging with the outdoors to refresh and energise.

This consideration of “the employee as customer” is an increasing phenomenon. As the understanding grows that engaged employees lead to more engaged customers, so the workplace experience will become crucial and also more personalised.

Examples in action:

  • The Well International Building Standard aims to make buildings healthier for all. The Standard focuses on how buildings, and everything in them, can improve our comfort, drive better choices, and generally enhance, not compromise, our health and wellness.
  • An increased awareness of the importance of employee mental health has led Vodafone NZ to offer staff Friday afternoons off over summer.
  • Also in New Zealand, Perpetual Guardian is trialling a four-day week. Working on the basis of productivity, not time in the office, and retaining full pay, staff are reporting increased happiness, lower stress, and higher engagement and job satisfaction. Statistics New Zealand reports that greater than 50% of NZ employees have flexible hours, allowing them to start and finish work at different times each day, and one-third have worked from home.
  • The Living Building Challenge is a green building certification program and sustainable design framework that visualizes the ideal for the built environment. One of the aims of the Challenge is to create spaces that optimise physical and psychological health and wellbeing. Pictured is the Etsy office in New York City which embraced the Living Building Challenge when it designed the building with Gensler. Photo credit: Garrett Rowland Photography.

Macro trend: Flexibility

The rise of remote workers and the gig economy has contributed to organisations that change size as the need arises. Teams may grow as new projects are won, shrink as companies downsize, or reconfigure as organisational structures change. It's difficult to predict what a company will look like or what resources it will need in three years time. Increased turbulence due to a variety of disruptive trends means that only companies willing to transform themselves will thrive or even survive. The need for workforce flexibility means that flexible floor plates and adaptable furniture within them are an asset in the office.

Fit-outs that change with the needs of the business offer a level of future proofing that can provide peace of mind as well as financial savings. Demand is increasing for these solutions from both facilities managers managing a budget and end users who appreciate the ease of use.

Based on this trend, designers are creating modular furniture settings that can be easily moved, disassembled and reconfigured as needs dictate. Mini office settings and freestanding meeting areas can be set up as required. Settings can be configured and reconfigured based on individual preferences for work style – whether for collaboration or focus work. Ideally workers need to be able to easily make these changes themselves, as the need arises throughout their day.

The rise in agile working is also helping to strengthen this trend. Office space must be designed and built to fit the agile culture and work style of the organisation using it.

Although the open plan office is contentious it’s a key part of achieving the flexibility sought in the workplace. A large proportion of those against it complain of noise issues and lost privacy when they're trying to focus. These issues are easy to solve, especially if careful planning takes place. It may be a hot topic now, but we predict its continuation – hopefully with pressure to address and solve the underlying environmental issues. There are already so many easy and cost effective solutions available that offer the benefits of the open office without the drawbacks.

A proviso: the intent behind an open office must be more than mere cost saving – there has to be a desire to promote the benefits of collaboration and flexibility whilst still offering people choice. Again, the culture and work styles of the organisation must drive the change.

Examples in action:

  • At Microsoft headquarters employees and executives work together in large, shared rooms called “neighbourhoods.” Walls literally came down and each team works from its own large, open common room - one they were invited to customize to their liking. Each team also has dedicated focus and meeting rooms.
  • Architect Janet Pogue McLaurin, principal at Gensler, has designed dozens of prominent corporate offices. She says "One of the most fascinating things we found in the Gensler survey is that the best open-plan space—if you solve for attributes like noise management and access to people and resources—can be just as effective as a private office."

Macro trend: Sustainability

Sustainability is no longer just a buzz word. Entering 2020, the press has been filled with natural disasters of massive proportion. It’s impossible to ignore the need for everyone to do their part in trying to halt and reverse the cycle of environmental crisis.

The message coming loud and clear from stakeholders is that you can’t with a clear conscience avoid doing your part as a business owner or designer in an effort avoid compliance costs. You may feel that it’s not your job to save the whales, but once again employees and customers will eventually vote with their feet. 38% of employees report having spoken up to support or criticize their employers' actions over a controversial issue that affects society.

Workspace design can make its own contribution to the cause. Necessity is inspiring an exciting level of creativity and we’re seeing plenty of examples: from the use of vegan, organic and recycled materials, to long lasting design intended to keep furniture out of landfills.

Pictured: Piñatex by Ananas Anam is a natural, non-woven material made from pineapple leaf fibre which can be used as an alternative to leather and petroleum based textiles. Here being cut to make the Tui Chair by designer LyZadie.

Examples in action

  • UK community Sustainable Workspaces has created the largest ecosystem of sustainable start-ups and corporates in the UK and Europe. Covering aspects such as buildings, clean air and energy they bring together startups, corporates, government and NGOs in workspaces which are uniquely focused on sustainable development.
  • The World Green Building Council (WorldGBC)is a global network leading the transformation of the built environment to make it healthier and more sustainable. With Green Building Councils in round 70 countries, green building codes are designed to reduce the overall impact of the built environment on human health and natural environment by ensuring that waste is minimised at every stage during the construction and operation of the building. The structure must be environmentally responsible and resource-efficient throughout its lifecycle. Linking back to the trend of employee wellness, the related standards cover areas such as the quality of indoor air for human safety and comfort and the use of non-toxic materials.

Pictured: Approximately 400 Auckland staff members work in Xero's purpose-built, 5 Green Star rated building. The building's design uses the latest technology available to ensure it has as little an environmental impact as possible.

Macro trend: Community

In a volatile world that is not without social, political and cultural upheaval – think Brexit, walls between nations and refugee crises - it’s encouraging to see signs of a trend towards community in our workplaces.

Many of us spend up to 40 hours per week at work, and so it makes sense that the workplace will become its own community. Providing shared areas such as green spaces, recreation areas and communal eating spaces in the workplace allows employees to come together and enjoy each other’s company. Social spaces are shown to increase collaboration, foster interaction and help break down silos that can exist within an organization by encouraging communication. Not coincidentally, this is all also good for the health and wellness of employees. Micro trends such as resimercial design and blurred indoor-outdoor transitions have evolved in part due to the need to create a greater sense of community in the workplace.

Even remote working – which by its very nature takes place away from the main work hub, is seeking a sense of community. Destinations such as Impact Hub offer a defacto community for those who work remotely but still seek the camaraderie and creative stimulation missing in a home office set up. A growing number of U.S. states are offering economic incentives to lure remote workers to rebuild communities that could use an infusion of creativity, people, and resources.

Building a sense of community can also mean looking beyond the workplace, as organisations seek to connect with their broader communities via sponsorships, volunteer work and sharing facilities and skills.

Examples in action:

  • HGA’s Santa Monica Office includes the Euclid gallery space to provide inspiration for all employees and visitors, while also allowing for a welcoming community space for cultural & community events. The space is designed to be both a community hub for the people who work there and for the broader art loving community.
  • Fortune’s Most Admired Company listand the Dow Jones Sustainability Index have created links between an organisation’s financial performance and its citizenship record.

What is the role of workplace design in the new decade?


As the workplace shifts to meet the needs of a changing workforce with evolving social and cultural needs, design has an important role to play.

Design strategies that are thoughtful and humanistic will shape the workspace to create a more healthy and connected future. Organisations that embrace this are more likely to win the hearts and minds of their employees and customers - and we predict they'll have a future well beyond the next round of annual trend articles.

Photo by Lennon Cheng on Unsplash

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