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More than ever, proactive strategies are taking the lead in how design projects are handled.

With the fast pace of many of today’s projects brokers, architects, contractors and others in the design business have found that boldly and, energetically managing their project is the key to meeting schedules that look unattainable at first glance. It’s also why my firm is constantly pushing to be more proactive and less reactive.

One of the best ways to actively manage jobs is to prepare for them before the work has been secured. That means looking closely at established standards and tools today, as well as your firm’s ability to get the required work done efficiently. There’s no need to pull plans from a drawer, but it’s a good idea to create a checklist that establishes a baseline or proven starting point.

Once hired, executives should have a workplace strategy to streamline the process and manage expectations. It’s important to clarify what clients will receive and why certain information will be needed in specified time frames. Also, the smart architect, broker or other design professional encourages transparency about his projects early on. Clients can later make needed decisions and provide essential feedback to keep jobs moving along.

In 2013, I wrote a piece on ways to manage fast-track jobs, a phenomenon that our firm was encountering with increasing regularity. The stragegies remain the same: assemble your team as soon as an agreement has been reached with your client, determine a budget before signing a lease and make timely decisions.

Another time-saving tactic involves creating a 3-D schematic of a project before actual design work is done. Showing a client preliminary 3-D designs of her project can make it easier for her to make key decisions about the job and speed its progress along. While such due diligence can take a couple of days to complete, creating preliminary visuals is a faster, smarter way to get a job going, especially when junior staff members are recruited for the work.

One project my firm recently undertook followed a client mandate specifying that all of the construction documents for the job needed to be done in four weeks, a month short of the norm. We established a clear plan to meet the harrowing schedule so we would not be forced to react to fast-approaching deadlines with on-the-fly overtime and added staff positions.

Sure, it can be stressful to work on a tight timetable, but instead of becoming overwhelmed by the process, we got a buy-in from our staff and stuck to our fast-track vanilla plan, successfully meeting our scheduled dates and client expectations.

Design projects are rife with options, which allow for plenty of client-specific solutions. Too many options can slow a project’s time frame to a crawl, so it’s important to provide clients with proactive recommendations. Of course, the aim isn’t for design professionals to force decisions or throw alternatives on the table with disregard for their clients. It’s the job of designers, architects and contractors to gently guide their clients when it comes to priorities, including budgetary, aesthetic and timeline considerations, using their expertise and specialties to decrease the likelihood of having to react to any unanticipated issues.

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As the largest, fastest-growing segment of the workforce, Millennials are having a dramatic effect on the modern office. Their well-documented influence on technology, media and advertising continues to shape workplace strategies for those creative industries. Perhaps less obvious, however, is the long reach of the Millennial factor. In a bid to capture this powerful cohort, developers and designers are increasingly blurring the lines between traditional and contemporary workplaces and sometimes even between property categories.

Yet creative designs are no longer just for technology, advertising, media and information companies, noted Marc Spector, principal in architecture, interior and master-planning firm Spector Group. For Marcum LLP, an accounting and advisory firm based in New York City, Spector Group provided a national redesign strategy intended to attract Millennials and “shed the image of what a typical accountant space is.” Starting with the firm’s Boston location, Spector Group devised a plan that emphasizes informality, with features like corridor-free floor plans, executive offices in the form of glass cubes, collaborative work areas and cafes.

At Magna, an investment firm headquartered at 40 Wall St. in downtown Manhattan, the Spector Group created a vertical campus by opening up the floor between two levels occupied by the firm. White walls and clear glass bathe the space in natural light.

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There’s no denying the allure of art.

When thoughtfully done, art’s impact on a building’s design, whether indoors, outdoors or both, elevates a structure’s architecture—which is, itself, a form of art—and makes it that much more special, while bringing those that stand in witness of it a sense of connection, appreciation, inspiration, awe.

During a recent trip to London, I was reminded of art’s integral role in the design of buildings as I toured the city’s streets. One retail store called me inside by its classic London facade, a simple glass door that seemed to disappear from view.

Victoria Beckman’s flagship showroom in London, a three-story space designed with a minimalist hand by architect Farshid Moussavi, lures passersby in with its expansive windowed front. Inside, the shop’s strikingly spare spaces, concrete stadium seating and a patterned concrete ceiling command attention, as does the unexpected and artistic way the shop’s spaces and retail goods play against each other. Moussavi also is known for the design of Cleveland’s new Museum of Contemporary Art in the U.S., a striking four-floor structure with a reflective exterior and hexagon shape that includes six sides in the base of the building and four above. At one point, I’d spent an hour in the space, photographing the nuances of its concrete floors, expansive ceilings; the way its interior shapes seemed to collide with each other. Here, works of art were installed within the work of art that was the building.

While in London, I also saw a hotel that had once been a gas station and parking garage. It still had the old building’s façade in place. The design featured a modern take on Art Deco style, giving the hotel genuine warmth that made it look like it had been there for a century.

Over at Damien Hirst’s prize-winning Newport Street Gallery in south London, a large, multilevel space where five buildings were renovated into a cohesive show space for artists’ collections and works, I was struck by the provocative yet orderly sweep of the gallery’s interior spaces and how the building’s architecture played off the art within it.

Like the way the impressive cantilevered architecture of the Whitney Museum of American Art in downtown Manhattan draws people in as a simultaneous statement of architecture and art (that foretells of the signature art work inside), Newport Street Gallery embodies an architecture where art was a part of the building’s design from its inception. From the gallery’s swirling circular staircase to a seemingly dark space fitted with cables stretched three-stories high where lighting plays on the area’s mood, even as parts of the space disappear from sight, the gallery was so well thought out that its exhibit space will, no doubt, continue to serve as a timeless backdrop, regardless of the art that inhabits it.

Art galleries—architecturally significant or not—are great places to see and appreciate all kinds of art, but they aren’t the only venues out there. Installations in retail stores, hotels, offices and restaurants not only add to the beauty and character of the sites but also draw people in and bring them together. In fact, some studies, like Making Art Work in the Workplace, a collaborative effort between International Art Consultants and the British Council for Offices, have found that art in the workplace creates a more inviting environment, aids in staff retention, increases productivity and furthers a company’s brand.

Perhaps I’m biased to the beauty of art and the way it can invigorate people, enhance spaces and enrich architecture. After all, my father has been an avid art collector for four decades, and I’ve been wandering galleries since I was a kid, something I wrote about in an earlier piece, “With Art in Mind.”

I know my appreciation of art puts me in good company with other designers and architects, but without a reminder every now and then, the value of art’s role in design and people’s lives sometimes falls back from my view. Fortunately, like the way tourists visiting New York City with wide eyes feel excited about the architecture they see as art, so did I when I was in London a few weeks ago. Being in a city where I looked up at buildings that I seldom see or visited reminded me of what can be done with design and the importance of bringing forms of art into all of our work, keeping them special, inside and out.

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Here’s something: A recent global study by Human Spaces found that 33 percent of people consider the design of an office as part of their decision to work for a firm or not.

Here’s more: According to the Steelcase Global Report, Engagement + the Global Workplace, U.S employees are slightly more engaged than are other workers on the job, but allowing workers to more readily choose where and how they work is an effective way to heighten their engagement.

That’s important. Worldwide, engaged employees are key to companies’ earnings and success. And although the Steelcase report shows that most U.S. employees rate their work environment favorably, one-third of the employees from the 17 countries represented in the Steelcase report felt disengaged on the job. For one country examined in the report, only 1 percent of its workers were highly engaged or satisfied at work.

With such high numbers of disengaged employees around the world, coming to terms with what is not working at the workplace and how it can be improved is essential. After all, employee and business productivity are directly correlated to worker engagement, a position that benefits organizations, those who work for them and their customers.

Involving staff in the design of their workplace gives them a sense of ownership and shows that they’re valued by their firm. It’s also an important tool for recruiting and retaining employees—79 percent of middle-market companies see the working environment as a valued part of a workplace’s appeal, according to research by the National Center for the Middle Market in partnership with The Novo Group—and an effective way to increase employee engagement, productivity, innovation and efficiency.

Today’s employees are comparing the look and amenities of their offices to that of others near and far, thanks to the high visibility of those spaces through social media and the internet. As a result, the status quo on office design has been raised, with trends in wellness and amenities high on many employees’ workplace desires.

Even so, in the same way that designing offices without regard to employee input could result in worker inefficiency, striving to accommodate every employee’s workplace preference isn’t only impossible, but it’s also impractical. Embracing something in the middle, where employers seek their staff’s input on select design decisions, is likely to result in a best-of-both-worlds scenario.

One office design that we’re currently working on began with a comprehensive workplace strategy that included interactive workshops, interviews of the firm’s personnel and observation studies. The report’s findings, along with the project’s overall needs and costs, will provide a baseline for the space’s design. Guiding principles were created in the order of importance, with the bigger priorities spelled out. In the end, their new offices might not get everyone everything they want, but it’s sure to provide for some desires, perhaps, for instance, a compromise on personal space in exchange for a desired amenity.

Another client of ours considered moving out of the space it had been in for 10 years. But after exploring other options, the company decided to stay put and redesign. To do so, select personnel were included in visioning and educational sessions to both ease the transition from the office’s old design to its new one and address the best practices for the new design. Certainly, if there is going to be a shift in the workplace, the company’s staff should be informed from the beginning and be a part of the process so they understand the big-picture goals and are more comfortable with the changes ahead.

Polling staff on what they like or don’t about their office’s design can be done in two ways. First, talking with existing employees can provide important insight on how they work most effectively. Second, asking new employees about why they joined the firm and how much they value the office design can provide an understanding of aspects for successful recruitment.

As organizations grow, change and evolve, it is important for them to refresh themselves. Including people from across an organization’s different job types and hearing about what’s working and what isn’t for them is vital to a company’s success. And observational studies can show work patterns that confirm employee interviews for substantive evidence of the best way to design a workplace that not only provides maximum employee engagement and productivity but also meets a firm’s needs, values and image.

 

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