September 16, 2019 by Cindy Davis

Multimodal is the New Black: The New and Thoughtfully Designed Workplace
© Steelcase

Multi-use, multi-discipline, multi-platform, multi-dimensional, multi-generational, multi-tasking, multi-lingual, and multimodal are only a few of the terms used to describe today’s diverse workforce and workplace. Gensler Research Institute defines the multimodal workplace as having experiences involving multiple activities and more than one experience mode.

Multiple articles in leading business publications have declared the “open office plan” dead. The reasons cited, to little surprise: too noisy and distracting, lack of private space for critical calls or meetings, and lack of planning for workers requiring a less stimulating environment.

It was purported by Forbes and others that Millennials entering the workforce preferred an open collaborative work environment, similar to college campuses. Combined with the recession in 2007, this attracted companies to the open-office plan to save on real estate costs. The problem was that all too often walls were demolished, and desks filled large open expanses without consulting workplace behavior experts, architectural designers or technology consultants. It was a recipe for failure.

“There’s not a ‘one size fits all’ solution to workplace design,” said Kay Sargent, Senior Principal and Director of WorkPlace at HOK, a global design, architecture, engineering, and planning firm. A thoughtfully planned workplace will take into consideration multiple generations, cultures, diversity of work styles, and the environment. “A financial firm might need more private offices, where a creative agency could benefit from a flexible environment.”

Multi-Generational Perspective

In 2016, Millennials became the largest generation of the U.S. labor force, comprising 35 percent and surpassing Gen Xers, who accounted for a third. In 2017, Baby Boomers represented a quarter of the total. It is estimated that in 2020 Generation Z will make up 20 percent of the workforce and will represent the most racially and ethnically diverse adult generation in U.S. history.

Bucking previous labor force trends, in July 2019 Pew Research reported that the majority of Baby Boomers are still in the workforce.

Generations as Defined by Pew Research

Gen Z Millennials
(also called Gen Y)
Gen X Baby Boomers Silent and Greatest
Born: 1997 and later Born: 1981 to 1996 Born: 1965 to 1980 Born: 1946 to 1964 Born: 1945 or earlier
Age in 2019: 18-22 Age in 2019: 23-38 Age in 2019: 39-54 Age in 2019: 55-73 Age in 2019: 74+

No matter the generation, the Gensler Research Institute’s 2019 U.S. Workplace Survey found that what people really want from a workplace is a great experience. The report stated, “Today’s workplace is an ecosystem, and the best workplace experiences are built on variety, choice, and autonomy.”

Designing for Multimodal Experiences

A Gensler Research Institute study confirmed that most experiences that involve multiple activities and more than one experience mode tend to be more likely to be noted as a respondent’s favorite place. However, creating multimodal workplaces should maintain and prioritize a primary focus, while layering in additional activities to expand the scope.

In 2016, when workplace architectural systems and technology consulting and integration firm Red Thread decided to compress its Boston headquarters from 28,000 to 15,000 square feet so it could remain in the hip Seaport District, the company seized the opportunity to create a truly multimodal workplace for its 125 employees. “It actually feels like we have more space,” said John Mitton, Vice President of the audiovisual group and CTO.

BostonAt Red Thread’s Boston WorkLife office employees are encouraged to move around throughout the day and interact with colleagues formally and informally in various spaces that are inviting and functional. © Steelcase

Mitton described his Monday. “It’s a typical day. I have been at five different spaces.” During our interview Mitton was in a small huddle space designed for two or three people. Through scheduling software, if he saw that was not available, he would have used a “phone booth” for even more privacy. “I started my day at the corporate manager's desk where I had brief interaction with other managers.” From there Mitton went to a common space that had interactive flat panel technology and videoconferencing for sales forecasting. “Afterwards, I went into a Microsoft Teams Room and we had a video call with a large group.” Later Mitton spent time at the Work Cafe, chatting with people about the weekend.

Boston2Open plan destinations at Red Thread include desks and standing height benching, café tables and booths as well as height adjustable work surfaces. © Steelcase

A self-described Boomer, Mitton had always occupied a private office. There are no pre-assigned desks at Red Thread. “I feel like I'm really effective, and in the right space that I need to be for the right time for the project and work I'm doing,” he said. “When I had an office, I felt like I had to be there because that was my spot.”

Some would consider Red Thread’s workplace an open floor plan, but Mitton said, “it’s about the right configuration created to support the work that's being done in that space.”

Red Thread’s headquarters doubles as a showroom to demonstrate workplace configurations to clients. “We want them to start thinking about how they can introduce these concepts and ideas and build in flexibility,” said Mitton. Having the ability to move the furniture and technology in a space provides flexibility based on not only a task, but for future planning. “A business today is not the same as what it might be six months from now, a year, or two years from now.”

Boston3At Red Thread’s Boston WorkLife office spaces were created for focus, respite, collaboration and learning using demountable glass walls providing acoustical privacy, visibility and integrated technology. All open spaces are available on a first come first serve basis, and private rooms can be scheduled giving everyone the chance to try a space and understand its benefits. © Steelcase

Global business software provider PTC is a client of Red Thread and has taken the multimodal open plan in its Boston location to new heights. The spaces at PTC are designed around ‘neighborhoods’ with smart task-based stations. “Desks are equipped with addressable sensors that recognize employees and automatically adjust the height based on preferences,” said Mitton.

PTC© Warren Patterson Photography

Supporting Multimodal Workspaces

Designing open-plan workplace requires more nuanced considerations than a traditional office. If a floor plan is going to be open or even partially open and you want to have videoconferencing, make sure the design works with the acoustics and ambient lighting, said Mitton. Sound masking and lighting become more critical.

Rob Cohen, Northeast Director of Digital Experience Design at Gensler, said that technology provides a necessary layer to any space. “It exists on both ends of the spectrum between functional and expressive.”

Functionally, technology not only enables frictionless updates to keep information relevant, but it also communicates customized messaging that is relevant, memorable, and authentic to the user. “On the expressive side, we are seeing this everywhere in the built environment,” he said. Whether it’s a new stadium or a cultural institution, technology is playing a central role in activating those spaces and making them more immersive, more engaging, and more fun.”

As the technology in our pockets become more powerful, we’ll continue to see technology affect physical spaces and be user-centric by providing personal and shareable experiences,” said Cohen.

PTC2Desks at PTC’s Boston workplace are equipped with addressable sensors that recognize employees and automatically adjust the height based on preferences. © Warren Patterson Photography

New Values

The days of staring at a computer screen all day need to be placed in the past. “Managers need to understand that employees need time to rejuvenate, and [need] spaces that enable creative thinking,” said Mitton. “We need to value the thought process.”

The single use workspace is a thing of the past. “We're not designing for people who are doing repetitive tasks anymore,” said HOK’s Sargent. “The stagnant environments where people have a stake, or a place, is antiquated. We've got to empower people and give them options and choices so that they can find the right opportunity and the right way to work to be effective and efficient,” concluded Sargent. 

About Cindy Davis

Cindy Davis has been immersed in technology since dismantling her transistor radio while in grade school. For more than 20 years, she has developed and delivered content for the industry's top print and online publications as well as at live events and trade shows. Davis enjoys exploring the ethos of experiential spaces as well as diving deep into the complex topics that shape the AV/IT industry. In 2012, the TechDecisions brand of content sites she developed for EH Publishing was named one of “10 Great Business Media Websites” by B2B Media Business magazine. A lifelong New Englander, Davis makes time for coastal hikes with her husband, Gary, and their Vizsla rescue, Dixie, sailing on one of Gloucester’s great schooners, and sampling local IPAs.