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The Future of Work

Work is urban, integrated, and more integral to organizational culture than ever. Image © Connie Zhou

Anniversary milestones are often an ideal time to reflect on where we’ve been and to position ourselves for the future. As Gensler turns 50, thinking about the workplace seems like a natural way to mark the occasion. Art Gensler started our firm by focusing on interior architectural at a time when “workplace” wasn’t even a term. The physical workplace of today, where we spend so many of our waking hours, has evolved and changed dramatically from the ones we’ve designed over the last 50 years. And the next 50 years may bring even more fascinating changes.

Where We’ve Been

In Gensler’s early days, a key driver of corporate workplace design was real estate efficiency. Open plan workstations aimed at reducing square footage were just becoming mainstream. Tall panels around each workstation provided perceived visual and acoustic privacy. Years later, the cartoon “Dilbert” made much fun of these spaces. Space standards were based on employees titles, not their function, and the amount of real estate you were given reflected your position within the organization. As the first generation of personal computers became common in the workplace, designers found that big CRT monitors did not fit on a typical desk, so the corner workstation was introduced. To get electrical power and data cables to each desk, workstations were linked together—the workstations got even larger as a result. Because organizations were often changing, “universal planning” replaced re-configuring space as the common way to move people in the 1980’s. This not only saved real estate, but time and cost as well.

By the mid 1990’s, technology was driving much of the change that we saw in workplace design. Personal computers got smaller. Flat screens allowed a computer to once again fit on a desk. Panels got shorter or went away entirely to encourage more collaboration and openness between colleagues. As organizations got flatter, space standards becomes fewer and more of a universal size and layout. This was the Age of Flexibility. As equipment size reduced and work became less paper-based and more electronic, the desk size reduced as well. The concept of “benching” was introduced and staff began sitting together at one long table or work surface.

By the late 1990’s, laptops and cell phones had dropped in cost and become readily available for both business and personal use. People were no longer tethered to the desk. Wi-Fi gave employees the ability to freely move around the office. This was the Age of Mobility. We measured how our clients were using space and found that people were only at their assigned seat 40-50% of the workday. They were working in conference and team rooms as much as they were working at their desks. Working from home was becoming more prevalent, but internet connections were still slow for big applications and many still preferred to work at the office for speed and access to specialized equipment.

Where We are Today

Today, organizations are moving data to the cloud. We are no longer tethered to servers in the office. Smaller devices make it easier to be even more mobile. This is now the Age of Work Anywhere! As Martha Johnson, former GSA Administrator, said “Work is what you do, not where you are.” There are numerous drivers of this change including technology, multi-generations, and globalization. But one of the biggest drivers in my mind is that the work people are doing has fundamentally changed.

In our 2008 U.S. and U.K. Workspace Survey research, we uncovered four different work modes universal to all workers: focus, collaboration, learning and socializing. We measured how people work, where they work, and how effectively the workplace supported their efforts. What we found is that work has dramatically shifted, but the workspace has not kept pace. For the most part, the stereotypical work environment most organizations inhabit is no longer effective. And the exciting news? The companies that do have highly effective workspaces rate higher in terms of business performance and innovation measures. Conclusion? Space matters.

We have continued to measure how work is changing and evolving. In 2013, we discovered that workers are spending more time in focus or individual work and less time in collaborative or group work. But those organizations that provide “balanced spaces,” which prioritize both focus work and collaborative work equally, outperform those in “unbalanced spaces” on every creative and innovation metric we measured! Clearly, space impacts individual as well as organizational performance. We are learning that we need a variety of work settings to support the varied and personal ways of working. Mobile technologies now easily allow us to move from one effective space to another without interrupting our flow of work. And we need spaces that support this easy shift from individual work requiring focus to group work requiring collaboration.

But it’s not just about performance. Space also plays a powerful role as a connector. It can better connect people to people for face-to-face or virtual group work. It can better connect employees to organizations and to their mission. It can better connect people to data. In fact, we already have the technology to sense a person’s presence and automatically turn on lights and power, adjust the air temperature, and respond to a user’s behavior upon arrival. There are wearable technologies and embedded digital technologies that can connect people, places, and things through cloud computing and big data; these technologies are already finding their way into the built environment. The confluence of these technologies are allowing the physical environment to respond to individuals’ behavior and pushing information to occupants in a seamless and personal way. Workplace can now respond to personal workstyles and react to how occupants are actually using the space. The boundary between digital and physical are more blurred than ever.

Positioning for the Future

Now that people can work anywhere, the real question becomes how do we create workspaces where people want to be? The answer lies in understanding what people really care about.

First, the work itself really matters. In his book Why We Work and his TED talk of the same name, Barry Schwartz explores what makes work satisfying. He notes that we don’t work just for the money, but for the meaning and soulfulness that comes from a job well done. In his book Drive, Dan Pink calls it a feeling of purpose. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls it a state of “flow.” I believe it is all these things.

In a world fragmented by digital technologies and boundless streams of sometimes conflicting information, people more than ever seek purpose, meaning, and a strong sense of community with each other from the places they work. Work has become a central marker of selfhood in addition to being a source of gainful employment. Workspaces that engage employees in personal ways and seek to tangibly improve the experience of end users have a much better chance at bringing a sense of personal fulfillment to each and every individual worker. And this sense of fulfillment leads to more satisfied employees, because when the space gives the end user a sense of comfort and ease, that person is better able to focus on the things that make them happy. And that includes their work. It can assist people to find true joy and satisfaction in completing the task at hand and feeling energized at the end of the day.

As we move forward, we must remember that people are individuals with singular tastes, preferences, and goals. There is no one-size-fits-all workspace anymore. In fact, providing one size fits none. Personal customization has become standard operating procedure for everything from mobile phone apps to shopping, and workspace design must embrace this trend. People want autonomy to control when and where to work. That includes workspaces that provide a choice and a variety of work settings—in fact, our research shows that providing choice improves job satisfaction. Workspaces must also be customizable to adapt. We must never forget that the next iteration of change is always on the horizon, and building a level of customization and adaptability can allow workspaces to evolve with the times.

Wellness is another key factor in employee satisfaction. People want to know their organization cares about their individual wellbeing, and providing access to great coffee, healthy food choices, fitness amenities, abundant natural light, and views of outdoor spaces shows workers the level of care they crave. It also keeps workers healthier and that’s good for organizations and society in general. What if, in the future, employees left the office at the end of the day actually healthier than they were when they arrived in the morning? Exploring how our corporate campuses, buildings, and workplace can foster healthier habits is an exciting challenge.

This year was a tipping point. At 27 percent, the millennial generation now make up the largest population of the workforce. Millennials have different expectations from their predecessors; they are approaching the sharing economy indifferent ways. These differences are changing the ways we shop and bank, use social media, and work.

But we are discovering that the impact on the physical work environment at the office is not vastly different. What Millennials want, is what we all want: to enjoy purposeful work, to be a part of an exciting and vibrant organizational community, and to be treated as unique individuals who are valued as part of that organization. The potential of the physical work environment to stimulate creativity, new thinking, connections, engagement and expression has never been greater. We must embrace this opportunity and constantly keep our eyes trained on the future.

Janet Pogue McLaurin is a Principal in Gensler’s Washington, D.C. office. She co-leads the firm’s Workplace Practice and is a frequent writer and speaker on the critical issues affecting the design of high performing work environments. Contact her at janet_pogue@gensler.com.

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