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Wednesday
Dec042013

Reinventing the Workplace: The Cloud Collective

Image © Gensler

In our current era of ideas, knowledge workers are expected to maintain a steady flow of creative output. Yet many companies are asking their people to maintain productivity while occupying smaller spaces and taking less time.

Unfortunately, these companies are overlooking the fact that worker behavior is shifting dramatically. Consequently, the workplace has not kept pace.

Among the many factors contributing to this is generational differences – particularly the emergence in the workforce of Generation Y (born 1979-1997). Raised in an era when the Internet burst into prominence and portable computing and communications devices became widely available, these so-called Millennials have embraced technology and enjoyed a high degree of both personal and work flexibility and mobility. Those circumstances, some observers say, have also fostered Gen Y’s expectation that the world should adapt to them.

Whether or not one agrees with that characterization, it’s impossible to dismiss the fact that Gen Y is the elephant in the room when it comes to the future of workplace. By 2020, they will comprise over 50 percent of the US workforce, according to a Knoll research study titled “Generational Preferences: A Glimpse into the Future Office.” The proportion of the next largest group—Baby Boomers—will decline to 23 percent.

The result, as the study concludes, it that future workspace will need to provide a consistent, engaging work experience that supports a wide choice of work styles and seamless flow of work, regardless of location.

Our design team took this information and considered its impact on American downtowns, which are fast becoming the preferred location for companies seeking to recruit and maintain young knowledge workers. (We also took into account other considerations, such as the proliferation of new social and mobile technologies, the collaborative nature of knowledge work, and recent findings showing that access to nature in the workplace translates to lower levels of job stress and higher levels of job satisfaction.)

We worked with the premise that, as major cities densify, the opportunity to expand the built environment will shift from land space to air space. In addition, because the building sector accounts for a whopping 40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., according to Green Source magazine, we felt compelled to consider a distributed workplace model that takes advantage of built structures, rather than adding the demand on resources caused by constructing and operating new buildings.

The shift to distributed workspaces is already underway. In a 2011 Knoll report titled “Five Trends that Are Dramatically Changing Work and the Workplace,” the authors note that we are already witnessing the diversification of traditional corporate offices to other alternatives. They include non-assigned workspaces, mobile furniture systems with wireless voice and data connections, dispersed satellite offices, and traditional telecommuting.

The report goes on to say that, as companies seek to provide a greater variety of work settings to support collaboration and diversity of needs, “workers will increasingly work in other distributed workplaces: at satellite offices, supplier and customer locations, offshore locations and home.”

That’s where The Cloud Collective comes in.

Image © Gensler

The Cloud Collective, our vision for the future workplace, would comprise a set of parts, each with specific functional characteristics suited to support the types of activities that will dominate knowledge work in the year 2020. Rather than build new tall buildings in urban settings, we propose attaching adaptable work spaces to existing buildings.

We envision these spaces as small, additive capsules that serve distinct roles for knowledge work. They come in three types, each programmed to support a different group or individual need.

  • Contemplation capsule. This space would provide a getaway place where focused, individual tasks are executed and then contributed to a larger whole.
  • Connection capsule. This module would provide space for small to medium-sized teams to gather to generate ideas and solutions collaboratively and exchange information. We developed a design for this capsule that incorporates pliable walls with integral doors that can be easily adjusted to provide varied levels of privacy.
  • Community capsule. This is a “group think” and gathering space that supports large interactions and flexible programs, the type of space needed for team-building, celebrations, and “community engagement” workshops.

In isolation, each capsule has a small role to play. But, in combination, their value for workplace productivity is multiplied by cross-pollinating diverse people and work settings. And, if the parts are located strategically to complement a company’s “home base,” The Cloud Collective should yield other benefits, such as reducing carbon footprint and transportation impacts on the environment, increasing the number of usable, productive hours per day, and amplifying the presence of education, resources and community.

By offering a range of work settings tailored to the modern workforce, these distributed workspaces could create a win-win situation for both an organization and its people. “Organizations are recognizing that giving people the ability to work from anywhere can benefit both parties,” noted a 2012 Citrix workplace of the future whitepaper. “The business reaps the rewards of a highly mobile and agile business with increased productivity and lower costs while people have the flexibility to choose the ideal time, place and device for their work.”

The nature of work is clearly changing. For a society like ours, which is growing its economy on thoughts and ideas, it’s time to adapt to a workplace that allows ideas to thrive in the cloud.

The following team members contributed to this work: Jenny West, John Doyle, Julie Guirl, Alexandria Holtzer and Ron Zhou.

Ronnie Leone is a lead designer in Gensler's Denver office. She thrives on collaborating and listening to clients and transforms their goals and needs through design. She prides herself in building relationships with clients, colleagues and mentoring younger designers. Contact her at ronnie_leone@gensler.com.

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