In a few weeks, I—and many of you, I suspect—will be making the annual pilgrimage to the Merchandise Mart in Chicago to see the latest, greatest, gotta-have-it furniture, fixtures, flooring and gadgets for the office environment. It is always exciting to see the new products, but especially now with so many changes happening in the world of work itself.
One of those changes is the increased diversity of the workforce, not only in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, education, life stages and special needs, but also in terms of work styles and functions. More and more, workers with different needs must co-exist and perform in close quarters. Not that long ago, managers, analysts and researchers had private offices and the "secretarial pool" was herded into one big open space. Today, it is not unusual for the knowledge worker whose work demands careful thought and concentration to share the same open office space with another employee whose work involves a lot of telephone calls and interpersonal interaction. Is it any wonder that customization of the individual work space is becoming as important to employees as workplace flexibility? Individual lighting, a relatively recent innovation by historical standards, was one of the first products to address this yearning for customization. Now we are not far from the day when I can adjust the personal comfort controls in my
work space to maintain a refreshing 68° while the colleague next to me enjoys a balmy 72°.
Another shift is away from the totally self-contained, climate-controlled building to a more interactive relationship with the natural world. In addition to greater deployment of natural lighting to reduce energy use and control fixed costs, we are seeing a recognition of the positive effects that exposure to the natural environment has on worker morale and productivity. Dare we dream of the day when we can once again open the windows in our offices? It could be here sooner than you think. How will this "return to nature" affect the other choices we make in wall coverings, finishes, lighting, positioning of computer screens and more?
Socialization and work styles are changing as well. If the important meetings where the real work gets done are happening around the coffee pot not the board table, what does that suggest about how one designs the board room and the employee lounge of tomorrow? If work is accomplished on the fly by small project teams, do you design one big showplace conference room or several small "war rooms" with white boards in place of wallpaper?
Other changes we are seeing will require more sophisticated design solutions than just employing innovative products or new kinds of spaces. Security continues to be a major issue in the workplace, as does the need to foster a sense of community and ownership of corporate mission, goals and values. The solutions to these issues will involve design in many ways and on many levels, from matters of access and egress to the subtle psychological messages that the environment conveys and reinforces.
The economy withstanding, these are exciting times for office designers. I, for one, look forward to the challenges that lie ahead—and to all those cool products that are bound to follow!
ASID National President H. Don Bowden is founder of his own firm, H. Don Bowden-Architect, in Mobile, AL. ASID can be reached at (202) 546-3580; fax (202) 546-3240; www.asid.org.