Why the Future of Workplace Design Looks Like Your College Campus
Written by Adam Rowe
Miss your college campus, when a trip across the quad would occasionally take 45 minutes because you just couldn't stop talking to every friend and professor you met? Apparently, your next employer might miss that in-person interaction, too. Today, over 80 percent of modern tech companies are designed to encourage face-to-face interaction - and more than 40 percent have outdoor workspaces.
At least, that's what a new study from a team led by workplace design expert Jonathan Webb has uncovered. It's not just tech: Firms in industries including law and cosmetics are making similar changes, as employers everywhere are realizing that the design of their workspace itself impacts employee's health and happiness.
I interviewed Jonathan, who's the VP of Workplace Strategy at KI, in order to discuss just why and how these fast-growing technology companies are spurring a cross-industry workplace transformation.
Start With the Work Style
What design changes might a modern workplace have that a workplace from ten or twenty years ago might not have? To understand this, we'll need to examine what's changed: Startups are designing their own products and services, and they need an entirely new workplace process to produce their deliverables. And high-tech fast-growth companies are moving so quickly and iterating so frequently that a lot has changed just in the last decade.
“High-tech fast-growth companies are helping to shape the workplace of the future by spearheading trends that designers are incorporating into spaces all over the country, regardless of industry,” Jonathan says. “Recruitment and retention continues to be the number one issue for many of our clients. The labor gap compounds the issues. And younger workers are demanding the tech tools that allow them to work anytime, anywhere. This all impacts how a workplace is designed.
Our efforts to design the workplace are no longer based on headcount and ratios of workers-to-workstations. Rather, the design process begins with the discovery of what work styles are needed to maximize productivity and efficiency within the office.”
These work styles result in a variety of workspaces wider than the stereotypical “rows of cubicles.” Examples offered by Jonathan include “versatile café spaces” that can be used for work or dining, workstations that can be reconfigured for privacy, or flexible remote coworking spaces with plenty of video conferencing tools.
3 Trends Drive Workplace Changes
Jonathan and his team interviewed 400 architects and designers who work on tech offices nationwide for a recent six-month study to determine what the driving force lie behind change. The result?
“We found three emerging trends that these high-tech fast-growth companies seemed to care most about in their workplace. The first was work-life balance. The second was wellness. And the third, not surprisingly, was technology itself.
After looking through so much marketplace research that pointed to work-life balance as a continuing trend, we wanted to fact check with specifiers ourselves. During our survey, we asked the designers: Is work-life balance being discussed as a key priority for employees on the tech projects you are working on? (As a reminder, we were surveying 'tech-focused' designers.) 58 percent said yes,” Jonathan explains.
These trends - work-life balance, wellness, and technology - can't be pinned to a specific generation, but instead drive every working generation today.
One Big Influence: Colleges
Businesses are hiring young talent, and those workers are accustomed to life on college campuses, which can lead to whiplash when they find a workplace that relies on opposing functions. But that's starting to change.
The college student lives in an environment that offers many shared spaces - cafeterias, dorm lounges, and libraries - all oriented towards ongoing training and development, goals that driven workers also share. Companies hoping to replicate this environment are devoting more square footage to “collaborative, conference, support and amenity spaces.”
“Upwards of 90 percent of students that make the transition from college setting to work setting are 'lost in transition',” Jonathan says, “largely due to the differences in work styles their place of employment offers and the differences between that work setting and the work setting they've become accustomed to at college. If you truly want to attract and retain younger talent, go back to college and watch how this generation works.”
Today, four in 10 employers prioritize employee satisfaction when deciding office layouts, indicating a trend that's moving forwards.
Another Concern: Remote Workers
As the loyal TechCo reader knows, remote workers are on the rise: Just 14 percent supplemented their in-person work with remote work in 2012, but nearly two-thirds use remote options today, and 32 percent of international workers rely on remote work regularly. Unsurprisingly, this shift towards remote workspaces has affected the way businesses look at their physical ones.
“The one-for-one ratio of employee to workstation has gone by the wayside for many of our clients. This obviously impacts the overall design of the workplace, too. As technology makes it easier for workers to be untethered, organizations need to adjust their design thinking to accommodate the work styles coveted by workers,” Jonathan notes.
A Cure for Wellness
As the workplace evolves, the next issue to address might be employee health: Too many workaholics are choosing to come to work even when sick and unable to perform at their best. The term for this problem, “presenteeism,” hints at the solution: Not being present. Given the negative results that the issue causes, tech companies are beginning to take countermeasures.
“When employees come to work and are not fully functioning, research shows their productivity can be cut by one-third or more. And we're not even talking about the productivity of those they might infect when they're coughing during a meeting.
“We can see these concerns play a role in current workplace trends. When we conducted our primary research, we asked our architecture and design survey participants if their tech clients' priorities for wellness had changed during the past 2 years. 76 percent said yes, that wellness was discussed more frequently, while 22 percent hadn't noticed a change - which meant in 98 percent of all cases, prioritizing wellness in workplace design was either stable or rising.”
The immediate future of workplace design, then, appears to be work-life balance, integrated technology advancements, and a focus on making sure no one's coughing up a lung. We should all be able to get behind that vision for the future.