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Change is Here

As I prepare to pass the baton of the IIDA presidency and NeoCon rolls ever closer, the phrase “Out with the old, in with the new” takes on a profound dimension.

By James Williamson, IIDA, LEED AP

As I prepare to pass the baton of the IIDA presidency and NeoCon rolls ever closer, the phrase “Out with the old, in with the new” takes on a profound dimension.

Yahoo! employees will soon be returning to the company’s offices, including its headquarters in Sunnyvale, Calif., as management tries to turn around its disappointing stock price and increase innovation.
photograph courtesy of Markus Spiering/spieri_sf via Flickr
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Like it or not, change is always in the wind. With NeoCon nearly upon us and my tenure as IIDA president drawing to a close, I’m feeling that perhaps a bit more acutely than I otherwise might. But change is always taking shape in some form or other, and the demands of the workplace and work space are evolving right in step. When Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer announced to the world that she had decided to cancel its mobile work policy and demanded the return of all employees to a company office, it was in part a message to shareholders that she’s committed to reversing the disappointing performance of Yahoo!’s stock. But the public at large also sensed a seismic shift in the direction that workplace culture is taking.

Some of you may have read my blog entry on the subject, “Like Bees to Honey: Yahoo! and the Future of Mobile Work,” which I published on back in February, shortly after this incident occurred. From the feedback I received—to say nothing of the hits the feature earned for the website—it’s obvious that this subject struck a chord with many in the design community. As we ready ourselves for the watershed moment that NeoCon tends to be for so many of us each year, I thought it might be a valid time to re-evaluate the trends in workplace culture that affect their design, and reflect on the relevance of the workspace both now and in the future.

For years now, we’ve seen a tendency toward mobility on the part of the workforce. As I stated in my initial blog entry, Yahoo! was ironically one of the first companies to catalyze and embrace this change, seeing it as an opportunity for its workers to not only gain freedom of movement and greater flexibility in their workdays, but also greater exposure to the world around them and the ideas that it might inspire.

This was revolutionary thinking in its time and it’s hard to understate how different of an approach to the work ethic it was—and arguably still is. For literally centuries, dedication was defined in terms of how much time was spent on the premises (excepting the sales force, of course); suddenly, technology has untethered the worker from his or her space and set in motion an exodus in the name of productivity, not protest.

And here we are just a few short years later, it seems, watching the leash being pulled and bringing personnel back to more grounded surroundings. It may not be completely surprising in Yahoo!’s case, given its share price, as many—myself included—have noted. But if proximity is going to be anything like the new norm with regard to how and where people work in the future, design should be playing a crucial role in how new and developing companies make that return to the office not just palatable, but productive. PageBreak

But how will that goal be achieved? After as much time away from the office as many workers have spent, it’s hard to imagine that something hasn’t changed in the DNA of their working methods. The idea that everyone will snap to, return to full work weeks spent in the office and bring productivity up across the board seems pretty unlikely. Companies like Yahoo! would do well to communicate with their employees in this initial return period and seek feedback on what they value in a work environment. Clearly the days of offices being little more than workforce warehouses are behind us, and even the long-clichéd cube farm has fallen out of favor.

So what will the workplace of the future invite for those who inhabit it? If collaboration is the key to innovation—as Yahoo! asserts it is—and productivity is also a major concern, there’s no way we can simply return to previous office models. New work environments will have to integrate aspects found in the traditional workplace with decidedly new sensibilities that take into account the altered needs of workers who have become used to working in less formal and structured surroundings. That means meeting spaces that invite personnel in and put them at ease; open spaces with furniture that combines comfort and visual appeal for a relatively informal social setting; and natural light to decrease the drain inherent in fluorescent lighting and stimulate vitality.

Comfort and ease of use are concepts that we hear referenced a lot in terms of the gadgets that set the workforce free in the first place. These are elements that workers might expect to find upon returning onsite. So not only will collaboration-friendly spaces be of great importance, but spaces for intense focus when necessary, as well.

As I previously stated in my blog, “I really need to get work done so I’m going to work from home tomorrow,” is an often-repeated phrase, but one that should have significance for the design of spaces in the future. Open-door policies and the necessity of being virtually chained to email have made this a particularly physical, emotional and technological challenge for anyone requiring that extra level of concentration. The office environment has a tendency toward interruption, broken flow and counterproductive stress. As designers, we need to seek physical solutions to help minimize the impact of such an environment, and create spaces that will engender a positive feeling, a fluid energy, and a desire to be a part of a space and the culture it contains.

As I’ve said before, this is the key: Creating spaces that will entice the worker to come in every day feeling fresh and invigorated. If all you’re being offered is another day in a stress-filled environment filled with little more than computers and a pervasive sense of dread, the call back to the office may only serve to foster discontent—leading to diminished productivity and, very likely, a staff looking for the exit.

By making primary workstations appealing and introducing user-friendly elements to modernize the work environment, business owners show a commitment to the innovation they seek to achieve. But in doing so, they also earn the appreciation and loyalty of the workforce that has sacrificed a percentage of its freedom—and, let’s face it, its work/life balance—for a return to the stricter routine of office life. Those employees will be happier in the short and the long run, and business owners will see the benefit in productivity over time.


IIDA International President James Williamson, IIDA, LEED AP is a practicing interior designer and principal at Gensler in its Washington, D.C. office. You can reach IIDA at (312) 467-1950 or at