Before the pandemic, office spaces were often wide open, with few walls or cubicles, and long linear lights to illuminate the work. The goal was to encourage collaboration as workers shared a single open space, and the lights were uniform
and bright. Once COVID-19 sent many workers to their homes, the workplace was ready for another change, and lighting has transitioned with it.
Today, companies and building owners are attempting a much more creative and challenging office experience—one that can compete with the comforts of home. To meet the needs of a wide range of workers, lighting is the first and best solution to help personalize each individual’s space.
Ultimately, lighting design is changing because today’s workers are changing, said Danielle Kelly, a lighting designer from Seattle. She considered some of the projects she had a role in and pointed to online travel agency Expedia, which departed from traditional office lighting even before pandemic-related shutdowns. Expedia’s Seattle site challenged the linear, uniform rows of pendant-mounted or recessed lighting designs of the past. The Expedia design moved toward a hospitality feel, with dimmable lighting.
Expedia decision-makers found that the office could offer half the lighting recommended by lighting standards bodies, and provide additional desk lamp lighting for individuals, as requested. It was a sharp contrast with the “forever corridor of open desks everywhere with linear lighting strategies,” Kelly said.
Making more inviting spaces
That approach seems to be more appropriate than ever. The change in office lighting is not a small or temporary shift. For building owners, it’s a matter of making the workspace inviting enough to entice people to the office in a way that feels comfortable. Company owners want workers to leave a space in which they had no commute and had complete control over their environment, along with the convenience of managing family and life in one place.
“How do you compete with that?” Kelly asked.
Companies are seeking ways to personalize workspaces. One change is an effort to encourage individuals to change locations throughout the day, to smaller offices for temporary work, wellness rooms or game rooms or even working in cafeteria or lunch areas.
“There are a lot of corporate campuses with personalized, smaller spaces that allow you to have that flexibility to control the lighting, like little breakout spaces,” Kelly said.
Managers see that not all work needs to be done in a group—there is a time for collaboration and a time for working alone.
Office spaces are less crowded and may stay that way, as workers pursue hybrid schedules and more flexible arrangements. Not everyone is returning to the office; some people work part-time and others may commute later in the day, preferring a quieter space and avoiding peak hours on-site.
“If they’re going to meet some of the human requirements that we’re all expecting nowadays, that’s going to require change,” she said.
The post-COVID era delivers new demands and opportunities, said Brenda Castillo, founder of Circadia Estudio in Mexico City. She finds more attention is given to creating spaces that promote well-being. That effort includes making dimming possible in each space and taking advantage of windows and daylight, or integration of complex control systems and new technologies such as correlated color temperature or dim-to-warm for a warmer lighting option. Lighting systems are determined by the budget of each client, she added.
Marrying technology and lighting experience
Today, those who provide the lighting in these office environments will see fewer uniform installations. So to meet the changing nature of lighting installs, Castillo recommends strengthening knowledge of control technologies.
Installers are not the only ones facing a new office lighting paradigm. Lighting designers have had to shed the idea that design and technology are different strategies, Castillo said. Instead, they have begun seeing the technology and lighting designs deployed hand-in-hand to improve workplace quality of life.
Building owners, in the meantime, have adjusted their own expectations when it comes to what they can do with lighting. According to Castillo, they’ve come to understand that lighting design is an investment and not a luxury.
“The role of lighting designers is fundamental to achieve this goal since we have to raise awareness among our clients toward the vision of lighting as a universal right for everyone,” she said.
ECs are then well situated to be the lead in these conversations between clients, designers and technologists.
Levels of control
The Lighting Practice design company, based in Philadelphia, sees a major shift toward lighting controls, especially wireless systems, said David Seok, the company’s senior lighting designer. The granularity of control is a question that has to be considered with each office lighting installation. Does the company want to allow each individual to tinker with the fixtures immediately overhead? Or should that control be in the hands of management, or a building control system?
“There’s definitely a lot of added flexibility” with controls, Seok said. “I think that especially with offices and workplaces, they’re constantly adapting,” based on the needs of workers who have been at home for several years. Business owners may want to provide control of lights based on occupancy, zones or the needs of specific departments of workers.
Office occupancy is also fluid. What may be optimal lighting one month may not be suitable at another time. There could be three times more workers on-site, or three times fewer, on any given day.
“Probably the biggest thing is just really trying to have the conversations about how are the wireless lighting controls typically provided,” he said.
Proprietary systems have, in some cases, created future problems for those who hope to expand or change the controls over time.
“One of the problems that we’re running into is that, because so much of this is proprietary, it’s difficult to really plan an open system” that could be adjusted, he said.
Whether controls leverage Bluetooth or other technologies, the systems can enable workers to have some control over their environment.
“As a designer,” Seok said, “I don’t want anybody to just pull out a phone and then start playing with lights above their head.”
Instead, he points to flexibility on a zone- or departmental-level. Controls can then enable a system or management to start to change the beam angle or even to dim light levels.
No matter how a system is configured, Seok added, “there has to be a lot of upfront conversation about who has access to it and what is it capable of doing?” So far, he said, companies like his are seeing the greatest need for controls on a zone level.
Additionally, while some wireless systems are integrated into the fixture, often control systems are added after the fact, with power packs employed to control zones or even individual fixtures.
One feature that has driven the adoption of wireless controls is based around new local energy codes. In New York City, the latest version of the energy code indicates smaller square footage areas must be controlled by an occupancy sensor. The zones are significantly smaller than they were historically. That means companies that used to create a lighting zone based on an entire office floor—then managed based on occupancy—is now down to as small a space as 400 square feet.
“For that level of granularity, it really is beneficial to have these wireless occupancy sensors so that you can start to zone these spaces separately,” Seok said.
With occupancy sensors, a smart lighting system can identify when nobody is in accounting, for instance. “That department is empty, so let’s lower the lights,” he said.
Such granular controls ultimately will save money for building owners. However, potential code changes must be factored into ambitious energy goals, Seok advised. Some building owners proclaim they will maintain energy consumption levels at 20% less than code requires. But they may need to revisit that when the code is updated.
LEDs provide more options related to light temperatures. Companies building contemporary workspaces aim to provide a tunable white system, “and we are starting to have more of those conversations even in the workplace to say, ‘what if they want to lean toward more of like a circadian type of system’” that will respond to people’s need for a cooler color temperature to feel a little more alert at one time of day, Seok said, versus a warmer color temperature that can be more relaxing.
Ultimately Seok, like other designers and installers, has found that a minimal lighting level as a backbone, and individual task lighting at workspaces, is going to be part of many new systems. The overhead lighting that’s integrated into the ceiling provides a base level. From there, individual experiences will be the best attraction to bringing workers back to the office.