Change is Changing: The Next Workspace

In the workspace design business, we have witnessed a pretty dramatic change in the way people think about office space and work environments over the past few years. We work with clients, consultants, land lords, furniture industry representatives, project managers, and peers, all of whom influence the design of office space.

New technologies have accelerated the pace of change, as well as sustainability issues, cost, and fact that members of Generation Y are moving into leadership positions in the work force. From my perspective, we are on the cusp of a radical new office environment and this evolution will continue to accelerate as a greater variety of things impact how we work.

Changing Workspaces (via BusinessWeek.com)

The number of issues that impact and comprise the design of office space has exploded, be it the products and materials we use; the types of research, technology, lighting, audio visual equipment and building systems utilized; or the array of sustainability and anthropological concerns we face. New material enters the market every day.

As professionals, we must meet head-on the challenge of staying knowledgeable of all that is necessary to design state-of-the-art work environments. Our traditional methods are just not capable of handling large amounts of rapidly evolving information; we must consider new ways to work and new ways to be supported by new work environments, lest we miss the potential to improve new space, products, and systems.

Teams

I expect new design processes will include an emphasis on the contributions of highly focused experts. Teams of experts, hopefully led by designers, must find ways to collaborate and communicate effectively. Technology provides that capacity, but a standard process (even if it is non-standard) and, more importantly, effective leadership are still necessary. Flexibility is paramount and change is a constant – and will occur even after the user occupies the space.

Economics

Space costs are increasing rapidly, too, despite the recession and slow recovery. Downtown DC office rents now exceed $60/sf. The cost of construction has decreased recently, but the cost to build out a comfortable office space is now $60 – $75/sf — not an insignificant amount. The demands for quick turnaround limits time to consider alternative ideas, materials and products, in order to be cost competitive and efficient designers tend to standardized their work, often recycle parts and pieces of earlier designs.

Today, few clients understand design thinking and are willing to pay for the luxury to consider many of the highly customized new concepts and products entering the market. I see now, more than ever, our clients and other consultants, who are now critical parts of our teams, need to navigate these new realities.

Flexibility

Additionally, there is also a challenge in designing moving parts and systems. Everything is becoming more flexible and moble. The process must define the items that become fixed and those that can change. We have always thought of the design process as iterations of an idea organized and developed by phase. Now it will be more ideas; interconnected, evolving and maybe mutating; the design process will be analogous to dripping candle wax, very fluid yet slowly becoming rigid as key decisions are made. Greater participation and involvement will be required on the part of the end user and their internal experts in order to achieve truly functional successful high performing projects.

Systems

As designers, we need to practice with an increasingly open mind, considering input from larger teams and places we may have never considered in the past. Adaptability is vital to incorporate new ideas, because there is generally more than one expert required to engineer the systems. Technology such as BIM is powerful and includes the potential for more and more data to be utilized in a variety of ways. In addition, demand for creativity is at an all-time high, but that creativity must be used in ways that are very different from our traditional roots.

As for the office and the work environment, the trends are clear. New and more efficient ways of working are being incorporated into office environments whether we design them or not. Chances are, if you give an individual from Gen Y a dedicated office, he or she will not use it, opting instead to create their own shared workspace wherever they may be. Given this knowledge, I think there are some exciting opportunities and challenges ahead. The benefits are significant, better quality workspaces, increased productivity and greatly reduced cost. I look forward to seeing great new workplaces.

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