September 7, 2009

Going to the office today is not much like going to the office of the past. And what’s in store for the office of the future is probably even more drastic of a change than that. The evolution of workplaces in America continues to change as we change the way we work. As companies rethink the work process, designers need to rethink the workplace. Designer Liz Potokar gives us an overview of the office organizations and the current work trends.


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Working at a local tea shop in Chicago. © Iker Gil.

Before beginning to understand the evolution of workplace trends, it is important to first understand the major influences that shape the work environment. Organizational culture has been thoroughly studied by a number of designers, researchers, and educators as a relevant industry subject. Haworth Office Furniture is one company who has published several documents on the topic. Bruce M. Tharp, of Haworth, explains four organizational types, their values, and their spatial implications in the office (Four Organizational Types, 2005). These four cultures fall on different ends of a two-dimensioned spectrum of characteristics typical among successful organizations. The two-dimensioned matrix was originally developed at the University of Michigan as the Competing Values Framework in the 1980s. Tharp built upon that framework to define the first value dimension as “flexibility, discretion, and dynamism at one end of the scale with stability, order, and control on the other… The second value dimension is marked by internal orientation integration, and unity at one end of the scale with external orientation, differentiation, and rivalry on the other.” From these two scales, four organizational cultures—Hierarch, Market, Clan, and Adhocracy—emerge.

Hierarchical cultures stress the values of standardization, authority and a disciplined organization for management. Think of stereotypical large, bureaucratic corporations, such as government agencies and law firms. Market cultures also value standardization and order, but they maintain an external focus and encourage variation over integration. Market organizations are concerned with competitiveness and productivity. They value client relationships and strategic positioning. Work in finance and insurance demonstrate this culture, as they are highly competitive fields, focused more on output instead of process. Clan cultures move away from standards and toward flexibility and discretion. Group loyalty and internal relationships are critical. The organization places emphasis on collaboration and compromise. Family-owned businesses that are passed down from generation to generation typically are clan cultures. Lastly, ad hoc organizations value flexibility and innovation. A prototypical adhocracy would be a high-tech company like Google. Dedication to experimentation and thinking outside the box unify the organization. Success to an adhocracy means staying on the cutting edge while maintaining status as an industry leader.

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Google headquarters in Mountain View, CA, designed by Clive Wilkinson Architects. © Benny Chan/fotoworks.

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Google headquarters in Mountain View, CA, designed by Clive Wilkinson Architects. © Benny Chan/fotoworks.

So when it comes to the physical workplace, what trends are we departing from and where are we heading? Office environments have come a long way since the “Great Workroom” at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Johnson Wax Building built in the late 1930s. The largest span of space in the building, the Great Workroom, housed rows and rows of desks where the employees did methodical work for a boss they often didn’t see. This concept still had a lot of influence in the 1980’s, as process and efficiency still were a company’s only measure of success. Offices were designed similar to an assembly line, and uniformity was a reflection of control. The hierarchical culture had a lot of influence during this time period and statuses were often defined by the individual’s workspace (i.e., only partners were located in the corner offices). As technology swept its way through the 1990s, the workplace environment looked at ways of improving the typical process of doing work. Technology influenced all aspects. The workplace focused on digital tools and a more dynamic process of work. Flexibility was critical as technology changed faster than most companies could keep up. The workplace had to be designed with capability to be easily changed for future use. Today, workplace priorities have built upon both the efficient process and integrated technology to include a people-centered approach. The following workplace trends have sprung from these priorities in today’s work environment.

Many of these “trends” have longer life spans than others and sustainability is one example. Sustainability may even be more than a trend. Either way, it is an increasing focus for corporations in terms of investor relations, stock value, and customer opinion. More and more clients are asking designers to incorporate sustainable design. One way for designers to think sustainable during the planning phase is to follow a “chassis-planning concept.” This method of space planning creates a sustainable interface between architectural and interior components. It ensures a lasting integration of the planning drivers over the project life cycle. Other sustainable concepts in the workplace: increasing daylight and views, using renewable and recycled materials, shrinking the work place footprint, and incorporating user-controlled comforts.

The emergence of the distributed workforce has influenced another trend of the “third place”. In various markets, the third place relates to an environment third to someone’s home and office. People trying to escape the headaches of the office and home might frequent their third place to meet with clients or focus on completing a project. This third place may be a local restaurant, hotel lobby, or neighborhood Starbucks. Today, many people are able to do their job just about anywhere (thanks to wireless technology). Some companies have begun to realize they can cut back on facility costs by reducing the number of full-time employees coming into the office. The use of touchdown spaces provides employees with temporary workspaces when they do come into the office.

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Workspring space in Chicago. © Steelcase Inc.

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Workspring space in Chicago. © Steelcase Inc.

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Workspring space in Chicago. © Steelcase Inc.

When they aren’t at the office, third places pop up as satellite offices, home-based offices, coffeehouses, and rental on-demand offices. Workspring, a concept developed by Steelcase Inc., offers people the opportunity to reserve spaces designed for collaboration. These spaces come fully equipped with business and hospitality amenities. In addition to physical environments, there are many different ways to virtually connect a distributed workforce. There is a variety of software and Internet sites that allow distant employees to create a virtual office, connect with co-workers, and collaborate on projects. This mobile freedom not only helps workers away from the office, but the workers who have no office at all. Mobile self-employment is what Daniel Pink found to be the new way of work in his first book, Free Agent Nation, in 2001. Pink explained many Americans are leaving their nominal jobs and “becoming self-employed knowledge workers, proprietors of home-based businesses, temps and permatemps, freelancers and e-lancers, independent contractors and independent professionals, micropreneurs and infopreneurs, part-time consultants, interim executives, on-call troubleshooters, and fulltime soloists.” He estimated that one-fifth of the work force is working on their own. Pink defines these workers as free agents, “working solo, operating from [their] home, using the Internet as [their] platform, living by [their] wits rather than the benevolence of a large institution, and crafting an enterprise that’s simultaneously independent and connected to others.” The third place becomes essential to these free agents who often rely on coffeehouses for free office space and Internet access in exchange for purchasing their daily caffeine intake.

The role of the office transforms as the number of distant employees increases, but the workplace is still important to highlight brand and secure loyalties. All the organizational culture types have a spectrum of values and every company carries their own beliefs and mission. Companies have now realized they can establish pride and increase employee retention rates if these values are communicated effectively and boldly throughout the work environment. Communication graphics, signage, and architectural brand elements are just some of the many ways companies can achieve this.

The open vs. closed office plan debate has gone on for decades. Of course, no plan works well for all types of companies, but today, the majority of companies are looking for openness. Over the years, the panel heights have continued to lower in height. From tall cubicle walls to barely-there dividers on benching applications, the workplace is seeing this height reduction as it opens the space up for access to daylight and views. This works best for clan and adhocracy cultures where collaboration is critical to the success of the company. In market and hierarchical cultures, where there is a need for more “heads-down” work, the need for privacy can affect how much openness is too much. In all cultures, spaces for private meetings and even private offices are still applicable, but they are becoming transparent to emulate openness.

In addition to the individual workspace, work environments also need to provide places for groups to gather and interact, places for people to meet—may it be formal, casual, planned, impromptu, face-to-face, or virtual—and teaming areas for long-term project use. Today, collaboration is aimed at innovation. Gaining popularity are alternative conferencing applications, such as lounge conference spaces, breakout spaces with integrated technology, and centralized café spaces. Flexibility plays an important role in these new types of meeting spaces, so companies can adapt to changing needs. Again, collaboration spaces are more critical to Clan and Adhocracies, but all cultures require some form of meeting space. When Clive Wilkinson Architects designed the headquarters for Google, a well-known adhocracy, they conceptualized thirteen different settings for collaboration. The work settings range from very casual settings that spark innovation, such as a clubhouse and i-bar, to more typical enclosed meeting spaces for focused collaboration. In any circumstance, the spaces allow for flexibility and reconfiguration to meet the specific needs of the employees.

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First floor, Google headquarters in Mountain View, CA. © Clive Wilkinson Architects.

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Second floor, Google headquarters in Mountain View, CA. © Clive Wilkinson Architects.

As the types of spaces in the workplace change, so will the furniture within the space. Rarely do we find rows of desks with people processing words and numbers. Today computers do the processing and the majority of employee work is people-centric—whether it’s customer-based, group-based, or digital community-based. The need for collaboration is critical for an increasing number of jobs, so office furniture is responding. Benching applications are the newest request from American corporations. Benching workstations support collaboration by providing only minor dividers between team members sharing one large work surface. Also, the need for furniture to be flexible continues, but this no longer translates to adding casters. Today, flexible furniture is lightweight, multi-functional, and integrated with technology.

The two most important influences in the workplace of the future are technology and mobility. For many (but not all), work in the future will consist of independently working at home and spontaneous team meetings. These team meetings might be held in a rented space or online. Markets and Adhocracies, with their external focus and reliance on technology innovation, will more easily adapt to the move away from typical office environments. Despite the variety of “office-replacements”, typical workplaces inevitably will still be around for certain industries. Organizations with Hierarchical and Clan cultures need the structure and internal focus that central work environments offer. However, it will be critical for those work environments to serve as a meeting point, supporting collaboration of all types. They must bring together the real and virtual employees, maintaining their company culture and facilitating efficiency.