The Fundamental Need For Office Space Has Nothing To Do With Trends

There are a variety of discussions and often confusing issues evoked by the conversation of the future of workplace. When we step back and look past tradition, a few things become clear. This is about business and design.

The pandemic has forced us to work differently and use technology in new ways. We have changed the way we view the workplace and better understand the need to be intentional about the places where we work. We live in an interconnected world and we depend on our creative ability to drive innovation.

There are plenty of discussions about what the future workplace will look like. These conversations are often distracting and are taking place in an ocean of loosely knitted ideas, further diluted by generic information used to support these concepts.

Technology has advanced in recent years and has enabled us to individually customize the smallest details and services in our lives. But many are still approaching the workplace seeking a standardized solution. These solutions fail to recognize what is important and unique about each individual organization that occupies the workplace.

Nasdaq outdoor seating area by Design Republic Partners Architects

The Shift

Business is highly competitive and when we try to compete using a mass market, standardized solution, it creates a recipe for poor performance and failure. In the midst of the pandemic, many of us were forced to work differently. For the most part we remained productive and experienced a learning curve. But we were afforded options for working, and ultimately increased the amount of flexibility needed to get our work done.

There is no going back. Many of the concepts for designing office space have shifted, in some cases rather dramatically. When prescribing a new workplace, the typical design process only scratches the surface. In order to be effective, the workplace needs to be customized to the individual organization. A standard solution will be of little benefit in today’s competitive landscape.

It’s About Nuance

Each organization has its own set of functions and organizational structure that should be addressed. These are the applications of space that are critically important for the performance and success of an organization, but each organization needs to create a tool that supports its own purpose.

We hear terms like “people-focused”, which is an important concept that must be considered. But in order to be successful, it requires a focus on individuals and teams, not the general plurality. While it focuses the conversation, it also raises different priorities and questions for each organization. Applying a people-focused concept from another organization to your own completely defeats the intent of the concept.

Collaboration is another example that has an infinite variety of approaches. It includes features such as integrated technology and has shifted considerably, but rarely is given the detail and attention that it should. These kinds of subtleties and nuance make a huge difference in levels of comfort and performance.

Why Do We Have Office Space?

The immediate, and overly simple, response to this question is that offices house people and operations. What’s missing is a clear understanding of the fundamental reason for why we have office space to begin with. If you are struggling to understand, let’s go deeper and ask: why does an organization have people and operations to begin with?

That answer will vary by organization, but it will probably be a specific and strategic response to the organization’s purpose or strategic goals. With that in mind, your office space now becomes a strategic and tactical tool that you have to achieve the organization’s purpose and goals. Suddenly it’s not generic and your workspace becomes a critically important environment that underpins all of the necessary functions and interactions required for you organization to perform.

A good analogy would be a race car driver and team. The car is the workplace. It must perform and be tuned and optimized depending on the type of race, the course, conditions, and competition. Today, it’s as if some are shopping for a car at a local dealership with a few standard options, right off the showroom floor, then getting the lowest price, and finally trying to use it to perform in a fierce and unforgiving competition.

It’s Not About Efficiency Anymore

Traditionally, the measure for office space has almost always been about efficiency. We used to use SF/Person as the primary metric. That metric in and of itself put the workplace into a category of expenses where the goal implied that spaces were to be minimized and reduced. The use of standards for design evolved from the same thinking. The conversation was rarely about creating the best workplace to achieve corporate goals, improve performance, or build lasting value. There were no metrics for these aspirations.

The efficiency goal was further reinforced by the way we procure our workspace: as real estate deal. This exchange is a by-cost comparison of options that leads to getting the “best deal”. It ranged from the lease deal, to the design, to the furniture purchased. Negotiating a good deal for anything is important, but not at the expense of performance to achieve your purpose or goal.

Metrics often serve a confusing goal. The industry emerged out of Tayloristic thinking and was applied to the procurement of real estate. It was a machine-like efficiency and a cost-driven model that rarely considered how a piece of real estate could maximize return and drive performance and value for an organization. The metrics for anything should be focused on achieving your unique mission.

JBG Smith Offices – interior designer/architect Partners by Design (http://www.pbdinc.com/) and photographer Tom Harris of Tom Harris Photography

And Then We Had a Pandemic

In pre-pandemic conversations with CEO’s, when we asked the question, “What is the most important aspect of your workplace?” The response would most often be something to the effect of, “We need a place to attract the best talent”.

With the disruption caused by the pandemic and the rapid shift to remote work, the talent that they were trying to attract realized that they could work from anywhere. The traditional office-bound workplace abruptly became less relevant and disconnected the search for talent from the geography.

Many reacted to the pandemic with physical ‘band-aids’ applied to the workspace in an effort to keep people safe. But now, the important question is what does your office space really want to be?

Productivity has remained strong through remote work, but uncertainty and confusion still reign. There are theories occurring that range from questioning if office space is needed at all, to the office is necessary for culture, effective communication, organizational alignment, and innovation. More recently, the concept of a hybrid, work-from-home, flexible workspace or a hub and spoke model has become popular.

These ideas have had a dramatic impact on the purpose of the office. In a short period of time, the workplace has gone from a cost-based operational expense and shifted to become a valuable strategic tool.

The Path Forward

This past year has proven that we can work from anywhere and that the workplace is not just a place that you show up to work anymore. The workplace will need to provide a solid, clear, and unquestionable reason to be there, all while providing the special things that you can’t get working anywhere else.

Now the question being asked by CEO’s is “How do we drive creativity and innovation?”

As the vaccine is distributed and we look forward to a safe future, there are more options and possible combinations for our workplace than we have ever had in the past. If the workplace is to perform at its highest and most valuable level, we need to answer the basic fundamental question of why we need the physical space and what value it provides for our organizations.

Building a workplace to simply house talent and an operation is no longer a sufficient response. That kind of thinking is a wasteful and egregious dereliction of duty. Unfortunately, many are still stuck in this outdated way of thinking.

Experts who preach designing for people are often missing the point. Designing space to support people, provide a great experience, and create healthy work environments are now just the basic minimum prerequisite. This is simply the way it needs to be done, or you’ve wasted your money.

NEI by Fox Architects

Today, an organization must look beyond the pragmatic physical environment and rather at the core if its purpose, culture, and strategic and functional requirements, in order to create solutions that will drive an organization forward.

Think about your current workspace. What is the impression that is offered? What is the message that is communicated? Whether you have considered it or not, you’ve created an experience that people react to. You have the opportunity to create an impression, inspire people, a space that will serve as a tool to drive performance.

This is just a start. Also consider the work, technology, support, and tools that people use. How do they use them and how do they all interact? Does the physical environment provide the necessary support for them to thrive?

Culture is another important consideration. As people come back to the workplace, given all of the stress and challenges the pandemic has created, culture will shift. As Peter Drucker described, culture is the common bond, behavior and values of an organization. It will not be the same and that is an especially important consideration given the massive change we have all recently experienced.

The workplace is about business. We must remain focused on the real reason it exists and that is the purpose, leadership, people, and all of the great things that come together to make each organization a unique success. The design of a workplace moving forward must be a process to inspire, optimize, support, and celebrate what is unique. Things have changed and this is the fundamental reason that office space will continue to exist in the future.

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