Emerging technologies and a new generation of workers are not only changing the nature of work, they’re revolutionizing the very physical spaces where we’re doing that work.
Whether it’s driven by a greener approach to business, a desire for more deliberately designed spaces that encourage collaboration and happiness, or emerging technologies such as automation and artificial intelligence, the revolution of the physical workplace is both well underway and just beginning.
Swapna Sathyan, director of workplace strategy and change at CannonDesign, an integrated global design firm, says organizations are more sophisticated in their understanding that good workplace design can help them cope with disruptive changes in the marketplace. “Changes are occuring so fast and so drastically that it becomes imperative for leaders in this arena to think ahead,” Sathyan says.
These are the trends and innovative approaches that are shaping the places where we work today and will work in the future.
Organizations across all sectors of the economy are using a combination of research and experimentation to create physical spaces designed to positively impact fundamental human metrics such as productivity, happiness and engagement.
When CannonDesign created the North American headquarters for global insurance company Zurich in Schaumburg, Illinois, it started years before the facility opened with an extensive workplace testing and engagement effort that crowdsourced ideas from Zurich employees.
Those tests turned up a trove of interesting data, such as worker demand for sit/stand desks, natural light, private enclaves for focus-intensive work and social hubs — and also discovered a general worker distaste for casual furniture. The headquarters, which opened in 2016, includes a number of spaces that emerged in those test runs, such as a conference center, an auditorium, a coffee bar/retail concourse, a café/dining atrium and a fitness center.
CannonDesign says the worker-focused effort yielded a 30 percent increase in employee satisfaction with the new workplace, along with a 50 percent jump in team interactions and stronger employee preferences related to workplace flexibility, sustainability and wellness.
Sathyan says that as awareness grows, organizations are investing more time and resources to design their physical work environments, often with an emphasis on data-driven employee preferences and flexible spaces that can support multiple functions important to a dynamic workforce. “In addition to common areas, you need areas for focus and concentration, you need areas in which you collaborate, you need areas where you improve your health and your wellness, and you need areas where you can improve your comprehension and learning,” Sathyan says.
Looking further into the future, Lyron Bentovim, CEO of The Glimpse Group, a virtual and augmented reality company aimed at cultivating entrepreneurs in the VR/AR industry, says the coming integration of VR into office culture will curtail the need for long commutes and allow workers to collaborate more effectively from different locations around the globe. Bentovim says his vision for wide-scale VR collaboration is perhaps a decade or more from becoming a reality, but once it gains large-scale adoption, it’s likely to significantly reduce the demand for office space as telecommuting becomes more collaborative and akin to in-person interactions. “It’s going to impact commercial real estate in a very big way,” he says.
The primary barrier to wide adoption of VR in the workplace right now is hardware, he says. “You can do it, but I’d rather commute from New Jersey every day for 45 minutes than spend 10 hours in a headset, because right now they are not comfortable for a 10-hour experience,” he says. “But technology always evolves, and we’re very early in that cycle. It will be very natural for us to be in a virtual space for the 8 to 10 hours we need to be in the work day.”
Increased attention toward environmental responsibility and employee wellness is driving innovative approaches in green architecture. “Doing Right by Planet and People,” a report by the World Green Building Council, says green buildings benefit the environment, as well as a company’s bottom line and employees. “For example, using natural light instead of artificial light reduces energy consumption while boosting occupant mood and vitamin D supply, and improving productivity,” says Terri Wills, CEO of the WGBC. “Good indoor air quality and ventilation improves cognitive function and mood, and benefits overall health.”
The WGBC’s study says green building features decrease employee absenteeism, and boost productivity, satisfaction and overall health. For example, Sherwin-Williams Centro-America’s headquarters in El Salvador saw a 68 percent reduction in reported respiratory problems, a 64 percent reduction in reported allergy problems and a 44 percent reduction in absenteeism after implementing green building features. The company has calculated total annual savings of $85,000 from the features, Wills says.
Another emerging area of green workspace architecture is the concept of biophilic design, which integrates elements of the natural world into office spaces. Jim Vos of Cresa Minneapolis, a commercial real estate firm that focuses exclusively on tenants, says a client recently installed a series of green wall spaces in its office. What was essentially a well-designed wall of potted plants, Vos says, had a significant effect on the feel of the space.
“As you come through, it’s just green and it’s natural. It just changes the way the space feels, as opposed to a painted wall,” he says. “It’s got texture and energy and life. It wasn’t that hard for them to do and it doesn’t cost that much. Somebody with a watering can just needs to spend 20 minutes on the wall a couple times a week. It’s really interesting.”
The rise of the gig economy has played a considerable role in reshaping the landscape of office space in recent years. There are an estimated 14,000 co-working spaces in the world today, with the phenomenon only expected to continue to increase worldwide. An estimate by GCUC, an organization that holds co-working events around the world, projects the number of co-working spaces worldwide will grow to more than 30,000 by 2022, with the number of members accessing these types of spaces climbing even faster to 5.1 million over the same period.
Co-working in the Asia-Pacific region is expected to grow at the fastest rate over the next five years, the group projects, with China becoming the world’s largest co-working market by 2022, followed closely by India. GCUC projects similar rapid growth in co-working in South and Central America, Eastern Europe, Russia and parts of Africa.
Low-cost, digital-friendly locations such as the northern Thailand city of Chiang Mai have attracted independent entrepreneurs from all over the world and developed a robust network of co-working centers in the process. Among those working in Chiang Mai is Steve Long, an entrepreneur and self-described “digital nomad” who runs the travel website The Travel Brief. Long regularly works from a co-working cafe that he says is a combination of coffee shop, library and co-working facility.
“Working from home is fine but not ideal for many independent workers,” he says. “I find myself much more productive in a space that I mentally associate with work — and I generally do not associate my apartment with work, so I become easily distracted and do not get much done at home.”
The co-working model is gaining more attention from corporations as well. Emerging companies, looking for greater workplace flexibility, are increasingly seeking out a middle ground between co-working and long-term commercial office space, and entrepreneurs are taking steps to meet that demand. Swivel is an Austin, Texas-based online service where fast-growing companies can find and design their own plug-and-play workspace and pay for it on flexible terms. The company is positioning itself as a solution for companies that have graduated from co-working but aren’t yet ready for the commitment of building their own space.
CEO Scott Harmon says flexibility, such as shorter-term leases like Swivel provides, is the wave of the future. “As I spoke to more and more small companies that had outgrown co-working it became clear to me that they did so because they needed an office of their own,” Harmon says. “Sharing space wasn’t an option anymore because of their size, and they needed to establish a unique brand, culture and identity. However, when they were exposed to the traditional office leasing and outfitting process they found it shockingly anachronistic.”
E-commerce, which has already disrupted brick-and-mortar retail in massive ways worldwide, is projected to fundamentally reconfigure the industry in the coming years. But technology is also influencing the retail worker experience in more subtle ways.
“Technology has played a huge role in how we design today,” says Paul Kegel, who heads Kegel + Associates, a workplace design firm in Florida that has worked extensively in retail financial environments. Kegel says that for a recent banking project, the design leaned on a new piece of equipment that safely accepts and dispenses cash and that allows employees to move out from behind bulletproof glass to offer a face-to-face customer service experience.
“This has radically changed the layout and design and allowed us to create financial environments that are more like high-tech retail environments,” he says. “If it’s a more traditional financial institution that has not changed a lot, there can be a culture shock. But [the tellers] love it. It’s a less oppressive environment.”
On a broader scale, The Glimpse Group’s Bentovim says virtual technologies are going to fundamentally reshape both the worker experience and physical spaces in the retail sector over the next decade and beyond. He argues that a VR-powered future in retail will incorporate the best of brick-and-mortar retail and e-commerce into one experience. That means more retail workers will spend large chunks of their time in virtual environments rather than on salesroom floors.
“I think the workers in retail, there will be a lot less one-on-one interaction like there is right now in the store,” he says. “A lot of them will be sitting in a call center, or a virtual call center, either controlling the salesperson, or when the AI determines there needs to be an intervention, flipping into a human who will come in as the manager and help close the sale.”
In manufacturing, organizations are exploring new factory workspace configurations that support employee engagement and collaboration, even amid increasing automation that can disconnect workers from the product they’re producing.
Joe Sullivan, CEO of Vohtr, which has developed employee feedback kiosks that can be placed on factory floors to gather feedback daily, says companies are looking for ways to engage their employees to help implement the principles of lean manufacturing, which encourages rapid iterations to reduce waste and improve efficiency. The philosophy requires buy-in from employees at all levels of the organization, he says, from executives to the factory floor.
He says that as automation in manufacturing increases, organizations are grappling with how to create workplaces that allow for a closer connection to production even amid technological advances. “The role of lean is going to be figuring out how to get those workers to touch the process more, even though they have a computer moving the widgets,” he says. “That’s where the challenges lie: in the application of those technologies.”