Modeling the New Hybrid Workplace

How the post-occupancy evaluation for Perkins Eastman’s Pittsburgh studio is informing our work with clients

While walking a prospective client through the Perkins Eastman Pittsburgh studio soon after it opened in 2021, Managing Principal and Executive Director Jeff Young recalls how the man marveled at the new space. “If you guys know even a fraction about us relative to how well you know yourselves,” Young remembers his guest, a managing attorney at a law firm headquartered in Pittsburgh, saying, “we are going to have a really successful project.” His firm is now one of Perkins Eastman’s clients.

The man’s initial feedback, says Young, “is so valuable because it confirms the larger impact of our approach.” Core to Perkins Eastman’s evidence-based “culture of inquiry,” as Design Research Director Emily Chmielewski describes it, the approach involves in-depth research and qualitative and quantitative evaluations of spaces and how people interact with them—before, during, and/or after completion. “Our ‘feedback, feed-forward’ process makes us accountable for our projects and their stakeholders, resulting in more insightful designs and better project outcomes,” Chmielewski says.

The entrance to Perkins Eastman's Pittsburgh studio features bold and playful signage and bright, welcoming space. Large windows provide ample daylight into the workplace.

The entrance to Perkins Eastman’s Pittsburgh studio features bold and playful signage, ushering employees and guests into the bright, welcoming space. The versatile seating, right, provides many options for staff to do their work. Photographs Andrew Rugge/Copyright Perkins Eastman

“All of our clients are trying to figure out what hybrid work looks like in terms of space planning as well as the cultural components of having people not in the office every day,” says Principal Connor Glass, who leads the firm’s Workplace practice. “Clients, whether in the legal, financial, healthcare, or tech industry, really value this [evidence-based] process. We could make assumptions based on the trends—decrease the footprint, add a few more conference rooms, make a pretty space that looks like a hotel—but that doesn’t drive at the heart of what a client needs, and it certainly doesn’t help them save costs in the long run.”

A Test Case for the New Workplace

Perkins Eastman’s Pittsburgh studio has been a test case for the firm’s internal space-planning and work policies as it shifts to a free-address model across its studios worldwide. It’s also a living laboratory for the Workplace group and a bar-setting example for the firm’s sustainability practices. Catapulted by the pandemic, the Pittsburgh project has made local and national headlines and garnered awards for its purposeful design. But, while the buzz and accolades seem to point to success, data—both hard and soft—is necessary to measure the effectiveness of the office’s newly instated design and policy strategies.

The studio was an ideal source of inquiry. Pittsburgh and firmwide leadership had begun discussions to lease the space prior to the pandemic; the staff had outgrown the dimly lit, poorly arranged, and inflexible workspace it had occupied in another building since becoming the first branch office to open beyond the firm’s New York headquarters in 1994. The lockdown forced Young, along with team members Jennifer Askey, Bethany Yoder, and Jane Hallinan, to alter their plans, predicting correctly that many employees would not want to return full-time after getting used to working at home. They reduced the office’s planned footprint by nearly 20 percent, introducing a diversity of free-address seating. Collaborative areas expanded, alongside private zones for focused tasks. Employees were encouraged to work in-office for at least 12 days monthly, allowing eight for remote work. Throughout spring and summer 2020, the team hosted design sessions with Pittsburgh employees, addressing everything from flooring materials to office policies. This transformation aimed to enhance both productivity and employee satisfaction in the reimagined workspace.

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The floorplan of the workplace was developed with three main considerations: 1/left) creating a mix of traditional and non-traditional workpoints. The red and yellow areas indicate non-traditional seating and pathways, while the blue shows rows of traditional sit/stand desks; 2/middle) anchoring the layout to the perimeter windows to create unobstructed sightlines to the outside, no matter where you are in the office; and 3/right) designing spaces that can be easily adapted for a variety of uses; the doors of the large conference room (in blue) fold back to create a larger open space. Images Copyright Perkins Eastman

The office officially opened in May, 2021. By the spring of 2023, well past the pandemic’s stops and starts and once the staff had settled into a hybrid routine, the firm’s researchers arrived at the 25th floor of 525 William Penn Place to conduct the post-occupancy evaluation (POE) of the space, setting up indoor environmental quality sensors to measure lighting, thermal comfort, air quality, and acoustics; observing and documenting space usage across a number of days; distributing a questionnaire to office staff; and holding interviews with a portion of the staff about their experiences in the office.

Conducting a Post-Occupancy Evaluation

How well has the trend-setting Pittsburgh model played out? Design researcher Dr. Widya Ramadhani and design strategist Dr. Hanna Negami, the primary authors of the just-released POE report, have drawn several conclusions about how the studio’s hybrid-friendly design can be successfully applied in the firm’s other locations as well as in those of the Workplace clients we serve.

What's Working in the New Workplace: Perkins Eastman's post-occupancy evaluation report

The new POE for the Pittsburgh studio reports on the space’s many successes as well as a few areas for improvement. Image Copyright Perkins Eastman

Feedback from staff questionnaires and interviews reveals an overall satisfaction with the new design and policies. The report outlines three main components that contribute to this: 1) A “work from anywhere” policy; 2) A “free address” unassigned seating model; and 3) A variety of workpoints within the office.

Beyond the desk - working from anywhere.

The team rethought the traditional workpoint, incorporating a variety of free-address seating postures—counter seating, high-top tables, couches, booths, the kitchen table—and supporting amenities—lockers, ample outlets, adjustable lighting—to promote an individualized approach to purpose-driven work. Image Copyright Perkins Eastman

Aiding the “work from anywhere” policy and “free address” model, the office’s wide variety of workspaces—from traditional workstations with their sit/stand desks in the southwestern portion of the layout, to the couch and ledge seating in the northern area, are well-loved and occupied throughout the day. The pantry and dining space, with its large kitchen table, is perhaps the most popular location in the studio. Every day, staff sit at the table and chat over a morning coffee, lunch, or afternoon snack. The custom-designed pegboard wall within the pantry, called the PEople wall, is another highlight. Within an intentionally analog format, photos of staff members with their pets, friends, and families are displayed alongside studio awards and publications, providing a chance for employees to get to know each other beyond work and celebrate each other’s successes.

Building culture by bringing people together

There are a variety of options throughout the office for people to engage in culture-building activities. Staff celebrated Pi Day (March 14) taste-testing homemade pies at the long tables in the hub, left. For Halloween, right, staff pose in front of the custom-designed pegboard wall (the PEople Wall) within the pantry. Photographs courtesy Mercedes Earnest

Comfortable and Equitable Spaces

The indoor environmental quality of the studio, measured in terms of lighting, thermal comfort, air quality, and acoustics, are integral components of the healthy workplace. For instance, the ample natural light that illuminates the space is a favorite attribute. By placing shared, public spaces along the perimeter of the studio with no walls to block views, daylight is equitably distributed throughout much of the studio, with the need for artificial lighting only necessary in these regions during the gray winter months as well as days when summer storms roll in from the west.

A major finding of the POE was how the free-address, non-hierarchical seating allows more intermingling between junior and senior employees of all roles. The arrangement provides more opportunities for spontaneous collaboration and informal mentorship (e.g., day-to-day coaching and knowledge sharing). The researchers coined the term “eaves-learning,” which they define as “the process of acquiring knowledge and skills from eavesdropping, informal mentorship, and spontaneous collaboration that occur when working in close physical proximity to other people.” Key to this is physical proximity, as eaves-learning is nearly impossible to replicate in highly scheduled digital meeting environments.

Of the many positive statements, one Pittsburgh employee summed it up best: “I want to go into the office now because it feels like a healthy, clean, bright place to be. I also value the non-hierarchical office environment, which fosters our mentorship culture. Our office does a good job supporting us and working with us. Now, the office is more like a tool we can use.”

Spatial features for a healthy and productive workplace

The workplace is designed to be flexible and adaptable, with an assortment of multi-purpose features.
Photograph Andrew Rugge/Copyright Perkins Eastman

Constructive Criticism

Of course, there are also some drawbacks. Many communicated a need for a better integration of work postures, (for instance, spaces to collaborate with team members within the areas reserved for traditional sit/stand desks). Though there are thermostats and temperature sensors throughout the office, some reported that the space generally ran a bit cold. And the studio’s clean-desk policy, which calls for cleared-off workspaces at the end of each day, conflicted with the creative and messy energy of a design firm. For the short-term, these issues are being addressed through amendments to policy: several locations in the office have been identified where teams can settle in for multiple days, leaving drawings, models, and other project materials out to ease the burden of reassembling every morning, allowing creativity to flow more freely. Changes to layout can also be addressed as time and budget allow, which speaks to the adaptability of the original design. For example, where the workstation neighborhoods are now reserved for rows of sit/stand desks, some may be swapped for high-top tables and stools in the future for easier face-to-face collaboration within these spaces.

Jennifer Askey, an associate principal and the project manager for the Pittsburgh studio project, was pleased with the evaluation’s findings that showed how well the goals and outcomes of the project seemed to align. “When we were planning,” she says, “we were really focused on how to blend policy and design to reinvigorate our culture. The pandemic shifted so many of the ways people interacted with one another, and we needed to learn from that and adapt.” The resulting free-address design and work-from-anywhere attendance policy was an attempt to bring staff physically back together again while maintaining some of the comfort and flexibility that they had while working from home. “I feel like we got all of the fundamentals correct and we were flexible enough with the design that all of the POE’s recommendations could either be implemented through changes in policy or by future furniture improvements,” she says.

The Workplace team has already begun sharing these findings with clients and adapting ongoing designs based on their new knowledge. Law firms in particular—including Dickie McCamey Attorneys at Law, (whose managing attorney first toured the Pittsburgh studio with Young)—are eager to incorporate more collaborative, casual spaces into their floorplans. Their future workplace, for example, includes the necessary private offices for their attorneys but features gathering and shared spaces with a variety of seating and amenities for a more casual yet on-brand approach.

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The future Pittsburgh workplace for Dickie McCamey Attorneys at Law draws from design principles from the Perkins Eastman Pittsburgh studio. This flexible approach is helping to establish a new model for the legal office.
Renderings Copyright Perkins Eastman

Balancing Design and Policy

When touring potential clients through the Pittsburgh studio, Young, Askey, and their team talk about how they deliberately balanced their work-from-anywhere policy with space designed to foster a sense of community in the new studio. “We’ve gotten a lot of questions on how you create policies to actually encourage culture building,” Askey says. “We walk them through some of the things that we did very well in our office. One thing the POE is telling us is that the spaces we intentionally designed to encourage culture building are working very well.” These spaces include the pantry, open lobby, the PEople wall, and pin-up walls.

But every client is different, Young says, and while a central gathering area, community pegboard, and pin-up walls for drawings are appropriate for an architecture firm, those elements don’t necessarily translate to other industries. “There’s not a one-size-fits-all approach,” he says. “Through our research and assessment of our clients’ work and culture, we have a really great opportunity to tailor the solution for their unique needs.”

Having gone through this experience for the firm’s Pittsburgh workplace, Glass says the design process and post-occupancy evaluation have provided invaluable tools to help clients envision and then create new working environments that are good fits for their employees’ long-term happiness and productivity. “The race for attracting and retaining talent is top of mind for all of our clients,” Glass says. “But at its most basic, the work we do is about creating memorable experiences and exciting spaces to get people into the office.”