Workplace designer Kay Sargent shares how the pandemic will reinvent the office experience

I recently interviewed Kay Sargent, a highly regarded workplace designer with HOK. We spoke about how COVID-19 presents an opportunity for us to redefine what the office looks like and how it serves workers. Watch the 20-minute discussion here.

Below are highlights from our exchange. But first, my key takeaways from this interesting conversation.

1. Think more about moving people and less about moving office elements

The modular office concept is old thinking. Companies should design fixed work areas for specific purposes—meeting, brainstorming, training, private conversation, etc.— and let employees move around according to their needs. It’s healthier and more practical.

2. Personalize the office experience in the spirit of the smart car

With fewer employees in the office, companies can offer those who do come in a more custom, high-end work experience that is tuned to their personal preferences and workstyles.

3. When thinking hybrid work, embrace the best of each and leave the rest

As we rethink enabling employees to work from the office, the home, the car, or somewhere in between, be sure to leverage the best of those scenarios. In designing our new hybrid work reality, we have the opportunity to leave behind for good the things that never served us in the first place.


Carl: We’ve proven with COVID-19 that work isn’t a place you go to, it’s a thing you do. At Poly, we’re paving the way for a hybrid work world where people can work where and when they want and feel well supported in different work activities. Give me your thoughts on this notion of hybrid working.

Kay: When we create a hybrid, we need to make sure we leverage the best of all—not the worst of all. Sometimes a hybrid can be the worst of everything. If I could take the term “return to the office” and throw it away, I would. Why would we want to return to something that wasn’t working in the first place?

An emerging ecosystem is starting to evolve. First, you had the office. Then you could work from home. Then people started working at Panera’s or Starbucks but realized that wasn’t very professional. Co-working became the fourth place. And the fifth place is what we call “The Spoke”—a go-between. Because a lot of people can’t or don’t want to work from home, but they also don’t need to travel an hour to be in the downtown location.

It’s about creating places that are more professional or might have more amenities or better technology than you would at home. But you don’t have to go all the way downtown or to headquarters.

Carl: What are people thinking about in terms of employees returning to the physical office? How can organizations make these spaces friendlier for brainstorming, creativity, problem-solving, and collaboration?

Kay: Purpose of place—that is the key. Working from home, working remotely, or even the idea of the Spoke…those are not new concepts. Depending on what’s happening in your business cycle—or in the world—it can be very successful.

The Hub (i.e. the office) is often geared more towards gathering. But you still have space for individual, heads-down work. Because rarely do you just meet all day. Usually, there’s a meeting before the meeting, or there’s the debrief, or you’re preparing for the meeting. Very rarely do we just do gathering. What will make this place compelling enough for me to get up and commute? It could be the experience, the services that are offered, access to the best technology, or the whiteboarding or think labs. We see this as a kind of engagement center or innovation center. But it has to be well-balanced with places where people can still do work.

Carl: I read that people are reimagining their office spaces to look like cafes because people are comfortable with that.

Kay: Years ago, you might design a cafeteria and it was only used for 2-3 hours during lunchtime. For years, we’ve been saying that we have to create more dyadic spaces. They need to live throughout the course of the day—and they need to morph and change. A lot of companies have created working cafes on the first floor that are casual gathering spaces. We’ll see a lot more of that because visitors are not necessarily going to be allowed to go up into your space, or you may not want them to. So, lobbies of office buildings might look more like lobbies of hotels.

Carl: I assume people are thinking about space that can be recreated. On Mondays, it needs to be this way and on Thursdays, it’s something else. Are organizations thinking about how to make the office a modular space?

Kay: The correct answer is yes, but let’s talk about the realistic answer. How many times do people really move all that modular furniture or demountable partitions? It’s pretty rare. We talk about creating flexible spaces, but what is the most flexible thing in any environment? The people. We design space like people are potted plants and then everything moves around them. We flip that and say, “I’m going to give you a variety of work points and you get up and move to the one that’s right for you.” You may want to reconfigure space on occasion but fundamentally we need to stop thinking that we just sit in one place all day and everything adjusts to us.

Carl: You’ve said that it’s pretty bad that our cars are smarter than our offices. How do we turn an office into a Tesla?

Kay: In the auto industry, you can buy an economy car and a luxury car. But in the office, you can’t really say, “These are the economy work points and these are the luxury work points.” You have to be equal to all of your employees. But if you don’t have to have as many [people in the office], you can offer work points that truly are that luxury model. If I have fewer work points, they can be better and more intuitive.

When I walk up to a car, the FOB in my pocket alerts that car to who I am. Everything automatically adjusts to my preset preferences. We can do that to work points today. But we don’t, because we believe that we have to have one desk per person, and it’s got to be an economy model. We end up getting the worst of everything.

Carl: Is anybody getting creative or progressive around the home office? And are companies leaning in to help their employees to do that.

Kay: In the beginning, everybody said, “You’ve got to find a spot—the perfect place—and make it all tricked out for you.” I don’t encourage somebody to sit in one place at the office all day and I don’t want someone to do that at home. That’s horrible for us. We need to think about how we get people up, active and moving.

There are several companies that have offered their employees packages, anywhere from $500 to $1,250. They’re saying, “If you’re going to work from home, we want you to have the ergonomic set-up you need. We’ll give you a certain allowance. You can use it for Internet, a chair, or whatever you need.” But then you are also signing a waiver because if you’re working from home and that becomes your workplace, there is some liability if you become injured. So, there are lot of things that need to be worked out.

Carl: Have you seen companies take excess travel budget and put it toward helping people enable their home office environment? Those are funds you can redirect quickly.

Kay: A lot of companies have said, “Nobody’s traveling and we’re going to take all that money and put it into the AV or IT budget—because we have to support people in different ways.” Nobody planned for this.

Carl: At Poly, enable collaboration and virtual work. Are you seeing organizations use the tools and technology in interesting ways? Are people asking, “How do we do this more effectively?”

Kay: Everybody is asking that question. I don’t think we’ve ever had a time in which everyone was equal. I was on a call recently with South Africa and it was one of the worst calls I’ve been on. Because they were back in the office and there were three of them. They were socially distanced, so they were all six feet from the speaker. You could barely see their faces. It was challenging because half of the people were there, and half weren’t.

This goes back to what I said in the beginning: Sometimes a hybrid solution is the worst of both. What we don’t want to go back to is people who are present and people who aren’t—with the inequity of that. We’ve had customers say, “Either everybody’s calling in—even if you are in the same building—or everyone’s going to remote in, or everyone’s going to be present.” Because the mix is a challenge.

Carl: I’ve been to a lot of places—pre-pandemic—and people around the world work very differently. I’m wondering if, in a post-COVID environment, people are coming back to work differently too.

Kay: This is playing out right now. In Asia, wearing a mask is something they’ve done forever. They look at us and they don’t understand why we have such an issue with wearing masks. And in Asia it’s harder to work remotely, as many people live in smaller units with multiple generations under one roof. In India, you are discouraged from working from home—and legally you weren’t allowed to pre-COVID. So, they’ve had to make a bunch of adjustments. In Europe, these socially conscious countries tend to be more willing to sacrifice for each other. Whereas in the US right now, we are experiencing, “I’m going to do what is right for me regardless of what that means for you.”

Carl: Difficult moments give us license to challenge systems and norms. When we think of workplace environments, how can we make the best of this difficult situation?

Kay: We have a unique opportunity right now. The entire world is saying “How should we work?” If this had happened ten years ago, it would not have gone as successfully. We wouldn’t have been set up tool-wise or infrastructure-wise. If all we do is address the immediate crisis at hand, we will have missed a golden opportunity. We need to change the way we work. I don’t want to say that it’s a silver lining within COVID-19, but it could be if we take advantage of it. If we don’t, this could be our industry’s Kodak moment.

Carl: Thanks for your time today and your thoughts. You live at a very interesting crossroads.

Kay: Thank you. Always happy to chat.

Watch the 20-minute discussion here

Read Carl’s blog series featuring interviews with experts as they discuss the next normal: our evolving work spaces, work practices and work culture in the era of COVID and beyond.