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Collapse of the Corporate Office

A glimpse into the boundless future of workplaces

This is the traditional corporate office:

Photo: Boston Globe

The modern office integrates new working preferences with traditional elements:

Top and bottom right: BCG NYC Office. Bottom left: Co-working space.

But the office of tomorrow bears little resemblance to its cubicle-focused ancestor:

Top left: Facebook Building 20. Top right: Beach vacation. Bottom: IDEO’s Work on Wheels concept.

The Beginning of the End

The corporate office has never been a single, staid style, but rather an intricate mosaic. New colors and shapes are continuously added, ever so subtly changing the overall appearance. Each change is hardly perceived, but the aggregate produces jarring transformation: the simultaneous creation and destruction of space. Phil Edwards at Vox provides a fantastic six-minute overview of how we went from the traditional to the modern office design:

We are living through this transition. And while many factors have contributed to this monumental shift, disruptive companies stand out as a driving force.

The New Kids on the Block

The deathblow to traditional, stodgy corporate culture came from an unlikely group — garage tinkerers who became tech giants. If you asked 10 people on the street which company has the best office perks, most would probably say Google. In fact, so great is Google’s ethos that there’s a movie highlighting the company’s unique culture and internships. Moreover, Google receives a lot of press for its intense interviewing and wacky office perks, ranging from slides to nap pods.

A nap pod at Google’s Mountain View campus.

Being a high-tech company flush with cash and a hot brand, Google attracted top intellectual talent in the technology and business sectors. Faced with equivalent paychecks, young professionals opted for the company that offered free commutes, free food, free gym classes, and no dress code. Google practically made “fun” one of its core pillars. For the emerging millennial generation, this seemed like a no-brainer. Corporations the world over saw the writing on the wall: To attract the best new talent, they must compete on office design and perks. However, as Vox pointed out in its video, this isn’t as easy as removing walls. There must be care and intention behind the open designs, otherwise the open floor plans will fail to increase worker productivity or happiness.

A fantastic example of intentional design being used to increase productivity is Steve Jobs’ initial proposition for Pixar headquarters. He envisioned an office with only one set of bathrooms in the main atrium.

Pixar’s Steve Jobs Building. Bathrooms are behind the two doors along the back wall.

The point? He believed this would create more serendipitous encounters between employees, thus better cross-pollinating ideas. Though he was convinced to add an additional set of bathrooms upstairs, this care in office design is essential to creating not just new spaces to work, but also better ones.

Now let’s explore the seemingly simple question: What is an office?

The Remote Profession

Perhaps no professional is as mobile as consulting. A consultant could be at a telecommunication company’s corporate headquarters one month and in a mining operation’s on-site office the next. As a result, consultants are true remote workers. They do not have a consistent office setting; rather, they adapt to whatever space their clients provide. Working conditions range from cubicles to open floor plans to working from home or hotel. This flexibility has been rather unique in the business world, but that has been changing recently.

The truly remote nature of consulting has begun pervading other industries and professions. This transformation has been emboldened by mobile technology and near-ubiquitous internet access. As employees, we now have an unprecedented level of control over where, when, and how we work. Much of today’s corporate work can be achieved anywhere with a Wi-Fi connection — even from bed.

Photo: Casper

The Pajama Professional

Working from home has become a staple for flexible workplaces. Professionals who need to be home with young ones or simply prefer not to commute have been broadly welcomed into the corporate world. While working from home is not universally accepted, the desire for flexibility seems to be. And human psychology being what it is, it’s a lot harder to take away a perk than to provide it. For better or worse, once a perk becomes “normal,” employees see it as a right and consider it a grave blow to revert to the way things were even a year before.

This flexibility isn’t limited to the home. Young professionals routinely accomplish work in coffee shops and co-working spaces. All one needs to do is visit their local Starbucks (free Wi-Fi) to see evidence of this fact. And with its 2017 valuation of $20 billion, WeWork is a testament to the demand for flexible working. This ascent points to the next trend in work: an office not only in one’s home and city, but also across the world.

Workers’ Paradise

Framed one way, co-working is providing an office as a service. Extending this trend into the future doesn’t require any great new invention, but simply connecting the dots. Imagine a partnership between Airbnb and WeWork. For one flat price, we could have a place to work, sleep, and an adventure planned with stupidly minimal effort. This in itself would be a future to get excited about (and we’re almost there). The beginnings of this exist today. Programs like Remote Year allow employees to work abroad for a year. But these offerings are still pretty expensive and limited.

But let’s push the boundaries of what is an office. Here is IDEO’s Work on Wheels concept. Tasked with ideating a future impacted by connected autonomous vehicles (CAVs), the designers at IDEO conceptualized this:

What is the commute? When have you made it to the office? What is the destination — is there one? Mobile offices such as these will forever change our idea of an office. Imagine a CAV picking up you and your team. You work for two hours as it navigates to the beach. At noon, you step out and enjoy lunch on the boardwalk. You might even get in a quick game of beach volleyball. For the next three hours, you work surrounded by the fantastic coastal views. In late afternoon, the CAV whirs back to life and navigates to drop each person off at his or her door as you all continue working. What remains of your commute is the distance from the curb to your door.

With this future squarely in sight, one has to wonder about the fate of all that corporate office space. One potential solution would bolster company unity and provide networking possibilities.

The Corporate Social Club

This workers’ paradise implies that corporate headquarters will not be needed as much for actual working. Because employees won’t be in the office, this will create psychological distance between corporations and their employees. As a result, a sense of community and company unity will suffer. Embracing these new trends, offices should reinvent themselves as places for community as social clubs.

During the week, employees will work from CAVs, an Airbnb and WeWork partnership, or home. But on Fridays, they will come together in the office to be a part of their social club. Events, talks, and activities would attract employees into the office, which will encourage interdisciplinary and interlevel conversations. These will then bolster a sense of community and a culture of innovation. And because these events will ring in the weekend, they will probably include food and libation. Now that’s a future we can all be happy about!