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The Smarter Workplace

The new workplace is universal, customizable and seamless—and instructions are not included.

05/01/2013 By Amanda Carroll

Smarter, seamless environments have become the norm for today’s increasingly mobile workforce. Enabled by advanced technology, new corporate policies and an influx of millennials, the demand for a workplace that presents a platform for discovery, inspiration and collaboration—think of the iPad’s intuitive interface and apps—is building momentum.

Traditional corporate methods and practices have been turned into engaging, interactive experiences that are transforming how companies are doing business. And the true power of these platforms is realized in their ability to inspire innovation—arguably the most valuable currency in the marketplace today.

The evolving relationship between new technologies, smarter workplaces and a mobile workforce is  providing today’s companies with an opportunity to realize the full potential of their most important asset: their people. Together, they are creating a solid foundation for business in the 21st century, one that is capable of supporting dynamic workplace experiences while smartly streamlining resources.

This is only achievable, however, if the design of the workplace is a vehicle for the user’s journey—allowing workers to log on, dial in or connect wherever, whenever and however it supports them best. Gensler’s Workplace Survey research findings confirm that aligning work styles with flexible work settings within the office and giving people the choice of where they want to work is the key to supporting them cost-effectively on a global basis (Gensler Dialogue 22).

The old model of designing workplaces that establish boundaries and limitations through architecture, infrastructure and organization of resources (or lack thereof) is something of the past. Users now have control and choice, and the smarter workplace enables this.

Reflecting on the success of the iPad, one can’t ignore its unique appeal to a wide audience of users. Whether it’s an 80-year-old grandfather reading an iBook or a 4-year-old playing an interactive learning video, the iPad consistently evokes the same reactions: delight and wonder. This is made possible by the range of apps it offers—individual solutions that are customized to and chosen by the user. Apps make the user experience authentic and personal, despite the iPad being a universal design solution with only two sizes for everyone.

Critical also to its appeal is its ease of use. Its intuitive design makes it much more likely to not just be used, but customized. This holds true in the workplace, too. Planning a smart workplace that appeals across the generations employed in today’s workforce requires more flexibility, adjustability and choice than ever before. One size does not fit all, and in most cases, neither does two, but if the form is malleable enough to flex to the individual’s needs, it just might be successful.

it’s customizable
The trend of designing for control and choice in the workplace shows no signs of easing—if anything, it’s only just the beginning. Increasingly, we are finding that the ability to control one’s experience is prioritized over more conventional rewards such as a higher salary or a larger private workspace. In fact, a 2011 Cisco Connected Workplace Study reported that 33 percent of employees under the age of 30 said they would select social media freedom, device flexibility and work mobility over salary in accepting a job offer.

For several years, we have seen workplace design become more universal in its execution; now it has become smarter about its neutrality. The successful workplace’s building blocks are smaller in scale, less precious and increasingly multifunctional, which creates the ability for the user to “hack” or reshape their environment to be something even greater than originally imagined.

This is evident in the Gensler-designed campus for Facebook at Menlo Park, which features a workspace solution that gives employees the ability to reconfigure their desks to their desired layout, and an art program that encourages them to use the campus as a canvas for self-expression—and subsequently, brand building.

These new design principles, centered around customization and control, have dramatically stretched the spectrum of potential workplace outcomes. Increasingly, there are no longer set workplace guidelines in place, but rather policies created by leadership that are reinforced by the self-governing culture of a company. This structure requires a smart design that can be easily pulled apart and put back together again. The goal is that it serves the company better than what was originally planned, as the user designs it.

it’s seamless
Design solutions that can adapt to new demands without heavy investment required are just as essential to the success of the iPad as they are to today’s workplace. As designers, we are able to alter the physical environment through the use of cost-effective solutions, while still satisfying a client’s need for personalization and diversity. These solutions are balanced against a greater investment in sophisticated architecture and infrastructure, which anticipates and plans for the evolution of future business needs.

For example, an iPad may cost more upfront than a textbook, but over the course of a college education it will easily prove to be a more valuable investment. Up-to-date information is provided in a more sustainable, accessible way than a traditional textbook, so that the owner always has the latest information in hand and can stay a cut above the competition.

Recognizing a similar need for product differentiation and a boost in mobile software development, our client at AT&T asked for a highly adaptable workshop-lab-incubator space. In the new AT&T Foundry, employees can easily reconfigure the workspace through means such as sliding panels with writable surfaces and untethered work components, such as desks with wheels that can be moved anywhere.

The performance results, as Peter Hill, vice president of innovation at AT&T, explains, speak for themselves. “A common comment from visitors is simply, ‘I want to work here.’”

As the speed of business continues to accelerate and more information is required to make informed decisions, content connectivity will play an even more critical role in the success of the workplace. The ability to get ideas out fast and collaborate in interactive ways is emerging as a true differentiator in the race for innovation. Many of today’s workplaces demonstrate an understanding of “information persistence,” but do not ultimately allow information and ideas to come together via the multiple mediums that support employees transitioning between handheld devices, surfaces and/or rooms while at work. Therefore, users cannot yet make the real choice.

The iPad already provides the user with the ability to effortlessly create and distribute ideas virtually, and often physically. If the smarter workplace can respond in the same way, the potential for success is limitless. We’ve recently seen this formula for success take shape at Plantronics, a global audio technology company, who challenged us to transform their workplace in Santa Cruz to better align with their new branding initiative, “Simply Smarter Communication.”

They envisioned an open and collaborative work environment that would employ sustainable strategies, address mobility and technology integration, and allow work to happen anywhere at anytime. The Gensler design team responded with a fully free-address environment, removing set desks and incorporating technology to support a seamless workflow. Now, employees are encouraged to work wherever in the office they need to or to work from home.

In short, the smarter workplace is not just smart in its solutions, or hip and sleek in its design. It’s a gateway to innovation. It’s un-prescribed and ever-evolving. It’s up to the user to shape and define it, and as such, it becomes a true embodiment of the culture of an organization. With that, it’s intuitive, responsive and adaptable.

Through engaging layouts, interactive settings and immersive environments, today’s successful workplace has become an authentic reflection of the workforce and its spirit—ultimately driving forward the mission of the company and its business. No instructions required there.


Amanda Carroll is a senior associate and workplace practice area leader in Gensler’s New York City office.


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