Q: COVID completely disrupted the global supply chain, the way we work, and what people are looking for from their employers. In this season, what are some challenges and opportunities for the industrial workplace? 

Kim Marks (Workplace Practice Leader): Depending on the industry, only 30% of the workforce is back in the office. For some companies, there is a struggle to get employees to want to come in. They are trying to figure out their return-to-office strategies and find the balance between remote and full-time office work.  

At the same time, this is a chance to do work differently—we tend to get into a routine of keeping our heads down and doing things the same way. The pandemic disrupted that, and now companies have the opportunity to rethink the culture and the future they might want to create. 

David Shull (Industrial Practice Leader): From the industrial side of things, there are challenges with finding workers, but COVID also caused a lull with being able to grow. Now that things have opened up, there is pent up demand for growth and expansion, as well as updating facilities in both production and warehousing.  

Logistically there are shortages in the marketplace, so companies want warehousing to create buffers in order to serve customers regardless of supply chain delays. There has been an uptick in planning for new manufacturing and new warehouse facilities. 

With the shortage of labor and increased demand, companies must be intentional about how they attract and retain talent. In the past there was a surplus of labor and they didn’t have to do much other than offer good wages—now they need to offer a beautiful and comfortable place to work, excellent benefits, opportunities, and a positive and intentional company culture to attract quality employees. 

Flexco Manufacturing Headquarters in Walker, MI

Q: How does good design improve company culture and brand resonance? 

Kim: This is why workplace and industrial design are coming together. We’re creating spaces to eliminate barriers between departments or groups within a business – enabling more “togetherness” and less “us and them.” Warehouse workers and factory floor workers are just as much a part of a business as marketing, sales, and executives, and the design should reflect a unified culture. 

David: Good design makes the brand visible and tangible. We work to create spaces that cause positive interactions between cultures within the workplace.   

Plant floors used to be considered blue-collar, but as manufacturing gets more sophisticated the cultures are becoming increasingly similar between the plant floor and the administrative side. Many jobs in advanced manufacturing can pay $70-$80,000 a year. We’re finding an increased need to dissolve the wall because people with college and post-graduate education working on plant floors are looking for the same experience and opportunities for growth that others have.  

Plants don’t have to be dingy worlds anymore, and there’s a strong drive for more amenities adjacent to the work nodes, enabling people to socialize and connect with each other as well as work. 

At this industrial workplace in Grand Rapids, MI, the plant floor is directly adjacent to branded meeting and experience spaces.

Q: What unique design considerations does Progressive AE bring to the table when approaching an industrial workplace project? 

Kim: Universal Design (UD) is a good one for us—being aware of how the environment you’re creating can meet the needs for people of all abilities. It’s not just about wheelchair access, but also designing for people with visual impairments, neurodivergent people, and people of different ages. We aim to create spaces that are designed with all employees in mind. As we hear about the need to attract and retain talent, there is no single paradigm for what a quality employee looks like. We want to be as inclusive as possible to give companies a wider talent pool. 

In addition, a number of our team members are certified WELL APs, which means they are trained in WELL building best practices—the leading tool for advancing health and well-being in buildings globally. WELL seeks to make spaces healthier for employees by prioritizing human health and well-being.  

One example is giving employees access to natural lighting throughout the day. In an industrial environment the plant floor can be dark. As employees move through the plant, we try to bring natural light into the main area if possible, or the break/training area to give them some relief. 

David: Many types of production have become more sophisticated and precise. The spaces in which production occurs are much more controlled environments from temperature and humidity to highly filtered air. Often, they’re more pristine than an office environment, especially where food and beverage is concerned. 

Creating a bright and impressive high-tech place to work are skills we employ as architecture and engineering designers.  

Smithfield Foods Northeast Distribution Center in Maryland

Q: What are some new technologies, techniques, or strategies to consider for the industrial workplace?  

Kim: We’ve become aware that companies can use sensors and AI to identify spaces being utilized (or underutilized), so we can reposition them for better use. When companies invest in spaces, we want to make sure they’re being used for the intended function. If they’re not being used to their fullest, we can alter as needed.  

During the pandemic, some technologies were added to eliminate touch points and there was tech developed to automatically clean door handles, elevator buttons, etc.  

David: Industry 4.0 has to do with managing your business through big data using sensors, machine-to-machine communication, internet of things, and other emerging technologies. There are many design options to consider, and we’re committed to assisting clients integrate a right-size approach for their business. Big data has value in enabling production success. 

Confidential Workplace and Manufacturing Client in Grand Rapids, MI.

Q: Can you give an example of a recent project you worked on and what was unique about it?  

David: We recently completed a project with Flexco that included over 200,000 square feet of manufacturing floor with a connected office in front of it. The design blends the office and plant floor in a more holistic environment. All employees come in through the main front door, and there is transparency from the front of house to the back of house to an increased degree. 

Kim: We completed a two-story workplace lounge for a confidential client that incorporates full height glass overlooking the manufacturing process. There is a tasting room and bar area, and a suspended spiral staircase connecting the experience space with the workplace. The space includes corporate branded signage and products throughout. It was designed both for visiting guests and clients, as well as the primary workforce of the product team to enjoy. 

We have three or four additional projects in the works right now, and we look forward to pushing more of these initiatives forward.