Designing for “In the Office” v. “Work Wherever”

Most organizations are wrestling with how to improve their office space and the increasing variety of design options. How to provide optimal space — and how to increase the performance of staff – are common challenges.

But the amount of information for the typical office administrator can be confusing.

After all, as we learn more and become smarter about the workplace, we begin to see different perspectives that often conflict. They’re not just tough to integrate into an organization’s culture, but they can seem unpredictable and un-measurable.

Yet two distinct schools of thought seem to define today’s office design approaches.

Both solutions are focused on people and improving their quality of life and performance, providing improved support of personal lives and increase social interaction. They also depend heavily on technology in order to function and communicate, and they have a clear strategy to support the business goals of the organization.

But each represents a very different way of thinking and approaching the problem.

The “In the office” Model

In this model, the strategy is internally focused.

  • The primary assumption is that employees should be in the office for as much time as possible – work hours and non-work hours (if there is such a thing)
  • The design concept focuses on what you need in order to participate in the collaboration necessary to develop new ideas inside a physical office

Offices designed for this model of work provide a variety of spaces; quiet space for intense concentration, a place to play a game or chat over coffee with colleagues, or pods catered to private conversations or brainstorming with colleagues.

Amenities are plentiful to support the on-site staff needs and incentive them to remain in the space.

Google's Office in Zurich
Google’s Office in Zurich

Google is probably the most visible example of this thinking. They’ve focused on designing a place for their people to thrive every day – and they provide almost every amenity imaginable to support this commitment.

  • Their campus is a community with 24/7 access
  • You have your own individual workspace, which you can change and adjust to suite your needs, but it’s yours – nobody else uses it
  • Common areas can be found within departments and the larger community – and each can be reconfigured to suit team sizes and specific work

Google is also unique in that they have provided many services that would normally be provided by the city – like dry cleaning, gift shops, convenience stores, gyms, financial services, and classrooms. These provide a high level of support to the people working there and enable them to spend more time to focus on innovation and new ideas.

Google chose this approach for the benefits to the kind of company Google is – and wants to be. The office space is like any tool that you would use to increase you or your teams effectiveness and productivity. The cost matters, but they are willing to experiment and try new things — if they see positive reactions internally, then it stays.

CBS News Tours Googles HQ Space


The “Work Wherever” Model

In this model, the strategy is externally focused.

  • The primary assumption is that employees should work wherever and whenever they’re most productive — which results in greater gains for the company
  • The design concept focuses on what you need in order to participate in the collaboration necessary to develop new ideas inside and outside a physical office

Offices designed for this model of work are hyper-focused on technology and collaboration. Spaces — if they exist at all — are highly flexible and built for enabling team meetings, interaction, and piping in remote or teleworking employees.

Accenture Office
Accenture Office

These workplaces often include unassigned workspaces and flexible conference rooms that don’t require reservations – the goal is to just show up and work. That means the spaces are highly utilized because of this real-time, flexible, variable-cost approach. (This is done by assigning multiple people per seat, often as high as 8 people to 1 seat, with the knowledge that all staff will never be in the space at one time.)

These unique spaces are meant to be comfortable, so they also include amenities like cafes, meeting zones, and collaboration areas all designed to be flexible. But they are about communication, interaction, learning, and connecting with people and teams.

One of the big benefits to the organization of this approach is the cost side; space is still looked at like an overhead expense and very efficiently optimized. Leveraging people is a priority. The space is about supporting the work the technology supports the work and helps to facilitate your life outside of the office.

One example of an organization that subscribes to this model is Accenture.

  • Their “Workplace 2.0” model is a highly efficient, well-designed workspace that maximizes the technology and increases flexibility for the individual
  • Communication is designed to occur almost anywhere, in or out of the office
  • It provides for the individual’s personal life outside of the office and encourages building relationships with outside groups

Steelcase 360 Video explains Accentures’ Workplace 2.0

Another example of Accenture’s innovative external workspace is their use of Liquidspace, which provides people with flexible space when and where they need it.

While Liquidspace is an empowering choice for Accenture’s employees, it also efficiently and cost effectively provides short-term variable cost office space for the larger organization.

This consumerization of space by Accenture’s staff not only increases the utilization of space overall, but provides more convenient locations at more convenient times. Plus, it enables individuals and teams to customize and select what they need to optimize real- estate costs.

And, of course, it closely aligns with Accenture’s strategic vision of enabling its people to be highly productive, whenever and wherever they choose.

WORKTECH 12 West Coast video explains the Accenture/Liquidspace relationship.


What are your business goals?

Most of us are looking to understand and determine which types of space are best for our teams and businesses. These two examples show how the space aligns with the business goals with two different solutions.

Concepts of “work” and “place” are being refined as technology improves connectivity and access, and as economic and generational trends emerge.

Combinations of the two approaches might be appropriate for transitioning organizations – take Yahoo!’s recent change to no longer allowing remote work starting in June, for example — but two things remain clear:

1.) People are the common denominator — they must be properly supported and healthy to be productive

2.) Business goals should drive a strategic design understanding how the space that supports that goal

These are examples of where the office space is a tool and can leverage the organization provided it is properly planned.

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