Office space of tomorrow: Millennials and “accidental encounters” drive future of office design
This is the first post in our series on the office space of tomorrow.
“We don’t have a lot of time on this Earth! We weren’t meant to spend it this way. Human beings were not meant to sit in little cubicles staring at computer screens all day …”
— Peter Gibbons, played by actor Ron Livingston, in the 1999 cult movie classic Office Space
If humans weren’t meant to spend their careers sitting in square boxes punching away at their keyboards and staring at their computers, then where should we be working?
That question is being deliberated by forward-thinking developers and interior designers, architects, construction companies and experts on human behavior, as well as some of the most inventive companies in the world like Google and Facebook. Many of these thinkers are attempting to transform the way commercial buildings, office space and even workplace furniture are designed and built.
So, where will we be working in the future? The journey to that final answer might just change the way human beings work, collaborate and innovate today and for generations to come.
Millennial workforce impacts office design
There are major cultural shifts occurring today that are having an unprecedented impact on the commercial office market, including the influence of the millennial generation which consists of the 18- to 34-year olds who make up more than half of today’s workforce.
Commercial office developers and designers understand they must strongly consider the needs of this powerful slice of the population and make their office spaces more desirable for clients who must attract this young talent — studies have found most millennials prefer “activity-based” working environments that place a premium on working collaboratively, sustainability, wellness and the integration of smart technologies to improve performance and optimize productivity.
That’s a lot to take in if you’re a commercial developer or office space designer with new office plans in the works, especially if you’re used to selling clients on corner offices, cube farms and mahogany desks.
Open layouts: Future or fad?
The national publication Real Estate Weekly recently reported that “the real estate industry is in the throes of transformative change … thanks to a fast evolving workforce that continues to redefine corporate space requirements. For companies with ambitious recruiting and expansion plans … this is a pivotal time.”
This means that developers and designers shouldn’t rush to decisions on what makes an optimal work environment without taking a long-term view. Johan Ronnestam, an internationally known brand expert and innovative thinker about workplaces of the future, said, “If you are in the process of change, you need to think 10 years out. How will my employees want to work then? How will technologies affect our everyday lives? How will your office fit into that world? We need to be open to having our beliefs changed.”
Open office’s “out of sight” impacts
The trend toward open offices impacts more than just the appearance and “vibe” of a company’s office space. It also affects the design and construction of the systems behind the scenes, or even behind ceilings, walls and floors of the building. Construction management companies, particularly those firms that provide in-depth planning and design coordination on projects, are responding to the open office space phenomenon with creative solutions that meet some of the basic needs of end users.
By its definition an open office spaces has fewer partition walls and columns. While this means there are fewer things to block your view or walk around, it also means there are fewer available locations for electrical outlets and land-line telephone connections into employee workstations. After all, the “three outlets per office” rule of thumb can no longer apply in an open office space where there aren’t any offices. To address this challenge, designers and contractors are recommending “raised floors” for open layouts, which are slightly higher floors constructed above a building’s concrete slab floor that leave an open space in between the two for electrical wiring and heating/cooling mechanicals. Having these mechanicals at your feet can provide more flexibility for outlet locations in unconventional places and also provide more thermal comfort for workers (i.e. floors stay warmer longer, heat rises, etc.). And regardless of whether office walls are being torn down as part of the open floor plan trend, floors shouldn’t be going away anytime soon!
Even traditional paneled office ceilings are being replaced by open ceilings that expose the HVAC workings typically hidden overhead. But designers and contractors must address the challenges that come with this change, as well. Unwanted noise caused by open ceilings can negatively affect end users’ ability to hear each other, diminishing worker productivity, so design and construction planning for sound control is critical to ensuring the comfort and well-being of end users. While open ceilings can be very attractive and industrial-like, construction management firms must also inform clients of the added cost of “exposed structure ceilings” that result from HVAC systems with certain aesthetic qualities and the added cost of heating and lighting large ceiling-less spaces and rooms.
Innovative companies push the boundaries of design
Today, innovative companies understand the importance of unanticipated epiphanies and breakthrough discoveries through accidental encounters. Allowing the right people to be in the right place at the right time in an office space can spark innovation, creative ideation and action. And that is good for business. Some of the most innovative organizations in the world agree.
Companies like Google, Facebook and Apple believe their innovative and futuristic “action” offices will encourage their people to huddle, collaborate and interact, all with the goal of sparking game-changing innovation and ideation. According to BDC Network, the building designers working for these corporations are going out of their way to optimize the workspaces for hyperactivity and interaction.
Google’s Mountain View, Calif. campus will feature walkways angled to force accidental encounters between employees, creative perks and inclusive working environments that lure their workers out of their home offices and onto company property to collaborate and mingle with each other — Google’s strategy is for employees to want to come to work every day. Employees can take advantage of climbing walls, a bowling alley, multiple gyms, mini kitchens and a community garden that is kept up by company-hired landscapers. The company’s long-term office space strategy is not about desks, offices and computers, but finding innovative ways to encourage engagement and collaboration because those are the key ingredients for innovation. Google spokesperson Katelin Todhunter-Gerberg told Business Insider, “We work hard to create the healthiest, happiest and most productive work environments possible that inspire collaboration and innovation.”
According to Mashable, Facebook’s Disney-inspired campus headquarters “looks like a cross between high-art, 21st century corporate thinking and a child’s candy-fueled daydream.” The 430,000 square-foot campus in Menlo Park, California was designed by world-renowned architect Frank Gehry and includes “modern artwork and furniture, stairwells that look like something out of the Guggenheim museum, a nine-acre rooftop park and at least one meeting room that looks like the multicolored Chuck E. Cheese ball pit.” What CEO Mark Zuckerberg has called “the largest open floor plan in the world,” Facebook’s working environment reflects an office space revolution based on enhancing employee collaboration and literally breaking down walls for more collaboration.
The new Apple Headquarters under construction in Cupertino, California, will be a ring-shaped building covering 13 percent of a mammouth 176-acre site surrounded by lush parkland. According to a Curbed interview with architect Norman Foster, the building will provide workspace for 12,000 employees. Programmers, designers, creative and marketing people will all be housed in a space layout strategically planned and designed to nurture collaboration and innovation. The circular-shaped building will be broken down by cafes, lobbies and entrances, and “there will be four-story-high glass walls, which can literally move sideways and just open up into the landscape so the facilities can break down the scale.” The circular design of the building and the desirable park space within the campus will create infinite opportunities for “accidental encounters” that can clearly spark creativity for one of the most innovative companies in the world.
“Traditional” versus “Open” … and the answer is?
But there are experts who question whether office layouts that “force” collaboration are the silver bullet for more work production and innovation in the office. According to research from the University of California, office workers are distracted once every three minutes and it takes another 23 minutes to regain peak productivity again. Similar research points to the need for more private office areas to minimize disruptions and too much human interactivity.
It is becoming clear that the key to developing and designing the most effective office space of the future will require balance. In the end, the most effective office design of the future will likely be a hybrid approach — an open floor design with added perks to enhance employee collaboration combined with separate private work stations for more focused individual work, with the ratio dependent on the goals of the company and needs of the human beings working for them.
So, while the future of office space may or may not sound the death knell for cubicles, at least there will be more workspace flexibility, balance and opportunities to interact in the workplace than ever before so that employees will feel fulfilled and come into the office because they want to, not just because they have to.
Even Peter Gibbons of Office Space would consider working in an office like that.
This post was written by Suffolk Construction’s Vice President of Marketing and Communications Dan Antonellis, who can be reached at email@example.com. Connect with him on LinkedIn here and follow him on Twitter at @DanAntonellis.