Agile Design Sets the Standard for Workplace Effectiveness

The phrase “Move fast and break things” is a pretty common one when it comes to innovation. This slogan is an approach to work that glorifies experimenting without fear of failure until a solution or breakthrough is found. What that phrase is not, however, is something one would expect to hear from a design and architecture firm. Unless that firm is Gensler.

As one of the most well-known workplace design organizations in the world, Gensler knows what makes a space beautiful. To get to that point, Gensler had to become a leader in understanding workplace effectiveness through decidedly non-aesthetic measuring points, such as data, benchmarks, and client iteration.

Workplaces that work

Employees are more acutely aware of their workspaces than any generation before. For the new school of innovation-first businesses, founders are happy to leave behind the windowless cubicles and unstocked vending machines in search of better surroundings that could inspire innovation, diversity of thought and collaboration with colleagues.

“Real estate used to be seen as an expense. Now it’s seen as an investment,” says Annie Bergeron, a design director and principal at Gensler. “Our clients are now people practices. It’s no longer operations. At that enterprise level, people have realized the power you can unlock from a real estate investment. You derive so much more value than that initial dollar investment you make in a space, so if you don’t treat it like an investment, you stay at the bottom.”

Gensler has set out to quantify these metrics through an annual Workplace Report, based on a survey that details exactly what it takes to create a great workplace experience. The design firm created a proprietary ranking system to better understand the complex relationship between office space and work results–arguably the most important factor to consider as companies look to design new workplaces. They call it the Workplace Performance Index (WPI).

The WPI is an aggregate measure of how employees perform their jobs, and it can be affected by a multitude of factors. Understanding workplace effectiveness in 2019 means coming to terms with three key breakthroughs surfaced through this year’s study:

  • People are asking for more private space at work. Around three-quarters of those surveyed want a working environment that mixes an open floorplan with an ample supply of on-demand private spaces. There needs to be room for collaboration as well as space to sit and focus on work.
  • Not all amenities are worth the investment. The amenities that contributed most to effectiveness include maker spaces, tech-free zones, and outdoor workspaces, while break rooms, cafeterias, and libraries contribute the least.
  • Coworking on the rise. Almost 15 per cent of employees at large companies are using coworking spaces like WeWork every week. When an employer recognizes the autonomy and mobility of their employees, it boosts their effectiveness as if it were the highest-ranking amenity a company could offer.

Bergeron’s sentiment of real estate transitioning to become an investment is shared by the most innovative and successful companies in the world. Many of these companies are Bergeron’s clients, so for her innovation is the most important principle to follow right now–it’s not only design aesthetics that define success. The chart below is taken from this year’s study and showcases the balance each workplace should focus on providing. As reported, the following four tenets are what innovative employers should adhere to.


The difficult part then becomes understanding where the next improvements in workplace effectiveness will come from.

Measuring effectiveness

A few years ago, something changed. Gensler realized that tracking workplace effectiveness in a silo wasn’t quite enough. As designers hungry for data, they set out to find the best examples of efficiency in the workplace and benchmark their work against top-performing clients.

Innovation can be an ambiguous principle to follow, especially as it relates to contracted design. It can mean so many different things, so part of Gensler’s discovery involves surveying clients around the world to gauge the current state of work.

Consider the circus-like Google offices of the early 2000s, featuring slides and climbing walls. It’s easy to point to that time—and Google’s subsequent domination—as a catalyst for design innovation within workplaces, but the process is still ongoing.

Just as an office’s efficiency can’t be measured by the number of desks space can fit, equally, an innovative office can’t be measured by how much fun is had at the office. The harmony comes when form meets function at a fast pace, and though ideas can be borrowed, they must constantly be built upon.

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Expedia’s Vancouver office, designed by Gensler. Photo by Techvibes.

Understanding how people work is incredibly hard to quantify, especially when those stats guide million-dollar design decisions. In 2016, Gensler began adding questions regarding innovation to their survey in an attempt to link this ingenuity to effectiveness. Every person, company, and industry is different, and the way every company manages its space and teams is different too. With the WPI stat, Gensler is trying to measure these intangibles.

“With WPI results, we strongly correlated great interiors with innovation, and demonstrated that when companies invest in their interiors that suit the way their people work, they unlock their innovation potential,” says Bergeron.

“We want to touch on things that are difficult to quantify, so for lack of quantifying them, we can strongly correlate them,” explains Bergeron. “A lot of this ties into how the rising tide lifts all boats. One of our missions is to elevate the world of interior design as a whole. We all benefit from elevating that.”

Those findings illustrate what it means to be a modern worker in a large organization that values employee engagement and innovation. If an employer can come to terms with those trends and embrace them, there is a good chance their teams will be among the most effective in the world. Look at the below findings—the higher the WPI, the better work a company will produce.


By turning effectiveness into a stat, Gensler is turning the intangible into the tangible. This is a hugely important step not only for those leading innovative companies of the world but even more so for the small startups that are fighting for talent in a competitive landscape. If every company can better understand what it takes to make their workers happy, two outcomes occur: They will find the right talent more quickly, and that talent will contribute better work at a higher output. That is why real estate has become an investment.

Move fast and break climbing walls

One of the most interesting things about tracking how workplaces evolve, at least from a designer’s perspective, is looking at the companies that come to the table with anomalous ideas. Gensler can suggest as much as they want, but if a client is steadfast in their request, they’ll most likely have it that way.

This experimentation process fascinates Bergeron, and her enthusiasm is the perfect indicator of where design innovation is heading.

“The single biggest thing that has transformed design is technology,” she says. “It has helped transform how people work. I like to position it that way because it’s what I see every day. Tech, when deployed well, allows people to work anywhere, anytime, and choose where they are most productive. It has transformed the culture of organizations.”

Technology has a massive impact on design in more ways than one. Yes, Gensler understands that the higher a company scores on effectiveness and experience, the more engagement with employees that company has, and a lot of those scores rely on how technology breeds collaboration, but there’s also the notion of technology clients themselves. There has to be someone leading the way when it comes to flipping traditional design principles on their head, and it’s usually tech companies. For Gensler, the trick is to embrace these practices rather than fight them.

“Our tech clients are our most progressive clients, bar none,” says Bergeron. “What we see them do and try, we see everybody else do five to 10 years later. Tech clients are always in beta, they are used to continuous improvements. They’re not afraid to test out something that might not work, then tweak and change it again.”

Dare we say agile office development?

Gusto’s San Francisco office, another Gensler design. Photo by Rafael Gamo.

“As long as you’re really highly competent, these clients have a high tolerance for failure, but intelligent failure,” Bergeron continues. “Failure from trying something that hasn’t been done yet. That’s where we see the most progress come out of the workplace.”

From a typical designer’s perspective, this can be incredibly daunting. However, with her 25 years of experience, Bergeron is all in. She cannot be afraid to try new things and roll with different ideas, because she knows there is a good chance some of those ideas will become design standards within the next decade.

Gensler has embarked on a firmwide effort to tweak how they understand benchmarking, all in an effort to make WPI reflect the changing landscapes of work. Gensler understands the importance of cooperating and iterating with their most innovative clients, then stacking those results against other industries and sectors.

As one might expect, the first industry Gensler benchmarks against is tech. Designers pay close attention to details like a tech company’s optimal meeting to workstation ratio, the number of private tech-free zones, assigned seating plans, and more. Over time, the outliers become the trends, and that is where breakthroughs happen. These outliers are the little tweaks that have a chance to completely revolutionize the design world.

“When I work with a tech company, often the most revealing thing about the culture of that client is not where they align with benchmarks, but it’s where they are outliers for those benchmarks,” says Bergeron.

As an example, a Gensler client had a strong focus on shared learning and being able to accommodate workshops, lunch and learns, and auxiliary classes. There had to be room for projector screens, a podium, and forward-facing seating for almost the entire office. This is an outlier that is slowly becoming a benchmark within other tech companies, and if Bergeron’s hunches are right, will become commonplace in other industries as well.

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LoyaltyOne in Toronto, another Gensler design. Photo by Techvibes.

“You need to be in a creative mindset, not a reactive mindset for these projects as a whole,” says Bergeron. “We co-create with clients. We make them part of the process.”

When the literal and figurative dust settles, it’s all about being open to understanding change. That’s what innovation is from a business perspective, and it’s the same from a design perspective. Find the people who are making the biggest and best changes, and study their patterns and moves. Gensler’s latest study sums it up:

“By understanding, and using design as a catalyst to improve culture, interaction, and behavior, it helps us move beyond dichotomous discussions to work in the nuanced, complex reality of today’s workplace—and truly deliver what people today want and need from the workplace.”

Techvibes is a Media Partner of Gensler.