Next Generation Workplace: Liquid Space

I design to engage people. My work aims to inspire passion, generate visual excitement, and connect with the users of my projects in a meaningful manner. I take a holistic approach, one that considers all aspects of the experience. To do this well requires close observation of change: changes in attitudes and lifestyles, changes in the global community, and changes in the social and structural conditions that influence human aspirations.

One particular area of interest is the evolution of “work”. Work used to be a place, now it’s a thing we do. We carry our office in our pockets, and can work from anywhere, at any time. This new way of working challenges the workplace to radically adapt.

Office design reflects our culture, economics and technological capabilities. Much has been written about the future of work and the workplace, but there is little meaningful discussion on how our work environments are failing to support underlying shifts in how we work.

There are three reasons contributing to this disconnect:

1.The Open Office

Over 70 percent of workers operate in open offices today. (Source: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/on-leadership/wp/2015/04/22/office-designers-find-open-plan-spaces-are-actually-lousy-for-workers/). An extreme example is Facebook’s Gehry-designed offices. This 430,000 square-foot building houses 2,800 employees in one open space. Such massive open workspace is just not conducive to the various ways in which we work, nor does it address how we process environmental stimulus. It ignores the needs of disparate personality types, flexibility, privacy, and how teams organically organize, collaborate and adapt. It started with an idea, a spectacle: the largest open office in the world, and then reverse engineered the design to try to meet the ways people need to interact.

2. The Office as Recruiter

Given the competition for talent, the physical workplace often morphs into a recruiting and retention tool. This is misguided. Workplace design has turned into an amenities arms race where everyone is trying to offer ‘more better’ of the same thing. The result is parity and a mash up of superficial styling exercises.

Instead, C-suite leaders should focus on attracting talent by building great company culture and cultivating pride in the products and services they offer. Experiences trump stuff. Employees today want to have impact.

3. The Office in Isolation

Our daily journey is a rich landscape of interdependent physical and social interactions. The trends in workplace design have increasingly tried to emulate this daily landscape in a single office space or a campus of buildings. By taking on the burden of trying to be everything to everyone, many of today’s offices have become a collection of expected autonomous elements which may work well on their own, but not in service of a whole. The workplace has become insular, supplanting the curiosity and real world experiences that foster our creativity and innovation while helping to shape us and our communities. By shoehorning our nuanced daily exchanges into a uni-dimensional space we have become isolated.

So, what do people need now? Yesterday’s workplaces were designed for job stability, hierarchy, and desktop computers. Today’s world is characterized by change, mobility and distributed organizations. By 2020, Millennials will comprise 50 percent of the workforce. They are connected, mobile, untethered and they value belonging, meaning and flexibility.

More and more often, we work virtually. We rarely meet coworkers face-to-face. The workplace is the place for collaboration, personal engagement and community. As such, the office must foster a sense of belonging to something bigger, something that matters and stirs care. Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs is relevant to office designs of today. His pyramid maps fundamental physical needs at the base, and moves through practical needs. The highest needs are belonging and self actualization. The evolution of workplace needs to follow suit; it should support connectedness and enable us to self-actualize. In this context, flexibility, mobility, wellness play a critical role.

We need to reboot and start designing the workplace as a meaningful touch point for this new generation of work. We need workplaces that support the complexity and interdependence of our daily interactions. Building a workplace should be no different than building a sustainable community. It can’t be about the “biggest” or “most” anymore. We need to understand and support an evolved need and the new engagement modes.

There are examples of an evolved workplace. We at Eight Inc have designed the envirnoments in which some of the most influential companies create. Pentagram, Wolff Olins, Eleven Inc, the City of London’s Future Cities Catapult, Dubai’s Tecom group have all come to us to design the spaces in which they build their futures and the futures of their clients. Our offices for the marketing group of one long-time client, a well-loved technology company, are a perfect example of how we consider the environment in which their team works, the nature of the work they are doing and the way in which they engage with each other in the creative process. There is a diversity of spaces that enable different kinds of people to feel comfortable and support the kinds of team interactions that fuel their creative process. Their office is designed to adapt to the ways in which the group works. These are “liquid environments” which flow with the creative dynamic of the team.

This is how my team and I design. We understand that our environments must support the ways we engage with our world and the people we encounter. Work environments are no different. We need to embrace solitude and gathering, provide private and public space, balance lightness and darkness, warmth and cold, quiet and loud, materiality, texture and atmosphere. The hard work lies in how well we as designers observe, understand and effectively support the intricacies of the individuals, teams, and organizations we service in a holistic manner, within the context of the values and culture of our clients. It is a worthy challenge, and one I care about deeply.

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