Space on the Go

Workplace mobility is changing how employees use and view the office, but what does that mean for designers tasked with creating next-generation spaces?

11/01/2013 By Kay Sargent

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Mobility is trending. Enabled by communications technologies and squeezed by real estate costs, more and more companies are looking to increase the mobility of their workforces. While this shift is rich with opportunity, it is also rife with new challenges for designers and their clients.

These include finding the right candidates, establishing proper guidelines, enabling remote access and changing the way people are managed. The challenge for you, the workspace designer, is understanding the implications of this new way of working, and designing the kinds of collaborative, creative, dynamic and customizable solutions your clients need.

Mobility is not a fad. A quick look back on the evolution of work shows rapid, dramatic and inexorable change. In the span of one human lifetime, the idea of work and the workplace has evolved from the blue-collar factory worker to the white-collar office worker to the no-collar digital nomad. The first two went to some assigned place every day to do their work and basically stayed there. The third can work anywhere and expects to be able to. This is changing everything.

In less than a decade, advances in technology have doubled worker productivity. (The downside of this, of course, is that it has also reduced the number of workers needed.) Today, 30 percent of the workforce is self-employed and most of our modern job growth is in industries that didn’t even exist 10 years ago—social media being one obvious example. Most of these new industries feature knowledge workers and a very high degree of worker mobility.

That said, technology remains way ahead of most office realities. Although tablets and smartphones have allowed people to be accessible 24/7, most workers are still tethered to an office. There is not enough secure access to networks and too many documents are still not in electronic form. But this will change radically and quickly, revolutionizing the whole idea of what an office is supposed to be in the process.

As we move away from a manufacturing/production-driven society to a knowledge-driven one, office space will be based on function and less on fixed standards and hierarchies. Status will be defined less and less by the number of windows a person’s office has and more and more by his or her ability to collaborate. Companies looking for the next generation of space will continue to move away from dedicated offices and workstations into a more free-flowing environment that blurs the lines between work life and private life.

If we come to the office to engage others, then the space needs to enable that interaction and be, well … engaging. We are no longer designing environments; we are designing the experience.

workplace of the future
Societal and technological changes are causing work to become more distributed. Consider a few of the most critical factors:

 Changing Demographics  The most talented and desirable workers coming into the workforce today are “digital natives.” They have never known a world without instant wireless access to everything and everyone. They expect to be able to work anywhere, any time.

 Integration of Technology  When we see what has happened in just the past 10 years, what might happen in the next 10 is quite literally unimaginable. We have hardly begun to understand the meaning of workplace mobility.

 Need to Be Green  Working remotely delivers obvious environmental advantages, such as reduced commuter times for employees and a smaller carbon footprint for companies.

 Evolving Work Styles  Work environments designed to reflect work styles both at the office and away from it are reducing real estate costs and increasing mobility.

 Preparedness  Crises that destroy power, property and limit access can be fatal for businesses, as Hurricane Katrina proved all too well. Having the option to work remotely improves the ability of businesses to continue operations in a time of crisis.

 Security  With the knowledge base of a business spread out, it can be much more secure as assets are not centrally located. Doing more outside of a specific piece of real estate reduces a company’s exposure to any one factor.

 Economic Volatility  The ability to work remotely reduces a business’s overall real estate needs and can limit the risk of having too much or too little space, which can be costly.

As a result, the workplace of the future will need to be very different from the workplace of today. It will need to emphasize views, not just access to daylight. It will need to provide a variety of spaces (depending on function) in which to work. It will be less place-dependent. Individual workspaces will be de-emphasized, and the focus will be placed on collaborative spaces and teaming areas. The traditional corner office hierarchy will give way to space assignments based on function. Accordingly, space will be more customized and environmentally conscious. It will be more equitable and agile. Connecting with each other will be much easier, and work/life balance will be more valued and encouraged.

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