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Reinventing the Workplace: [Re]Work

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Ongoing research into the evolution of knowledge work establishes a causal relationship between employees’ ability to focus and their productivity. Workers who have the ability to block out distractions at work are 57% more able to collaborate, 88% more able to learn, and 42% more able to socialize in their workplaces. Collaboration and engagement with others stills drives innovation and productivity, but for employees to effectively collaborate, they must first be able to effectively focus.

These findings hold significant ramifications for workplace design. Simply put, if you give your employees spaces where they can put their heads down from time to time and focus on individual tasks, overall performance will increase. Currently, three out of every four workers in the United States are struggling to work effectively. To increase productivity, we need to bring focus back into balance.

The challenge facing companies and other organizations wanting to retool their workspaces is finding ways to balance focus with collaboration. The cost of real estate represents a significant portion of corporate overhead expenditures, and that percentage will continue to rise in the coming years. To reduce these costs, many businesses are reducing real estate footprints, limiting time in the office to intense and targeted specific activities. Off-site options for work in “third” and “fourth” places look increasingly attractive, and advances in cloud computing technology enable this type of mobility, offering choice, flexible work schedules and mobility.

Yet working off-site, in coffee shops or other public spaces, can also introduce distractions, challenging employees’ ability to focus. The solution, as we see it, to this problem is providing urban retreats to which workers can flock. These restorative locations for focus are integrated into the natural environment. They reclaim small pockets of outdoor public space; they provide focus space to mobile workers and tear down the walls between knowledge workers and outdoor stimuli. Research also suggests that employees in workplaces with access to the natural environment experience lower levels of job stress and higher levels of job satisfaction.

If you can support focus, reduce corporate real estate, and connect workers with the wellness of the outdoors, shouldn't you try to do so?

In Seattle, the city in which we work and call home, we’ve identified four possible locations where mobile workers could retreat from noise, refocus on work and restore inspiration:

Image © Gensler


Placed within the Olympic Sculpture Park and molded into the hillside, this work pod provides three-point privacy and an unobstructed view of the water front. The canopy and exterior side walls clad with sod and blend into the surroundings, while the geometric shape gives simple contrast to the curve of the hillside and provides a unique visual form.


Incorporating the space just off Piers 62/63 Park, this smart buoy has a private access dock similar to the house boats that pepper Seattle’s shores. It also has 360° views of the city, Mt. Rainier, the Olympic facilities, West Seattle and Bainbridge Island. Users can work on the pop up table or sit on the wood deck floor and position the seating as they wish.


Utilizing roof top gardens and views, a series of framed transparent work capsules provide another opportunity for an urban retreat. This solution supports workers who need to be closer to office and have access to an open environment. The frame element provides a virtual enclosure to the individual, and when it is not in use the structure becomes a sculptural element highlighted by spectacular city views.


Taking advantage of downtown's ferry systems, a series of focus spaces protrude from the riveted steel boats that traverse between islands and the Seattle waterfront. The ferry culture is one of business, networking combined with leisure and site seeing. Opportunities exist to extend the workplace by providing focus spaces that engage nature and natural habitat with an ever changing environment.

While these solutions are tailor made to the city of Seattle, the overall concept of using underutilized public spaces to support 21st century knowledge workers is applicable to other cities. By tapping into the urban context and finding solutions that support focus and reconnect people with nature, we can give metropolitan economies a shot in the arm. Reinvigorating distracted workforces is the key to continuing and bountiful returns.

Image © Gensler

Susana Covarrubias is a design director in Gensler's Seattle office. Contact her at Contact her at susan_covarrubias@gensler.com.
SKeysha Starck is a senior designer in Gensler's Seattle office. Contact her at Contact her at keysha_starck@gensler.com.

Reader Comments (1)

Loved your concepts for focus pods in outdoor spaces, especially the pods on the ferry. A tree house POD in a park would be a beautiful non obtrusive focus pod.
02.23.2014 | Unregistered CommenterMary Lou

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