So Long, Physical Space: How We Must Transform Our Perception of Work in 2016

Jennifer Magnolfi has a unique vantage point on the future of work and how we imagine ourselves getting things done. Born and raised in Italy, she’s an architect who has worked with large web corporations, the furniture company Herman Miller and a global workspace network called WeWork, now valued at $10 billion. 
 
In a long conversation over coffee, Jennifer shared how our idea of work needs to change to meet the demands of our information-dense, postindustrial world. Here are her most salient takeaways.

Work is the type of data we connect to, not the physical spaces we enter

“We used to define ‘work’ by crossing the threshold of a physical building that we called ‘the office.’ Once we did that, we entered into this mindset that we were at work, and we were doing work. Today that same passage happens when we connect to our work-related data on our smartphones or other tools.
 
“Our cities can be seen as a workplace, especially in urban cores. People are beginning to look at environments that would not be traditionally considered workspaces, like hotel lobbies. The Ace Hotel in New York, for example.

“Our cities can be seen as a workplace.”

“Workers choose where to work based on their specific needs at a much higher rate than they could before.”

Work is now about networks. Our workspaces must enable seamless interactions between humans and machines

“In R&D at Herman Miller, we worked on this notion, What is it about the way in which digital space is constructed that is applicable to the physical environment? The spaces that we are working with need to be designed for a different set of performance attributes.
 
“The change in workspaces is driven by networks — wireless, wired and social networks, which have transformed society in the last decade. What that means is that there is a lot more complexity in how we design workspaces. We need to find ways to integrate information and data systems with people to create sophisticated interactions between humans and machines. These requirements were not present even 10 years ago, but they are now normal.”

“The change in workspaces is driven by networks — wireless, wired and social.”

Work is about co-creation, not competition

“Historically, workspaces were designed to communicate hierarchy, confidentiality and organizational structure. The design DNA of spaces like WeWork and others resonates instead with net­ culture and is built on values like openness, sharing and co-­creation. The work experience is organized to communicate and reinforce these shared values, and, in successful cases, this is achieved at scale, operating almost as a ‘work platform’ that supports a wide range of companies of different sizes and across multiple industries.”

“The nature of the problems we solve is changing. It’s not just our work that’s changing.”

Problem-solving is about convenient collisions in the workspace

“In a startup or small business context, knowledge-sharing and acceleration are important team dynamics for scaling. Spaces are designed to emphasize socialization, ­fostering ‘collisions’ between people and creating interactions that increase learning and convey energy and, ideally, optimism.

“This happens through a specific design approach as well as the operations and management of the space. (Background music in shared areas, office tours with prospective members, meetups and social events after hours are not uncommon occurrences.)”

Friends, family and colleagues have converged

“It’s a time of profound transformation. We create our own structures and our own social norms. For example, we know how this will work with technology, how it’s acceptable in the social media space to be connected to people that are your colleagues at work as well as your family and friends. They’re convergent. They’re all in the same space, and it’s all the same experience. Similar types of adaptations are going to happen, even how we organize our time, as well as how we organize our workspaces in our cities.”
 
There is an opportunity to redefine many things as well as to recapture certain values and certain things that are potentially important for people. I don’t see that the future is going to be a place where we are constantly working and we’re constantly connected and we are losing our sense of self or our sense of our family values or our connections. But I believe we are redefining the richness of those, and the place that they have in our lives.”

“There is an opportunity to redefine many things… to recapture certain values.”

We will connect primarily in digital space

The last decade suggests we work in a different way, because we interact with each other in a different way. We do that in a digital space, the very way in which we construct new knowledge. We create new ideas. We learn about new things.

“We connect with each other for professional or personal reasons or for simply gaining new information or data, and it happens in the digital space.”

“I don’t see that the future is going to be a place where we are constantly working.”

In other words, so long, cold cubicles. Our new working world is about glass doors, high ceilings, serendipitous collisions and a clear window to the outside world.

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