Why the Workplace is Still Relevant
05.26.2011
Tom Mulhern in Consulting, Mobility, Workplace Design

Many of the ideas expressed in this piece originally appeared in an interview published on my good friend Andrês Tapia's blog The Inclusion Paradox.

Mobile work has been around for some time, but recent technological advances such as cloud computing and widespread network connectivity combined with the profusion of sophisticated new mobile devices has enabled knowledge workers entry in flexible work arrangements that wouldn’t have been possible even five years ago. Mobile work is becoming so prevalent that many people are questioning the future of the physical office location.

Workers today have learned how to multi-task and time-shift over the past decade, and they are embracing the move towards mobile work and flexible work arrangements. And this paradigm shift is also helping corporations trim costs associated with providing workstations for every employee, as businesses everywhere adjust to the “new normal” of a cost-constrained global economy.

But workspaces aren’t going the way of the dinosaur just yet. Optional is not the same as obsolete, and while an entirely virtual enterprise may be theoretically possible, a physical office still offers many benefits and organizations will continue to operate them. So the challenge facing businesses is not how to minimize real estate, but rather to maximize presence.

Workspaces offer several advantages that cannot be gained through telecommuting or mobile work:

  1. They facilitate positive interactions between employees (mentor-mentee relationships, impromptu “water cooler” brainstorming, and invaluable interpersonal relationships).
  2. They convey a sense of professionalism and seriousness to customers and employees.
  3. They provide space to house scarce, expensive resources such as production equipment and tech centers.

These are relevant advantages that get to heart of how workplace design can affect an organization’s effectiveness. Research has shown that workspaces can be designed to increase positive behaviors (collaboration, cross-pollination of ideas) and minimize negative behaviors (the hoarding of resources and knowledge). We’ve also learned that by paying attention to the physical, emotional and social design of workspaces, companies show their employees that they value their work.

Another key question facing organizations is which employees are best suited for office work and which are best suited for mobile work. For example, Millennials, more than any other generation, may be better prepared for mobile work, having grown up with much of the technology employees are currently using in offices. But Millennials, in many ways, are not well-served by flexible work arrangements. Unlike their more seasoned counterparts, they need to build professional relationships with colleagues as they begin to make their presence felt at an organization.

Flexible work may be better suited to mid-career workers juggling family duties and civic commitments, and late-career workers ready to take advantage of increased flexibility. Increased flexibility also challenges conventional concepts such as the “Mommy Track” and “Retirement,” by providing more options to employees ready to diversify their work schedules.

The key idea to keep in mind is that embracing mobile work does not mean office space is no longer relevant. On the contrary, office design, now more than ever, needs to provide creative spaces where employees can gather, swap ideas, and grow their businesses. Mobile work will not kill the physical office, it will force it to evolve into something better.

Tom Mulhern, a strategic planner in Gensler’s Chicago office, works at the intersection of people, space, and technology. He consults with clients and design teams to identify and create contexts for great design. Tom is fascinated with the synergies of office space and the challenges, and unexpected synergies, that designing a great workplace present. Got a workplace design question? Shoot Tom an email at tom_mulhern@gensler.com.
Article originally appeared on architecture and design (http://www.gensleron.com/).
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