HKS’ Chicago Office, a Living Lab, Realizes Measurable Value through Design for WELL-Being

At HKS, we believe that designing to improve the health and well-being of people—the talent that drives any organization—is the foundation for great workplace design. This leads to inherently resilient design solutions. Designing for health and well-being positions our clients to weather changes ranging from a global pandemic to winning the war on talent. This approach also enables our clients to align their organizational values to their workplace designs.

As designers, we are squarely focused on leveraging our research to glean insights on what will make the best work environments for tomorrow. So when we first began designing our HKS Chicago office in September 2017, we decided to use it as a Living Laboratory. We wanted to learn how design influences employee behavior, health, well-being, and overall performance by living in a lab every day. We had no idea of how urgent the question of design for well-being in a post-Covid workplace would become.

As designers, we are squarely focused on leveraging our research to glean insights on what will make the best work environments for tomorrow. 

The WELL Building Standard helped us quantify and track the ways that we incorporated research on health and human experience in every step of the design process. It positioned us to assess, measure and quantify the health of our interior environment.

The HKS Research team led a multiyear longitudinal study of the HKS Chicago Living Lab to assess performance in several ways, including:

  • Monitoring ambient conditions­ through sensor technology.
  • Surveying employees pre- and post- move by using the IWBI’s the Building Wellness Survey and experience sampling.
  • Quantifying human outcomes as they related to business targets by analyzing project cost, energy use data, carbon footprint projections and human resources employee data
  • Collecting real-world behavior mapping data about how the space was being used by its occupants.

Committing to multi-level research enabled us to measure environmental, human, and business impacts. As we think about the value of the office now, these impacts, more than amenities or perks, will create value for organizations. The HKS Chicago Living Lab ultimately achieved both LEED v4 Platinum and WELL v1 Gold certifications, and we now have research to quantify performance outcomes.

Design that Realized Measurable Value:

  • Employee satisfaction went up—way up. Subjective satisfaction ratings of air quality, acoustics, thermal comfort, lighting, access to nature, and cleanliness were all up significantly compared to our previous space.
  • Investment in a displacement ventilation system realized significant financial and well-being rewards. The integration of a displacement ventilation system into the workplace design transformed the interior design of the Living Lab to one that substantially improves energy efficiency, indoor air quality, thermal comfort, and employee productivity, and environmental impact.

In the era of Covid-19, we are all more aware of the significance of clean, healthy air. The Building Wellness survey found satisfaction with air quality in the workplace significantly increased after the move. A total of 91% of the employees reported being satisfied with the air quality in the new office.

Our design team leveraged synergies between our selected displacement ventilation (WELL v1 Feature 21: Displacement Ventilation) and specifying low-emitting materials (WELL v1 Feature 4: VOC Reduction) during design. Prioritizing these investments enabled us to improve wellness through better air quality.

The Evolving Work Ecosystem

The HKS Chicago Living Lab has a markedly different makeup of space proportions and programming intent from our previous location. Our design team proposed thinking of spaces within the Living Lab from the perspective of:

  • ‘Me’ spaces: individually controlled spaces, such as workstations;
  • ‘We’ spaces: shared amenity areas not unique to the organization, such as conference and huddle rooms;
  • ‘Us’ spaces: shared amenity spaces that are unique to the office and organization.

The square footage of the old studio consisted of 25% ‘Us’ space type, while 49% of the new studio square footage consists of ‘Us’ space. When we designed the Living Lab, we did so thinking that some of the “Us” space might need to be converted to new workstations as the office grew. Then Covid-19 transformed our expectations of work, and how we think of work. While we still prioritize employee well-being, our attitudes, norms and culture around when to work in the office and when to work elsewhere have changed. We’ve adapted a new HKS Employee Experience.

We know now that our office is not the only place work happens. It is one of the places work happens. Our initial thinking around increasing workstations over time has shifted, as we consider: what should happen in the office? What will happen elsewhere?

Our employees are growing along with our understanding of the emerging work ecosystem, enabled by the performance of the HKS Living Lab. Here’s what our research found:

  • 66% AGREE – The workplace supports my thinking and analytical work (26% agreed in the 111 Washington office)
  • 91% AGREE – The workplace supports my ability to retreat and have private conversations (9% agreed in the 111 Washington office)
  • 91% AGREE – It is easy to work collaboratively with others (47% agreed in the 111 Washington office)
  • 78% AGREE – The workplace creates an opportunity for chance meetings helping us to reveal opportunities (32% agreed in the 111 Washington office)

We wanted our office to be a living embodiment of our core belief that design should support health and well-being for all, and our own research quantifies the impact of our work.