The Evolution of the [Tech] Workplace

What factors will play a key role in the future of tech workplace design?

The evolution of the tech workplace is as constant as technological change itself. To anticipate where the design of the tech workplace is heading, it’s important to first understand where it has been. When starting a new research thread, we often begin by looking at the Futures Cone diagram to discuss possible outcomes.

The Futures Cone, Voros 2003

A Look Back

During the ’90s tech boom, a fundamental change to office design began to take shape – new ideas were created quickly and many in the industry began questioning every aspect of business as it was previously done, including the way workspaces were designed. As tech companies began to grow they realized the importance of creating office spaces that encouraged teaming and collaboration. The office “water cooler” of the ’80s expanded to include small cafes, in-house baristas, and employee lounges that kept employees at work and encouraged casual collisions of conversation that could lead to real breakthroughs. Each of these shifts came together to create what we now know as the modern-day open office.

During this time, designers also began testing the concept of choice-based work environments, design that enabled employees to choose the work space within a larger office that best suited whatever task they might be working on at the time (e.g. heads down quiet space for deep concentration; a huddle room or employee lounge for a group whiteboarding session). Over the next three decades, the open office would come under increasing scrutiny as articles celebrating the “death of the open office” became increasingly common. Critiques of the open office continue to permeate today’s workplace design conversations, though it’s important to note that the open offices referred to in these articles are often overly densified, lacking choice-based alternatives, and are implemented by companies whose cultures run counter to the kinds of work styles encouraged by open office design.

As the scale of the office continued to grow and expand, terminology that had once been used to describe cities was applied to workplace programming. Sections of floor plates were broken into neighborhoods, each with its own identifiable landmark, cafe, and identity. Employees could now spend their day moving between neighborhoods for meetings to select their preferred work environment or to grab food at a different café. Eventually the neighborhood concept would expand to include laundry facilities, massage tables, wellness areas, medical clinics, salons, fitness centers, and daycares. All your needs could be met within your “city” (aka your workplace), and so you rarely needed to leave your office during working hours. This concept proved very successful as employees were happy to have easy access to services, and employers benefited because employees would work longer hours or be more productive in their tasks. There are, however, drawbacks to the city/office design, the greatest of which is that as these internal ecosystems develop, retailers and service providers in the local community experience a decline in revenue. To address adverse effects such as this, cities like San Francisco are now looking to pass legislation that outlaws amenities like cafes within the office space.

A Look to the Future

What does all this mean for the evolution of the tech workplace and, by extension, the evolution of workplace design more broadly? A look back provides a glimpse to the future, and in particular, five themes that will likely play a key role in the future of tech workplace design: resiliency, community connection, choice-based experiences, indoor environmental quality (IEQ), and the Internet of Workplace (IoW).

Resiliency

When we typically discuss resiliency, it’s in response to a natural disaster or a catastrophic event. Inside the modern tech workplace, however, resiliency takes on new meaning that’s both physical and socio-emotional.

Technology and teams are constantly in flux, and programmatic needs are struggling to meet the ever-evolving demands of both. In short, today’s tech workplaces must work much harder to accommodate the speed of change and flexibility, requiring new types of adaptive architecture. As designers we look to resilient thinking to reimagine an office that is highly flexible and adaptable, utilizing walls, floors, systems, and furniture that allow for quick disassembly and re-assembly, and creating spaces that can adjust to programmatic needs in near real-time.

To design resilient physical spaces, it’s important to develop a floor plate and identify a strategy of 20-year walls, five-year walls, and flex walls during programming. 20-year walls house plumbing and power and are typically reserved for bathrooms, café or micro-café service walls, and any code required fire walls. Five-year walls are reserved for areas where acoustic and visual privacy are the highest priority, and are also reserved for light plumbing or electrical needs. Flex walls are everything else – they are meant to flex and change as needed on a regular basis.

The other aspect of office resiliency is in response to the toll the modern workplace has on our lives. The term socio-emotional refers the human ability to understand, experience, express, and manage emotions and to develop meaningful relationships with others through repeatedly working through crisis and resolution. The blurring of the separation between work and home along with the added stress of increased output and efficiency has resulted in the need for workplace wellness and rejuvenation programs. Meditation, massage, counseling, nap rooms, fitness areas, and outdoor recreation spaces are just a few examples of programming that’s becoming increasing common. Over time, the need for this and additional workplace support will intensify as employees continue to seek out enhanced work-life balance.

Community Connection

Over the last decade there has been a big push by tech companies to locate their offices in urban centers rather than the suburban campuses that were previously commonplace. This shift has been driven mostly by recruiting needs, as an increasing number of workers choose to live in areas that allow them to walk or bike to work. Many of these companies offer facilities for dining, fitness, medical, laundry, and daycare among other services to their employees as benefits. While this is a great convenience for employees, especially in suburban campuses where there is less choice, it has impacted retail in urban centers. Restaurants and retailers located in the base of urban office buildings struggle to drive sales beyond happy hour and weekend foot traffic.

In the coming years, however, this attitude is likely to change. An increasing number of employers are seeking out meaningful partnerships with neighborhood retailers in both large and small ways, whether it’s by purchasing food from local restaurants, paying monthly membership dues, or offering free or reduced rent to local companies. Even though most tech companies’ business model is not dependent on retail sales, the right types of services do attract top talent, and open the opportunity for new types of developments and/or agreements. Companies are also looking to become more engaged within their communities in the form of public/private partnerships that help improve city amenities and services, and benefit both the company and the public.

Choice-Based Experiences

The modern workday is comprised of a range of work patterns and activities, each of which correspond to an optimal office design setting. On any given day, employees can experience up to six different work modes, also known as modalities, ranging from hard-focus, soft-focus, collaboration, socialization, education, and rejuvenation. Each modality requires a different multi-sensory experience that can change from user to user. For some, a hard-focus space is quiet, dark, and void of any sensory perception. For others, an ideal hard-focus space is a café with music, non-identifiable conversation, and the smell of coffee in the air. In response to these different modalities, designers are working with tech employers to develop choice-based environments that allow workers to select the right space to fit their needs.

An increasing number of employers are recognizing the need for choice-based experiences and are engaging designers to create highly specialized areas that entice employees to come into the office rather than work remotely. Advanced technology will play a role in the development of this reality, but it will be the balance between technology and authenticity that will determine the success. People want to live and work in spaces that feel honest, personalized, and tied to something real. It’s why there’s been a return to wood desks, a focus on natural light, and plants integrated into everything.

Data and experience will also aid in the continued push towards authentic, choice-based workspaces. Many offices already have sensors installed that track utilization of space, light quality, and many other metrics. This data helps inform where and how users want to spend their time and will allow designers to interpret and use the information as a basis for developing the best experiences possible.

Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ)

LEED, WELL, RESET , Green Guard, Living Building Challenge (LBC), and many other ratings systems have become customary in workplace design today. Over the last few years many tech companies have also developed their own internal standards for specific items that they felt deserved additional focus. With advances in air-monitoring and ongoing research exploring the impact of IEQ on cognitive function, it’s likely that materials and air quality will see renewed focus. Manufacturers will be held accountable for the ingredients used to develop materials, designers will stop specifying products that refuse to comply, and the industry will adapt to a red-list free reality.

Buildings themselves will also become more responsive to changing external conditions. On the West Coast, for example, buildings are already being developed that help clean the air during the late summer fire season – something that’s becoming increasingly necessary as the effects of climate change worsen conditions in California and the West. Design for building interiors will likely include a rising demand for red-list free materials, and achieving an LBC Materials Petal will become more commonplace.

Emphasis on improved standards for materials and air quality isn’t just a top down push; in fact, much if these changes are being driven by a push up by employees. As attracting and retaining employees becomes increasingly important, it stands to reason that a continued push towards environmental design considerations will remain a top priority for the future of tech workplace design.

Internet of Workplace (IoW)

By now, most people are familiar with the term Internet of Things (IoT), a term used to describe the thermostats, smart speakers, lights, locks, even vehicles that are all built to be connected via the cloud. When we approach our home the doors unlock, the lights turn on to our preferred setting, and the oven starts cooking tonight’s dinner. Internet of Workplace (IoW) builds on this concept by connecting all things within the workplace. Imagine conference rooms that change their acoustic properties, lighting, and layout based on the type of meeting scheduled; notifications that let employees know to take the stairs when an elevator is unavailable; wayfinding that occurs in real-time and is personalized to direct workers to a desired location. All these examples showcase the potential time-saving benefits of IoW.

Benefits to the interior environment are also worth noting: lighting that changes color temperature based on an employee’s mood or the type of work being done; acoustics that adapt to conversations; temperature that adapts to where people are located; voice assistants that react in real-time to take notes, adjust temperature, close the blinds, or let meeting attendees know if someone is running late. All this technology exists now, but over the coming years as designers become increasingly adept at utilizing these tools, this tech will become less intrusive, more user-friendly, and generally invisible.

Focus on the user and all else will follow.

– Google’s first rule in their “Ten Things” philosophy

Each of these factors will play a key role in the future of tech workplace design. The underlying current in all of this is a shift in business mentality – rather than replicating the offices of old, businesses of today are looking to invest in workplace solutions that elevate the company’s most valuable asset: its people.

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