Inovia Sessions: The Future of Workspaces

What should our workspaces look like in the future? How should they be designed to meet employees’ changing and highly individualized needs to best set them up for success? How do you integrate teams when some members choose to be in the office while others work remotely? Questions like these have very real implications for the future of workspaces and how businesses build their company cultures, engender trust, and create environments where everyone feels valued, engaged, and productive in their work.

In this episode of Inovia Sessions, Inovia Partner and Chief Technology Officer Steve Woods sat down with guests Marcella Barrière, Real Estate Project Executive at Google, and Satwik Seshasai, Chief Technology Officer at ClearCo, to discuss what great work environments can look like and how they can contribute to building successful, healthy teams in a post-pandemic world.

Workplace Design

Steve: Marcella, given where we’ve been and where we’re at now, what do you see as some of the key considerations for designing great workspaces?

Marcella: We keep swinging from one end to the other. We went from corner offices, lined up all along the window line with dark cubicles in the centre, to eliminating offices and having open workspaces. What we need is a balance, which requires some deep consideration of different types of work styles. There are people who work well in open workspaces and people who work well in quiet focus. Likewise, there are people who work well at home and people who work well in the office.

In my opinion, we need to pay attention to what has worked in the past and observe how people are working presently and in the future. We need to collect the data and incorporate those observations into future designs, while remembering to consider that people experience spaces differently.

Steve: How do we go about meeting those different needs?

Marcella: One of the keys is building in flexibility. An example is using walls that can be shifted around and reconfigured to create different spaces. Some companies create collaboration spaces where people can come together to brainstorm, hold meetings, and work on a particular project in private. That works well if you’ve got a space that can be dedicated to a specific purpose when needed, but that can also be flipped back into something else, like a conference room. It’s about imagining all the potential ways we can use space rather than thinking it can only have a single purpose.

Steve: Satwik, how do you see workspaces evolving?

Satwik: Many of us have been working in a remote-only environment for the past couple of years. It has really helped us clarify the product requirements for a workspace. We’ve had to be very explicit about communication, collaboration, culture, and even mental health. I think that’s helped us understand that there is tremendous value in the variety of different in-person interactions that happen during a workday. You have long meetings around a whiteboard, the serendipitous conversations that occur when you bump into someone in the hall. You need to work in a properly equipped space where you feel like you’ve got the right monitors, the proper keyboards, and the right facilities to do your work. As we’ve moved to a remote environment, it’s become evident what it takes for people to be their best selves at work.

So, then in thinking through where we go from here, I think we’ll find that there’s an increased need to think about the workspace as an asset that organizations can use to increase job satisfaction, productivity, and so forth.


Steve: How important do you think having a sense of community is for teams?

Satwik: It’s essential, and there are different layers to it. There’s the community that you create within your company. Often what ties employees together who don’t interact on a business level is their company’s mission. It’s critical to find ways to use that as a bridge to create opportunities to connect, whether through affinity groups or just informal interactions.

You also have to think about your company’s place in the world. From a real estate perspective, when you open an office in a town, it has an impact on that community because you’re effectively becoming part of it. You also have to consider the company’s role in the industry they’re operating in. We’re seeing more and more opportunities to create communities of practice across industries and skill sets where employees feel connected to their peers in the broader industry.


Steve: Marcella, as we look at the workspace of the future, which may continue to operate in some hybrid format, what role does technology play? Has it changed how people meet and interact, or are things fundamentally the same?

Marcella: I don’t think technology has changed all that much since we’ve gone remote. What has changed is I’ve honed my ability to pick up on cues. The technology has required me to get much better at observing people take a breath as if they’re about to speak, paying very close attention to that physical gesture, and then deferring to them because some people are uncomfortable interrupting. Before we had the “raise hand” feature [in Google Meet], if you weren’t the type of person to start speaking, somebody would have to give you an entree into the conversation. So I’ve gotten very good at picking up on small things — has someone just come off mute but not said anything?

Steve: What’s your view about how we can build on the ways we interact with one another? I’m not necessarily talking about the metaverse or virtual reality, but where do you think we’re going?

Satwik: If you think about something like Slack, it’s not just about messaging individuals directly. There are Slack channels for different domains, teams, and projects. You can almost envision those channels as individual rooms that you could walk into. In a physical space, if there were a group of people in a room and I wanted to talk to them, I’d go knock on the door, and then the person who’s most available might help me. And if I wanted to have an informal meeting, I could.

We’re starting to see technologies that resemble that kind of persistent presence. It could be part of the metaverse or some form of virtual reality, or it could just be text-based. I’ve recently discovered an app that creates a kind of digital version of physical offices for remote teams. That’s just one of many examples of technologies impacting how we think about these things.

Steve: What’s your take on virtual work experiences as an alternative to physical offices, and how do you think we can improve them?

Marcella: It depends on people’s work styles. There are those who thrive in a personal space, where they won’t be disturbed. It reduces their anxiety and allows them to focus better. So a virtual workspace feels wonderful if being surrounded by people isn’t your thing. But it’s not so great if you thrive in a real office.

Satwik: Technology can definitely help. There are some companies that create a digital version of the physical office that allows remote employees to see who’s where in the office at any given time. That gives virtual teammates a visual representation of where people are and who they’re interacting with, which can make it a lot easier to engage if you’re not there yourself. Communication is another big issue where technology can help. As Marcella pointed out, not everyone is comfortable sharing their opinions during meetings or knows how. For them, contributing via a Slack channel or using the raise hand function can be much more comfortable.

Ultimately, it’s about using technology to help raise everyone’s awareness of what’s happening in the office, giving people the option to communicate with whatever tools work best for them and fostering a sense of inclusion no matter where people are.


Steve: Satwik, culture is so important. How do you build and nurture culture when not everyone is in the physical office regularly or even at the same time?

Satwik: You have to be intentional. If you’re in the office, do you walk around and try to have informal interactions? Do you purposely have lunch in the common space? Do you take advantage of opportunities and invite people into conversations? I think those kinds of interactions are achievable in remote or in person work configurations. It’s certainly possible for a team of people in the same city to only meet in the office periodically, but be very intentional about that. It’s also possible for a team that has people who are remote to schedule times to be together online.

Communication is another big issue where technology can help. As Marcella pointed out, not everyone is comfortable sharing their opinions during meetings or knows how. For them, contributing via a Slack channel or the raise hand function can be much more comfortable.

Ultimately, it’s about using technology to help raise everyone’s awareness of what’s happening in the office, giving people the option to communicate with whatever tools work best for them, and fostering a sense of inclusion no matter where people are.

Marcella: To me, one potential pitfall about virtual workspaces is the use of avatars. Team culture is built on honesty, trust, integrity, belonging, and inclusion. If we’re representing ourselves with avatars that are something other than ourselves, then we’re putting a layer of falsehood between our co-workers and us. Maybe we’re projecting what we hope to be, but it’s not truly us. When I work on or build a team, I strive to have people be accepted and valued for who they are. To me, using avatars moves away from that ideal.

The Future

Steve: Imagine looking five years into the future. What do you think is the best thing that could happen from a workspace perspective?

Marcella: The best thing that could happen is we develop a genuine interest in caring for one another and rebalance our definition of success accordingly. So broadening out what success means to be more than just financial gain, but also creating a better overall experience at work since our work and home lives are increasingly intertwined. Creating better, more thoughtful workspaces can play a huge role in creating experiences where we can all thrive at work.

Satwik: To me, the opportunity over the next three to five years is to better connect the work experience with our individual human experiences. There will be more opportunities to blend those two concepts and empower individuals to think about them holistically.



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