Designing Workplaces: NeoCon 2016 Recap

It’s the most wonderful workplace time of the year, when thousands of workplace experts head to Chicago for NeoCon and take a look at all things work—the furniture we work in and around, the environments that help us be more productive and the trends workplace interiors vendors are instituting.

There’s really no more professional way to say this: it was a bit of an “awkward teenage year” for workplace design. For the last few years, the industry has been moving toward integrating feelings of home in the workplace and for good reason. Employees spend more time working than anything else during the week, so we should make work feel more comfortable. Based on the emerging trends we saw at NeoCon this year, we’re on the cusp of really getting this right as long as we can decide on a color palette and can escape from the attack of the giant greenery.

The Big Takeaways

Design: Commercial + Residential = Resimmercial

This is overall the biggest trend we saw at NeoCon, and it manifested in several ways. We’ve seen a move toward the Maker movement in the last few years, and several vendors picked up on this and used it tastefully in their workplace products. To bring the comfort of a living room-type feel to an office, Teknion introduced wood, not just in veneers, but in screening elements on the furniture. These pieces were still very corporate but had a level of design that was human and welcoming.

Wood craftsmanship makes an office feel like home but it also speaks to quality of material. Because these pieces are often handmade or have a handmade element to them, they tend to be a bit pricey for clients. But we’ve found that you can still bring this look into your design aesthetic in an affordable way because it’s used as an accent to create texture, whether it’s on a tabletop or a piece of art.

This Teknion workstation brings a soft living room feel together with a desktop work environment.

Design: The Pop-Up

Pop-Up shops, restaurants and now workplaces? The Pop-Up concept hit workplace this year at NeoCon in a variety of ways. It’s an answer to a call for flexibility and mobility, and we saw some really great examples of it this year in pod-type desks and collaboration spaces (not cubicles!) and the improved sit/stand desks. Workplace designers are coming up with some really creative ways to make offices dynamic, and we can’t wait to try some of these out.

Keynote: Designing for People

We sat in on Paul Scialla and David Rockwell’s keynotes during the conference, and found some connections in what they had to say. These two speakers come from different backgrounds, one the founder of the International WELL Building Institute and the other a designer of anything from hotels to broadway sets, but they both had a similar message: make the investment in finding out what really makes your people work happily, efficiently and productively and your business and people will thrive.

The success of a business and its workforce are intricately linked, and a holistic design approach should be taken from multiple perspectives to see how a space affects people working it in and to design a solution that creates wellbeing. This idea has even led to the creation of a position in offices called CWO or Chief Wellness Officer. We’ve seen how detrimental to a business it can be when a workplace is designed expecting employees to fall in line. And from Rockwell and Scialla’s talks we agreed that employees are participants in their work environment, and to enhance that participation, we have to understand human interaction and the human elements of the space.

This is especially important when considering the scale of personalities, work preferences and technology needs that stratify businesses these days. Did you think we’d do a NeoCon recap without mentioning the M word? The discussion around accommodating different generations in the workplace showed more unifying needs among Baby Boomers, Millennials and Generation Z employees. Preconceived notions and assumptions often cloud judgment around what these groups really need to work well, which can be alleviated in your workplace strategy—an effort we made with Fiserv’s Alpharetta office.

Overall, NeoCon showed us that great things are happening in workplace design, and that with a focus on designing for what people really need to do their best work, we’re creating a happier, more productive workforce than ever before.