Up until the last 10 or 15 years, design for workplaces had not significantly changed. A combination of closed offices, open work stations, conference rooms, a reception area, one break room, file room and a work/copy room were the predominant space types within the typical office. The ratio of closed offices to open work stations fluctuated as the trend pendulum swung back and forth. So what has happened in the last 15 years that has led to the evolution of the workplace? And how exactly have we evolved?
In the early to mid 1990s the use of the internet took off as a viable tool for access to information and for communication with others. Speed-to-market became the quintessential element of starting a new company. This was accomplished by working collaboratively with teams of people in open sharing environments - sometimes literally in open garages - to create and develop an idea into a reality. With these bursts of energy and imagination came the need for work environments that supported this working culture. Architects, designers, product developers and owners responded by creating new spaces, places and office tools that support this need for flexibility and collaboration.
Workplace design and thinking are more advanced today than earlier decades, however the common perceptions of the work environment are still often slanted toward the single-user, private work desk. Observations and surveys indicate that individual workspaces account for 90-percent of the workspace, but are only used 30- to 40-percent of the time. A good source for research on this topic is available from The Mobile Workforce and Enterprise Applications 2007 - 2012 developed by Insight Research Corporation.
Seeing the Light
Many organizations have recognized this underutilization of space and are responding by creating spaces that are more suitable for work processes, strategy and culture of modern organizations.
Some drivers that have pushed these issues along include:
Cost of Real Estate: In an earlier blog post, I discussed how more and more, companies are seeking to improve their bottom line by cutting down on one of their largest overhead expenses - real estate. However, successful organizations are able to experience a benefit from this formal evaluation of how they are utilizing their space. (see: Reduce Office Space Needs While Enhancing Work Conditions)
Demographic Shift: More generations than ever before are working side by side in the workplace, creating a greater diversity of work styles. Baby Boomers are starting to exit the workplace. The Gen-X population is relatively small compared to the Boomer population, but the Gen-Y population is coming on strong. Larger and more technically savvy than any previous generation, Gen-Y's (also called Millennials), having grown up with the internet, cell phones and laptops, are entering the workplace with different expectations. My colleague Julie details more on that here: The Evolving Workplace – How to Meet Expectations of Millennials at Work.
Change is the Only Constant: Organizations have to be nimble and be able to quickly adapt to the changing global business environment to remain competitive. At the same time, real estate and the workplace must to be responsive to this change by developing smart lease, ownership and design solutions that allow for flexibility of rapid expansion, contraction and renovation with as little cost and disruption as possible.
Technology: Not as much a driver as it is an enabler, technology is one of the most important elements to mention when discussing the changing workplace. It continues to exponentially increase in speed, and to the access one has to information, to processes and to other people. The cost of sophisticated technology tools has significantly decreased in the past several years as newer, faster and more robust tools are developed. This offers even the smallest of companies and individuals the ability to collaborate and do business with others anywhere in the world at any time.
Clients and designers are responding to these drivers in numerous ways, including:
Increased collaboration is supported by spaces that are more communal and incorporate shared facilities and project-focused spaces as well as temporary and flexible spaces.
Focusing on creating spaces that support the mind and body through understanding how people think, perceive, sense, hear, behave, sit, stand and process information in the workplace.
Successful companies are taking great steps to understand more about their corporate culture and who they are to reinforce desired behaviors through the allocation and design of working tools, the work environment, brand and amenities.
There has been a significant push toward smart design that is focused on minimizing the impact of existing buildings and new construction on the natural environment. A greater emphasis placed on research and understanding the effects of good design on the behaviors of people has helped us all to utilize evidence-based design to create more effective workplaces.
The workplace has changed a great deal over the past two decades, and the pace of change is only increasing. While we do not know what 2030 or even 2015 will hold for us, one thing is true, however; smarter, more flexible design based on research of the general workforce and of client-specific data about culture and work processes will be mandatory for companies to remain competitive and to be successful.