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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.
a new language
As with anything truly new, this revolution in office space has generated a whole new language to describe it.
You are probably already familiar with the term telecommuting (also known as teleworking). This is when staff performs all or a portion of their work from an alternative worksite—usually from home—instead of commuting to an office. Another commonly used term is distributed work (also called a virtual office). This describes the concept of the workplace being wherever an employee happens to be working at any point in time, whether it’s an airport lounge, coffee shop or train.
There is hot desking, which is also referred to as desk sharing, red carpet, free address and group address. Hot desking owes its origin to the Navy’s practice of “hot bunking,” in which bunks are shared by several sailors on different watches; as such, hot desking involves the use of non-permanent workspaces that are assigned on a first-come, first-serve basis. This practice may also incorporate drop-in or touchdown spaces. As the names imply, these are unassigned offices that are used for short periods (usually a few hours) by employees who have not made a reservation for a workspace.
Hoteling and “just-in-time” concepts describe a program of not assigning offices to individuals on a permanent basis. Workspaces are assigned by using a reservation system on an as-need basis. Satellite offices or neighborhood work centers refer to smaller office spaces used by employees who are nearby. This space could be occupied by one company or shared by several different companies. These terms may or may not be important to your design work going forward, but the concepts they describe will be vital.
the mobility dilemma
Companies’ desire for worker mobility is exploding. According to a recent Gallup survey, 86 percent of companies now offer alternative work strategies and mobile work. This number is up from 50 percent in 2009.
Employers see several benefits in pursuing these alternate work strategies. Almost half (49 percent) think that offering opportunities to work remotely improves their employees’ work/life balance. Add in the fact that mobile employees work an average of 10 more hours a week than their office-bound colleagues, and it’s easy to see why companies are enthusiastically embracing worker mobility.
Nearly a third (31 percent) of the companies who responded to the survey have the bottom-line view that worker mobility saves them on real estate costs—and with good reason. Businesses can save an average of $13,000 a year for every employee who works remotely. If 100 staff members give up their desks and work remotely, an organization can save more than $1 million a year.
The one sector that is most aggressively pioneering employee mobility is actually the federal government. Pushed by shrinking budgets and a presidential mandate, government agencies are embracing remote work more than four times faster than any other sector, and private businesses can learn from them.
What about the employees? How do they feel about teleworking? You would think that people would embrace it and jump at the opportunity to work from home, but you would be wrong. Despite all the factors favoring increased mobility, organizations report that only 10 percent or fewer of their employees are working remotely on a regular basis.
Why? The simple reason is that people think it is in their best interest to go to the office. Seventy-two percent of respondents said the office is the best place to interact with colleagues and 40 percent said the office provides access to much-needed tools and technology. Many people worry that out-of-sight is out-of-mind. We all need to remember that we are human; we are social, territorial and creatures of habit. We like being around others and seek them out.
While the digital native millennials may have initially driven the mobility movement, it is ironically the gen Xers and baby boomers who are the prime example of distributed workers today. This is primarily because they perceive working remotely as being in their best interest. They cherish the flexibility, and more than likely have kids to chauffeur to school and various activities. In addition, they may have aging parents who need their attention. Working from home is a perfect solution for these employees. What’s more, they feel they’ll probably be working longer and are looking for a soft retirement. They are also more senior, so they are the ones that have “tenure.” They know what is expected of them and their employers know what their capabilities are.
benefits all around
In spite of many employees’ current misgivings about working away from the office, mobility promises genuine benefits, no matter how one looks at it.
For employees, mobility supports a better work/life balance. It reduces commuting time for people working at home and expands choices for how, when and where to work. For businesses, mobility supports global and multigenerational workforces, and will increasingly serve as a way to attract and retain the best talent. It will also make it easier for businesses to adapt to the changes certain to occur in the business environment.
The mobility trend also benefits the office itself. Environments will be created that better support collaboration and innovation. The efficiency of existing facilities will be optimized and working environments will become more flexible. There are obvious environmental benefits, too. As fewer employees commute, a company’s carbon footprint diminishes. Ultimately, as a company’s real estate portfolio shrinks, it will also consume fewer precious resources.
Another way to look at the many benefits of mobility is by asking, “What does it give us more of? What does it give us less of? And what does it change?” The answers, at a glance, look like this:
- Opportunity for deep concentration and innovation
- Space utilization
- Employee control
- Underutilized space
- Overall real estate needs
- Dependence on the office
- Dedicated space to shared space
- Paper to electronic files
- Fixed philosophies to mobile philosophies
And these are just the results we can imagine now. Just as something as simple as television changed our lives in ways no one could have foreseen, the effects of worker mobility will ripple through society in ways that will astonish us.
If the benefits of mobility are so numerous and so clear, why are mobile workers still such a small fraction of the workforce? The answer is that mobility means huge and fundamental change, and most people find change very challenging. Let us consider some of the challenges:
Finding the Right Candidates Telecommuting is not right for every worker, or for that matter, every manager. The ideal candidate is one who does a lot of head-down, individual work. Their work is not meeting intensive. They communicate most often via phone or other electronic means. They may work primarily with others who are remote or off-site. Their work may require them to keep an irregular schedule or travel frequently, spending more than 25 percent of their total time outside the office. The right candidates have jobs that may be described as “portable.”
Establishing the Guidelines Working in a different kind of office—one with shared spaces—requires different ways of working. Workers have to stay available and forward calls to where they will be or to their cell phones. They need to update their voicemail message daily. When they’re in the office, they should put their nameplate on the workspace. They should be sensitive to the proximity of others, take conference calls in enclosed areas and go to colleagues’ desks rather than talk across others. They should carry their cell phones with them so the ringing doesn’t distract others. And last but by no means least, if people are sharing a space, a clean desk policy must be enforced.
Enabling Remote Access This new kind of office will have at least three different kinds of workers: desk-bound employees, mobile employees and teleworking employees. They need to be able to work together seamlessly. The farther away a worker is from the office, the more tools he or she will need. The teleworking employees will need broadband Wi-Fi, a company-issued docking station, a voice mailbox, outcall notification service, a monthly telecom reimbursement allowance and collaboration toolkits. The mobile employees will need a BlackBerry, a voice mailbox, outcall notification service and collaboration toolkits. Desk-bound employees will require only the collaboration toolkit. They will all need an attitude that welcomes the new way of working.
Managing Employees Mobility requires a new kind of management style. Today, many managers still believe that they need to see their employees to be able to manage them. They worry that their remote staff will be less productive, but as we’ve already learned, remote workers typically work 10 more hours a week compared to their in-office colleagues. Meanwhile, staff worry that they will miss important “face time,” won’t be recognized for their achievements and will get passed over for promotions. They often feel disconnected. These are critical factors for managers to address. For mobility to be effective, management needs to make a mental shift. We need to value performance over presence.
Managing mobility also means establishing all of the previously discussed work guidelines. It means employee training, manager and supervisor training, and creating a guide that helps everyone get started. The more mobility a company offers, the more its space must address the new way of working.
Designing the Right Space Suddenly, as a designer, you have to look at space differently. Now, instead of coming into an assigned space and remaining there all day like a potted plant, we are shifting to an activity-based design model, where employees visit shared spaces temporarily on an as-needed basis. After all, the most flexible thing in any office is the worker, and designers must think accordingly. Consider, for example, a day in the life of a contemporary worker:
- She arrives at the office and drops off her coat.
- She grabs a cup of coffee in the pantry and catches up with some of her peers.
- On the way to her desk she checks her phone for messages.
- She settles into a workstation and checks some e-mails.
- She pops into her boss’s office for a quick face-to-face.
- On the way back, she bumps into a colleague and has a quick exchange.
- Then it’s off to a dedicated room for a conference call with the international team or a client.
- At noon, it’s off to the deli to grab a lunch with a teammate and then she runs a quick errand.
- After lunch, it’s back to the workstation to scan e-mails and prepare a report.
- Then it’s off to a meeting with the R&D team.
- The team gets together in a war room to prepare for a meeting the following day.
- And at the end of day, there’s a team meeting in the common area.
People are on the go, even if they’re in the office the whole day. Designing for this kind of contemporary workday is different than in the past. The more mobility a company offers, the more its space must address this new way of working.
Assigning Space—or Not From a purely bottom-line perspective, the economics of mobility are obvious: fewer permanent workers with permanent space needs require fewer square feet of real estate, leading to greater savings.
Consider a company with 1,000 office workers. The traditional desk-to-worker ratio is 1.10:1. By that model, this company would need 1,100 desks. At 180 square feet per person, that equals a total of 198,000 usable square feet of space. At $30 per square foot, that cost is $5,940,000.
Simply changing that ratio to 1:1 for the entire staff saves the company 100 desks and 18,000 usable square feet of space—or $540,000 in rent alone. Reduce that desk-to-worker ratio even further to 1:1.25 and the rent savings jump to $1,620,000 annually. If you factor in operational costs, the savings are even more significant. Businesses save an average of $13,000 per year per employee who works remotely. If 100 staffers give up their desks and work remotely, an organization can save $1 million a year.
Many companies are also looking to use increased mobility as a way to accommodate growth without the need to take additional square footage. The assumption is that as their staff grows in the coming years, more and more will want to work remotely. That shift could negate the need for additional space as companies grow.
The problem is that having people work remotely just one or two days a week doesn’t really deliver those big savings, because it doesn’t reduce the number of desks needed. When staff starts to work remotely three days a week or more, it enables a new space model that can lower real estate costs. Having truly mobile people who work outside of the office alters the desk-to-worker ratio even further and provides the ultimate savings. Workers who are less place-dependent allow companies to experiment with new and varied kinds of environments. They also create new opportunities for designers.
Coordinating Staff The three types of workers created by mobility have different needs. Traditional desk-bound employees need access to offices and need to be trained on new office reservation systems. Mobile employees need communications services to support their mobility as well as access to touchdown spaces at the office. Teleworking employees also need services to support their mobility, as well as access to hoteling or mobility centers; they also need reservation system training.
Handling Facility Use Issues Even if a company decides to reap the benefits of worker mobility, it must still come to terms with a series of practical and prosaic issues. Take parking spaces, for example; just as with desks, a company has to decide on how many parking spaces it will need. At what point does a remote or mobile worker become a guest or visitor? And since mobile workers tend to work when they want, what effect will that have on an office’s operating hours? Can it be available 24/7? What do fluctuating numbers of workers mean for security? For the HVAC system? Elevators? Lighting? What is the impact of greater mobility on all building services?
These are issues that need to be thought through, and in some instances, specifically designed for. Buildings have traditionally been created with a static occupancy number in mind, but with mobile workers, you can have 50 people in the office one day and 150 the next. Building operations need to be designed to be just as flexible as the occupants.
Keeping Staff Connected This is a big challenge for managers of workforces composed of both traditional and mobile employees. After all, workers tend to be more loyal to the people they work with than the company they work for. To avoid an erosion of corporate culture, remote and mobile workers need to feel like they are part of the company and be kept plugged in to the corporate culture. Managers need to create regular meeting times, and have occasional “all-hands” meetings to help foster that connection. They also need to make the best use of available technology with intranet services, Skype and instant messaging with clear, effective access policies. Interoffice communications need to be high quality and seamless. When people are in the office, the spaces they work in must be engaging, inviting and productive.
the way forward
Obviously, it is the workforce, not our office space, that is on the go. But our offices must be reimagined, reconfigured and redesigned to function in a world that is increasingly mobile. We may feel that the world is already moving faster and faster, but to quote Al Jolson in “The Jazz Singer” in the first words ever spoken on screen, “You ain’t seen nuthin’ yet.”
Technologies and capabilities that we take for granted today were unimaginable just 15 years ago. Who knows what will be possible 15 years from now? What we do know is that technology and real estate costs will continue to conspire to make worker mobility easier, more desirable and more commonplace. That is the workplace you will be designing for. We can’t predict the future, but we can plan for the possibilities. After all, we are no longer simply designing the work environment—we are designing the entire experience.
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