March 5, 2020
By David Horowitz and Keith Perske
Over the past decade, the American workplace has transformed drastically as employers and building owners are using sustainability, office efficiency, health and well-being and employee happiness to drive their architectural, engineering and construction strategies.
Cubicles and cloistered offices have given way to open spaces, glass and a variety of different workpoints and collaborative spaces. While fluorescent bulbs, drab institutional interiors and acoustic ceilings have been replaced by natural light, biophilia and dynamic interior design. Physical spaces encourage employees to move and interact for health and creativity. Advanced technology and audio/visual infrastructure and amenities offer employees flexibility and quality-of-life improvements. Even air quality and noise pollution are part of the design conversation.
These office interior elements are no longer viewed as cutting edge; employees now expect vibrant workplaces and employers use space design to attract and retain talent. As these once novel approaches to office design become ubiquitous, workplace strategists look to what’s next for the American workplace and what it will mean for the real estate and AEC industries, particularly with the rise of job automation and smart technology.
The Reprioritization of a Square Foot
Economics is also at the heart of contemporary workplace design strategies. Open designs create more useful spaces for individuals, while also decreasing the amount of square footage needed per employee. Companies have realized cost savings as real estate prices have risen. Advanced IT capabilities have reduced the need for travel, while health and well-being-focused design elements and amenities have reduced sick time. Additionally, companies are seeking every opportunity to leverage updated sourcing and contracting efficiencies to benefit their expected capital project expenditures and schedules.
Space is being reprioritized from purely cost containment to value creation. There is focus on creating collaborative spaces that encourage cultural cohesion and creativity, while at the same time, providing spaces for quiet focus. Companies are looking at the holistic workplace – i.e. an integrated platform of work settings, enabling technology and supportive services – as a key contributor to business success.
Office space is also a vehicle for analyzing, rethinking and promoting the desired company culture. Companies increasingly understand that they can’t simply replicate a WeWork space and expect collaboration, innovation and cohesion to take root. Office design can’t replace all the work of instilling an effective culture. But, space is a manifestation and enabler of culture and should reflect the specific and unique needs of each organization.
Some companies may, for instance, have more introverts and need to account for that. One engineering firm we worked with built separate quiet spaces that minimize visual and auditory distractions for the kinds of deep focus work many of their employees engage in regularly. Another realized that the quality of experiences they were able to create for visiting clients lead directly to new business. By creating new, event-capable social spaces, designed for client experience, they saw a tenfold increase in traffic to the office.
Many firms are also realizing that unassigned workpoints don’t really work for them across the board. They may work for marketing departments or sales teams, but they don’t necessarily work well for lawyers or engineers. Customized solutions that are driven by direct evidence about an organization are more important than simply striving for efficiency.
Space alone can’t drive success for firms, but building a new office is an opportunity to take a comprehensive look at where a company culture is, where you want the firm to go, how you can get there and what part the workplace can play to help achieve that. These kinds of business-focused, strategic conversations are becoming commonplace.
Automation and a Focus on Judgment Workers
Perhaps the biggest shift in workplace design will be caused by the rise of task automation and smart technology. Transactional and computational jobs are already being outsourced abroad or replaced by automation. The next replacement is likely portions of knowledge worker jobs—i.e. positions whose main value-add is having an expansive understanding of rules, regulations, practices and esoteric facts.
Conversely, jobs that require judgment will become increasingly important. As companies invest more in professionals who make critical, complex decisions, workplaces will be called upon to provide spaces to support and empower them. More sophisticated technology built into offices will allow for better communication, while advanced data infrastructure will allow for efficiencies in knowledge-sharing.
Additionally, office designs will seek to reduce friction for these employees and make the workday more efficient. As people work harder, companies are already seeing increased demands for work-life blending, which will necessitate more efficient use of time while at the office. A nascent trend that is likely to grow is the hiring of in-office, hospitality-style support staff. These employees will be able to take care of many day-to-day personal and work tasks that often pull employees away from their jobs throughout the day. Colliers Australia has already implemented this for clients, and they’ve seen a 15 percent reduction in absenteeism in companies who use this service.
This will have a profound impact on office space design because the type of work being done will increasingly require more time for discussion, debate and presentation, leading to better decision-making.
The next iteration of the office will be geared toward personalized needs within the context of organizational goals. The breakdown of the cubicle was a transformative step for workplaces, but it is a transition toward more flexible and strategic spaces that can grow with the rapidly-shifting demands of a technologically powered corporate world.
David Horowitz is regional director, corporate interiors, Colliers Project Leaders USA, and Keith Perske is VP, workplace advisory and occupier services, Americas at Colliers International. The authors are based in New York.
Pictured, top: Zola headquarters at 7 World Trade Center. Below left: David Horowitz. Below right: Keith Perske.
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