With the changes in way we work, the role of the workplace is changing too. One of the most visible effects of the implementation of the New Way of Working in organizations is the radical re-design of office space; the creation of new office space that is breaking with all traditional rules and design concepts. The office, as we know it, has not kept up with the pace of the transitions of the tools we use every day. Offices therefore need to transform from dull ‘production facilities’ to inspiring meeting places, in which no effort is spared to create a new sense and experience of ‘work’. Creating inspiring offices also happens outside the realm of the New Way of Working. Companies like Google and Virgin use their office design as a way to inspire employees and increase creativity (Groves et al., 2010). See impressions of the Google Tel Aviv office in header, photography by Itay Sikolski, and the Adobe Utah office below, photography by Eric Laignel.
Creating inspiring offices does not have to come at a great cost. While gaining on attractiveness and efficiency, the actual cost per employee may even go down (Gillen & Jeffery, 2014). Also, the time lost on distractions can be reduced (Laing et al., 2011). The use of office space is often very inefficient; most desks are unoccupied for most of the day. Research shows that office utilization peaks at only 42% on any given day (Laing, 2013). This could imply that, using the logic of an industrial mind-set, the best solution is to eliminate ‘wasted’ office space by compressing activities into a flexible, smaller, office. Though flexibility does improve efficiency and reduce cost, this is by no means the objective of creating inspiring offices. The real challenge is that office space will boost creativity, eliminating or transcending the need to reduce costs.
The office of the future has inspirational, wireless networked, shared, multipurpose spaces that redefine organizational boundaries. It creates intentional or unintentional collisions and collaboration between people from different disciplines and backgrounds. The logic behind this is, that when people collide, have encounters and unplanned interactions, performance improves and creativity and innovation is triggered. Spaces that are designed to promote such encounters increase the likelihood of collisions, and data show that more collisions create positive outcomes (Waber et al., 2014). In fact, money spent on improving personal productivity, could better be used to design workspaces that promote collisions and interactions that will make organizations – not individuals – more successful. Based on the view that physical proximity leads to more casual interactions, which in turn may lead to breakthroughs for products, companies like Apple, Yahoo! and Google belief that having workers collaborate in the office is crucial to their success (Isaacson, 2011; Kastelein, 2014). In some cases, like at Yahoo!, existing telework arrangements were even reversed to foster communication and collaboration (Vidyarthi et al., 2014).
No matter how well technology supports working in a virtual world, physical face-to-face interactions have not lost their importance. The most valuable form of communication remains face-to-face, followed by phone. The least valuable forms of communication are e-mail and text. Research found that 35% of the variation in a team’s performance, can be accounted for simply by the number of face-to-face exchanges among team members (Pentland, 2012). Too much communication will however decrease performance, as it consumes too much of the ‘working time’. Informal communication also remains important: the best predictors for the productivity of a team are the team’s energy and engagement outside the formal meetings. Together these two factors explain one-third of the variations in group performance. The coffee machine is not a cost but a gain. Teams with denser, more frequent, and more diverse interaction patterns are more productive as a whole (Reagans & Zuckerman, 2001). Proximity boosts communication; we are four times as likely to communicate regularly with someone sitting six feet away from us, as with someone sixty feet away, and almost never communicate with colleagues on separate floors or in separate buildings (Allen, 1977). Distance-shrinking information technologies have not bridged this gap. Co-located workers e-mail each other four times as frequently as colleagues in different locations, leading to 32% faster project completion times (Waber et al., 2014).
In the past decade, digital-savvy workers, escaping from the office but also avoiding the isolation of working at home, found a solution for their need to interact: co-working spaces. The initial organic growth of co-working locations, also called third-place offices, has by now become one of the new ways to encounter and engage (see image above of the WeWork Wonder Bread Factory shared office in Washington DC). And with success: in a survey under 1500 co-workers 75% of them report an increase in productivity, and 80% an increase of their business network (Foertsch & Dullroy, 2012). Even though work has become mobile and distributed, physical interactions and work environments remain vital.
The question is how to optimize the range and variety of the work environment, so it may become an instrument for workers to encounter and engage. The answer seems to lie at hand: create inspiring co-working spaces and increase the chance of collisions. As co-working locations are open to anyone, organizational boundaries within offices are likely to fade. New offices will support co-habited workspaces: co-working locations not only for own personnel but also for workers from outside the organization. In the future, offices may become small cities, neighborhoods, where communities encounter and engage, and in which the probability of many different kinds of interactions (i.e. social, intellectual, commercial) is enhanced and facilitated.
Above: Inside & outside the Wieden+Kennedy office New York, photography Bruce Damonte and Raymond Adams; and the Philips Lighting office in Eindhoven, photography Jonathan Andrew.
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