What can the new workplace learn from retailers?

Look to the stores to get employees back to the physical office, designers say
Wednesday, September 8, 2021
By Rebecca Melnyk

Just as bricks-and-mortar stores embraced experiential retail to entice consumers who might otherwise shop online, organizations are now hoping to woo their remote-savvy workers back to the office.

Daily commutes are one reason employees might dread a return, and many companies will likely allow for hybrid options minus traffic jams and slow subway rides. To excite people to come together again in person, though, they’ll need to do much more, and some say this mirrors an all-too familiar narrative of how retailers fought to survive since the disruption of e-commerce.

“The retail we knew before, which was really just the place to go for a transaction, has changed just as the workplace will change going forward,” said Figure3 Principal Suzanne Wilkinson, speaking at the IDS Spring Resiliency Conference seminar, How Retail Design Should Be Inspiring The New Workplace.  

Retail design trends have kept many stores afloat. Mardi Najafi, director of retail design at Figure3, referenced the firm’s own proprietary principles, which translate brands into physical spaces. The designers spoke about how these principles can be applied to return-to-workplace strategies going forward and noted actual office spaces where these ideas have manifested.

Human-centred approach

People don’t belong in a corner. They need to be seen. “The unconscious desire to connect influences how we act,” said Najafi. Just as Starbucks brought its tables to the forefront for prime people-watching and to inspire onlookers to step inside, companies can also put behaviours on display, for instance, moving interactive areas, like a lunchroom, to the front of the office. Retailers are also creating communities of like-minded people by carving out social spaces that don’t just sell products but demonstrate how to use them, such as interactive auditoriums in select Apple stores for meet-ups and informal lessons.

Likewise, an office needs to be a safe place to socialize and collaborate. As Wilkinson said, “the head-down work is going to happen at home, so the purpose of the office is really going to draw people and communities together, so we can share our values with one another and create the relationships that build loyalty [within] an organization.”

A compelling space

Retailers are creating visually attractive spaces that trigger emotional connections and memories. The store is a “media” of sorts, creating Instagrammable moments that excite retailers’ target groups who become their brand ambassadors. “This has been a key element, which has reduced ad costs—using the airwaves of social media to broaden [retailers’] brand experience, not just visual, but multi-sensory,” said Najafi.

Real estate developer First Gulf wanted its product to immediately express the company’s values to visitors and employees. Being a nature-conscious company, artwork that is visible upon entering tells a story of how nature and human interaction can coincide. “You get a sense of what they do, a sense of their quality,” said Wilkinson. “Every single piece of art in the space was curated to tell a story about what they do.”

Make it engaging

Engaging consumers in products in the store is key to rising purchases. LiftLab offers build-your-own lipstick. Urban Runners features spaces designed with textures found in urban locales, where people can try out shoes, run around and experience the space, said Najafi. Fitting rooms, which historically represented engagement, have become much integrated with technology. An example is Canada Goose’s cold fitting rooms that replicate harsh winters.

Likewise, finding new and creative ways to engage employees in their workplace will help draw them back. One example is the design of FlightCentre’s new Toronto workplace. “We didn’t want to do the obvious: displaying airplanes and pictures of beaches,” said Wilkinson. “We are all really fascinated with what the world looks like when taking off in an airplane, and so, we got the idea of taking aerial shots of various cities around the world where we manipulated the drone views and created beautiful patterns.” The space emphasizes memorable moments, encourages interconnectivity, features colour tones from around the world and biophilic elements.

A focused experience

Understanding what a target demographic expects creates a real competitive advantage. The “new shopper” is digitally savvy, demands convenience, has a shorter attention span, favours authentic connections and expects brands to deliver on their promises. The new shopper is not about accumulating points and getting free promotions,” said Najafi. “They are all about connecting with your brand from a mission standpoint.”

When applying this concept of focus to the purpose of an organization, it’s important that the message is on display for employees, said Wilkinson, pointing to the Princess Margaret Cancer Foundation’s Project Sunrise, which set out to create an environment that inspires employees and reflects its mission: “to cure cancer in our lifetime.” Visual reminders of the team’s fundraising efforts light up the space through screened stories of patients. As Wilkinson said, “it’s a very focused approach, but also through messaging, which can be very important to inspiring people everyday to stay on task, stay devoted and keep being inspired and working in a healthy environment.”

Compatible with occupants’ lives

Brands must harmonize with the lives of their target groups. Innovative retailers have integrated digital into the shopping experience. Creating a frictionless journey from the order all the way to checkout, while leveraging the shopper’s own devices, is very key, said Najafi. For instance, using virtual reality to envision furniture in a space before making a purchase.

Workplaces are plodding along when it comes to compatibility despite learning to adapt over the past year. “Obviously, there is a huge expense when it comes to integrating technology within a space to make a seamless environment,” noted Wilkinson. “Technology will come into play for sure as companies look to implement a hybrid environment.” One project that reflects this concept is the Ontario Power Generation’s transformation from an outdated, cubicle-friendly head office to an open, tech-filled space with a variety of seamless working environments like bookable private booths—all to attract the talent it needs to advance its industry.

Evolve constantly

Retailers constantly refresh their environments, knowing that human beings are “hardwired to seek out the new.” Tailored experiences boost this concept, such as localized flagship stores with curated products for specific neighbourhoods. Nike Melrose is one example where data-driven information via an app informs what curated products are featured. Customizing a product with “bespoke elements” is also key. “The idea is to pull people back into your physical space,” said Najafi. “There are some shoes in the Nike app you can customize, but when you go inside the flagship you can get involved with the co-creation to further explore something unique that works best for you.”

Dynamic pricing with flexible prices based on consumers’ shopping behaviour is also updating the in-store experience with a tailored approach. Translating all this to office space means creating a workplace that maneuvers with the changing organization and various areas that people can tailor as they progress through projects, from the collaborative research stage to more focused work.

Make it ownable

“Stand-out from the crowd” is one mantra among progressive retailers. “We’re in an era where everyone is trying to copy Starbucks; that look and feel, the colour templates, the fireplace, couches, the whole experience of WiFi,” said Najafi. David’s Tea, for example, wandered from the masses and distinguished itself with a Scandinavian design. Other retailers are offering multi-functional spaces and exclusive access for VIP members on specific days.

In an office, ownable means honing in on a unique identity that signals who an employer is in a workplace environment. For instance, Thompson Dorfman Sweatman’s legal office in Winnipeg avoids the typical formality of a legal firm, rather becoming a bright, open and social environment. The lunchroom was moved to the reception area where the activity of lawyers and clients is on display. The office is also a space for community events, accented with local stone, timber and artwork.

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