Recently I was invited to participate in a roundtable discussion of workplace trends and issues. David Lathrop of Steelcase was hosted by the architectural firm HOK for the evening gathering in Newport Beach, California. Aside from the beautiful venue and great dinner this was an opportunity to discuss one of our industry’s front burner issues with leaders from across the built environment spectrum. Two of LA’s most notable real estate brokers along with Pam Light and Clay Pendergrast from HOK, and David, Rebecca Skinner and Laura Shirley (also of Steelcase) represented the commercial real estate and workplace research sectors. End users in attendance represented a good market cross section, including large healthcare research and insurance portfolios, a major policy research non-profit, a private sector global development institution, and a capital investment group.
As most will be well aware, the trend in office design of late has been toward highly collaborative spaces, of the sort often seen at the Office Snapshot blog. In most applications this has translated to a “benching” model as opposed to the more traditional private office and cubicle format. The contract furniture design and manufacturing industry has focused recent efforts around this model, leading to a preponderance of type in the marketplace which in itself tends to drive “adoption.”
But is this type of open, highly-collaborative space really sustainable, and will it in fact become the de-facto standard much as the cubicle was before it? What are its advantages and disadvantages, and who is it right / not right for? How will changing workplace strategies and policies affect buildings and work places? How must buildings themselves change? Those were the questions we asked and discussed through the evening. Here then is my take away summary of the themes and independent thoughts of the evening.
Successful workplace design and strategy must anticipate and support business objectives as a first order of … business. Business leaders are more focused on evidence based design and are challenging the design-build-operate community to deliver projects that deliver real benefits. The C-Suite applies the same rigor to these decisions as it does to others. Yes, leaders want great design, but great design that actually works and supports business functionality as its first priority.
- Business before architecture – design projects and products that work.
- Design should anticipate and sustain the evolution of business process – not be obsolete when built.
- Architecture should mean something, creating environments where people flourish.
Workplace strategy affects talent attraction and retention. The talent game has always been and will always be the number one game in business. Workplace design and policies, then, should support strategies and efforts to recruit and retain the best talent an organization can attract. As generational changes occur in the work force it is natural that the workplace should evolve to align with new styles and work cultures. But, are generational changes long-lasting changes? While the immediate response may affirm this supposition, it can be expected that newer generation workers will modify their needs and styles over time. They may be starting from a different place, but life experiences will shift their priorities, values and needs. Workplace strategies should accommodate these shifts.
- Engage current workers in the design process to better align outcomes with culture and accelerate adoption of changes.
- Workplace socialization is a key to adoption by younger generation workers and yields improved collaboration and innovation.
- Balance the “we” with the “I” – the “we” is what attracts and keeps top talent.
The new “open office” trend is not without its challenges. The bench model that is so prevalent in current design does respond to younger worker’s need for increased socialization, but also presents significant challenges that must still be resolved. Resolving these challenges may require policy and/or protocol shifts more than changes in design as the human side of the equation takes on added significance. New behaviors and adaptive mechanisms must be developed and learned through shared experience.
- The need for a collaborative experience does not trump the need to produce.
- There is a basic conflict between the benching design ethic and cognitive work that requires extended periods of concentration.
- Technology is lagging, not leading the shift to a more open and egalitarian workplace, e.g. acoustic privacy.
- New studies are investigating patterns in human dialogue, including the interpretation of “honest signals” and measuring the quality of communication.
Next week: How does the changing workplace affect the future of organizations and the buildings they use?
Photo Credit: Steelcase