Future of Work

Social Spaces That Work

Steelcase Research
We like efficiency in all kinds of ways,” says Eric Klinenberg, NYU professor and author. “But lingering really is important and too much efficiency can be a bad thing.

Klinenberg says places that encourage us to pause help us make collisions that build human connections. He refers to that as social infrastructure which is made up of the physical places within a community where people gather, connect and build trust — something he argues is as necessary as roads and bridges — which ultimately contributes to creativity and a willingness to take risks. Those human connections are what cause one person to help another, or someone to step in when a colleague struggles, which builds resilience in teams and organizations.

The places where people start their workday in the office are an important part of social infrastructure. Both people who work in the office everyday and those who toggle between office and home need to feel welcomed. With fewer assigned desks, people’s routines change. New workplace designs should invite people in, give them a destination, a way to comfortably transition into their workday — and solve the pragmatic question of where to put your stuff.

These spaces need to deliver the variety and vitality people are seeking. Nobody wants to walk into a place that feels empty. New Steelcase research asked employees about their reasons for coming into the office. While the top reasons are about completing tasks, employees also want to make connections.

People come to the office for a purpose. Top reasons are:

1 Collaboration
2 Focus work
3 Access to tools and technology
4 Sense of belonging
5 Feeling of shared purpose
6 Connect with leaders
7 Socialize and have fun

Social Spaces Boost Productivity.

The sense of inclusion, comfort and belonging in the form of social time is far from superficial. According to Dr. Tracy Brower, Steelcase vice president of workplace insights, it benefits people, teams and organizations in six important ways.

Social Identity

For many, the way we contribute to society and community is through our work — and this contributes to identity. Coming together for a common goal is an aspect of how we understand ourselves.

Social Norms

Culture is always evolving. When people connect, culture is strengthened as people are reminded of ‘how things get done around here.’ When people understand the unwritten rules of an organization through regular interactions with others, they feel more included in the fabric of the organization.

Social Learning

65% of what employees learn comes from co-workers, 15% from managers (Source: Human Resource Development International). Whether it’s formal or informal, learning happens best when you are actively engaged with others.

Social Growth

Teams with a collective understanding of a problem or shared empathy for a customer can achieve better results. This kind of growth happens together — through connecting and investing time, collaborating, communicating and coordinating.

Social Fabric

When people are able to connect and build relationships, they increase levels of trust and compassion. This safety net of solid relationships gives people confidence to take risks and be creative.

Social Capital

Social capital describes the web of connections across an organization through which we can learn, stretch, grow and cooperate. The opportunity to tap into your network to ask for advice and test ideas is rewarding for you and the company.

If you’re not sure how to start, run a pilot.

Trying a new space on a smaller scale and seeking feedback is a great way to evolve your hybrid workplace. Think about your entry. What do people first see when they walk in? Is it a space designed to encourage people to connect and linger? Reimagine underutilized spaces (cafes, town hall) as social spaces with a variety of settings for different kinds of work to encourage all day use. Use flexible furniture to avoid expensive architectural changes and allow new spaces to be quickly implemented with assets that can be redeployed.

You have to make the space inviting. We want to pull people back to the office, not push, says Kent Taylor, IBM Global Director of Workplace, Technology, Design & Integrated Solutions

Harder Working Social Spaces

A hybrid work model, with fewer assigned spaces, puts pressure on social spaces to do more and support individual work.

Hybrid workplaces need more high-performance elements such as interactive displays, moveable markerboards and seating that supports comfortable work postures. Social spaces are increasingly being designed to support personal devices with laptop tables, and more options for power. And designers are adding more focus sub-zones within social spaces to provide the privacy people need.

Hybrid models often mean organizations do not know how many people will be in the office on any given day. High-performance social spaces can serve as additional shared work spaces when occupancy is high.

By creating social spaces that are multi-modal — supporting multiple modes of work — people can use the same place to do different kinds of work, whether it’s individual tasks, collaborating with others, rejuvenating or spending social time together.

Great social spaces balance people’s desire to connect with their need to hide away at times. People appreciate having a variety of privacy options including protection and shielding at their back. A range of postures support different ways of working— particularly for light focus, social connections and collaboration. Ample work surfaces and easy access to power are critical. Lighting and biophilic elements enhance the personality of the spaces.

“The mistake right now is to do nothing. What we know about increasing the use of shared spaces was true before the pandemic and it’s even more true now,” says Meg Bennett, Steelcase global principal designer. “Hybrid work demands more from shared spaces. There’s no reason not to put what we know into action.”

When performance principles are incorporated into the design of social spaces, individuals and teams are more productive and can collaborate, socialize and focus better, notes Bennett. They also experience psychological comfort — they feel good and want to use the spaces.


Provide the appropriate levels and types of privacy needed for the work at hand, including visual, acoustic and territorial.


Support the body in a posture appropriate for the task, whether lounge, task, stool-height or standing.


Think about the relationship of spaces relative to the type of work being done, easy access to tools and technology and how the settings promote equitable experiences.


Use color, materiality and furniture to express the unique brand and culture of an organization to attract and retain talent.