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The Office Strikes Back

The following article is based on a presentation I gave to a New London Architecture panel at MIPIM, Europe's largest real estate and property convention.

Follow #bcofutures on Twitter to see the discussion surrounding this event and hear comments from contributors.

The office is striking back. After years of unprecedented technological, economic and societal change, companies are re-establishing the physical work place as the first choice place to work for a liberated and mobile workforce. The next decade will see even more change in the world of work, and I believe it will have even more of an impact on office design than what has taken place in the last 20 years.

As my colleagues and I consider the future of the workplace, here are several ways that I believe fundamental change within the workplace will take place over the next two decades.

1. Effectiveness will trump efficiency

The desk as a unit of measure will become less important to organisations. I may have to whisper this one, but I firmly believe the focus on driving efficiency of our working environments through reductive space strategies will no longer be as important in the near future.

Whilst we have mastered sophisticated space measurement techniques to help corporate real estate/property teams do more with less, we have, one could argue, been barking up the wrong tree for too long by relentlessly focusing our attention on the smaller proportion of the two highest costs of our clients’ businesses: space and people. The latter is much larger and more impactful cost to organizations.

People generally constitute 85 percent of businesses' operating costs. This is what really keeps CEOs awake at night, and the c-suite will increasingly be less focused on real estate cost savings and more worried about organisational effectiveness, productivity, and satisfaction of their employees.

2. Work has left the building

Rumors of the death of the desktop computer are (not) greatly exaggerated. Within three years 82 percent of all computers sold will be mobile devices. So within 10 years it is more than likely the desktop computer will be defunct and viewed as arcane as the typewriter is now. One could therefore argue that the death of the desktop computer is the harbinger of the death of the desk.

Equipping people to be mobile within and outside of the office is now the default strategy of most businesses. This is a clear response to the pervasive, enabling technologies we all now use, and it reflects employees’ expectations of being empowered to work flexibly.

But the one size fits all strategy seldom works and more attention will need to be given to the unintended consequences—this is what I call mobility’s dark side. Implementing mobility solutions without due care and attention to its overall impact on the general health and well being of people can have negative consequences for a workforce.

3. The city is the office

Traditional boundaries between organisations will begin to dissolve and workplaces as we know them will become more fluid. The phenomenal growth of third place workspaces within our major cities could signal a gradual shift away from traditional city planning concepts of downtown/central business districts. Both individual and corporate occupiers will begin using more of the interstitial space in our cities– the spaces between – where the new generation of footloose workers can access their technology via the cloud, rather than the office. These new work environments will inevitably enable employees to migrate and congregate more freely in the places where both connectivity and community are maximised.

The growth of the coworking movement in the U.S. and Europe also indicates some fundamental shifts in our thinking about what constitutes an office. The values that coworkers identify with are based on open sharing principles. Coworkers thrive in the places where collaboration, openness, accessibility, community and sustainability are values that are openly expressed. These new types of working environment are responding to a new generation of work.

4. Presenteeism is dead…long live presence

The old rules of management by observation are stubbornly resistant to change in many mainstream organisations, but presenteeism is no longer a true measure of productivity and change will be inevitable.

As mainstream organizations begin to adopt the principles of management 2.0, the old rules of hard power (directive management/command and control), often symbolized and indeed reinforced in traditional office design, will gradually be replaced the new rules of soft power (management by influence/culture and community) and reflected in a new paradigm of office design.

Managing your people by observing they are sitting at their desks, transfixed to their screen, is no guarantee of productive tasks being done for your company. Indeed, they may be productively doing other things that are equally important to them.

People are now juggling their time and work/life priorities in far more complex ways than our predecessors. A study of the activity spent in one day on the internet revealed astonishing data of the time we now spend each day in virtuality.

In just one day:

  1. 294 billion emails are sent with the average corporate user sending/receiving 112 emails
  2. 172 million different people visit Facebook, 40 million Twitter, 22 million LinkedIn, and 20 million Google
  3. 4.7 billion minutes are spent on Facebook
  4. 532 million statuses are updated on social networking platforms.

That’s a lot of time being consumed– but this kind of presence is important. The exponential growth of the social media phenomenon means that as social animals, we increasingly value our E-presence as much as we value our actual presence in the workplace.

Being seen to be present online is now critical to one’s personal cache, and being seen by your boss to be present at work should then, theoretically no longer have real value to people. Yet we still fret about it. Recent research by the UK National Health Service (NHS) seems to indicate a marked decrease in the number of sick days taken during the economic downturn. It seems job insecurity may be impeding fundamental change about how, when and where we choose to work, but it is almost certainly a moratorium on this significant shift in peoples’ working patterns.

The office strikes back

I believe we are on the brink of an exciting new shift in the way we think about the design of workplace environments. Since work has left the building the fundamental purpose of the office will be revisited and re-imagined. The office will still be very much part of the fabric of our working lives for quite some time yet, but it will certainly be a different place in the future.

We will need new, creative insights and design solutions for accommodating management 2.0 thinking such as presence over presenteeism. We will need to learn new rules of engagement and a new design language to meet the challenges for this new generation of business leaders who will task us with designing un-designed space. Companies will seek to reclaim the office as the first choice place to work for their liberated, mobile teams and as the home base and social nexus of the organisation’s brand, values, culture. Actuality and virtuality will collide in a blended, seamless way and focus will shift more towards culture, brand, and experiential working environments.

What a great time to be working in this field!

Philip Tidd is Gensler’s Head of Consulting, EMEA and has spent the last 20 years working across Europe at the sharp end of where business and buildings/spaces meet. He regularly works across the city and office scale and is a passionate believer in harnessing the power of creative insights to solve clients’ complex problems. Contact him at philip_tidd@gensler.com.

Reader Comments (2)

One of the best articles I've read on the changing nature of business. Thank you for sharing!
03.25.2012 | Unregistered CommenterErin F.

Eloquent. Thank you. My company, www.liquidspace.com, is working on technology solutions to bridge the gap between management and employees navigating the new workplace landscape from internal shared spaces to the interstitial spaces beyond the office.

we've just released this light video which conveys the basics of what we do: www.youtube.com/liquidspace

I'd enjoy the opportunity to share more with you on how we are engaging with large enterprises.

Mark Gilbreath
CEO LiquidSpace
08.21.2012 | Unregistered CommenterMark Gilbreath

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