Blog - March 15, 2013

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Is the iPad transforming the workplace?


Blame it on the iPad. Or the recession. Or Gen Y.

Whatever the reason, and truthfully a number of factors are contributing, it’s clear workplace design is changing again.

We’ve entered the age of taking the office anywhere anytime, and there’s no turning back. As an architect, part of my job is to understand the trend, its root causes and the complex impacts on office culture.

Let’s quickly look at a recent technology shift. The tablet category barely existed two years ago, and as of April 2012, Apple had sold a reported 67 million iPads. Add to that competing tablets on the market and it’s clear the category is here to stay. With publications like The New York Times and Wall Street Journal reporting on the growing reliance on mobility in today’s workplace, we’re becoming more conversant on the topic of technology revolutionizing where and how we work.

I recently read an article in which Steve Jobs and workplace designs were mentioned in the same sentence. The piece concluded with the following statement: “interaction = innovation.” As developers, real estate professionals and architects work to locate and design the office space that evokes our clients’ brand, attracts bright young talent and accommodates a 21st-century workforce, the term “interaction = innovation” is an interesting concept to ponder.

Thanks to the portability, versatility and flexibility that tablets – and cloud computing – provide, the coveted corner office can now be a coffee shop table. Workers are untethered from their physical desks, so space requirements shift to an entirely different model. Company leaders can’t help but take notice of the accessibility that technology affords and the physical restraints that it eliminates.

Cubicles were to the 20th century what mobile working is to the 21st

It goes without saying that the economic climate has prompted businesses large and small to re-evaluate their real estate needs. Companies pay more attention to the bottom line, and are more willing to tear down cubicle walls and gut corner offices to reduce square footage and simultaneously squeeze in more employees, providing a mixture of work environments.

Federal government clients, like the Department of Defense and the Department of Justice, also are moving in this direction to decrease spending and reduce real estate assets.

Many organizations are moving away from the idea of a permanent personal office altogether. Statistics show workers are away from their desks 25 percent of the day. Employers are capitalizing on that by creating a “hoteling” model, which has been around since the 1990s but is gaining more traction today than ever before. Hoteling is essentially an alternative office, whereby workers can electronically reserve desk space when they need to be in the office. It’s another way for companies to reduce their real estate footprints. With less space allocated to individual workstations, the rest of the office can be designed to provide a variety of work settings – from casual soft seating for individual and group work, to cafes and juice bars, to technology rich conference areas that provide access to a world beyond the fixed real estate.

On the surface, it appears that today’s sophisticated, interactive technology creates opportunities for employers to reduce square footage per employee, reduce costs, increase interaction and increase innovation. But is it that simple of a win-win?

The catch 22

While the new workspace is in fact quickly becoming mobile and virtual, and employees can access applications, files, and operating systems from the click of an iPad or Smartphone button, there is still a multi-generational workplace at work. We developers, designers and employers must find a way to balance both worlds.

Generation X is comfortable with technology and working from the cloud, but the older generation is more accustomed to the traditional office space. Baby boomers in particular believe the corner office is a measure of success, and changing that perception and identifying other benchmarks of success is a challenge. At the same time, companies today are increasingly aware of their location, as employees need and want to be closely connected – and in close proximity – to coffee shops, gyms, and restaurants.

So as businesses change where they do business, and the space in which they conduct business, a couple of seemingly contradictory trends are playing out. The first is that amidst all the collaboration spaces and open floor plans, isolation is as prevalent as it was in the cubicles of yesterday. Employees are isolating themselves from the open plan with noise-canceling headphones to tune out the chatter that open spaces encourage.

Secondly, as work environments become portable, it’s harder to keep the corporate culture together. And while we’re busy designing open, community office spaces, employee engagement is declining. Corporations are struggling to keep the culture in tact, and having to turn to technology – social media – to act as the keeper of the culture.

Ultimately, we’re at an interesting crossroads — but there’s no stopping technology. We’ll continue to see more clients requiring space that doesn’t reflect status as much as it does collaboration, creativity and flexibility — as tool for success.