The future of work: Physical office, remote … or something else?

The following is the third and final post of our series on the office space of tomorrow. 

Screen Shot 2016-04-22 at 2.12.38 PM.pngAfter our past blog posts about expansive new office buildings built by innovative companies such as Google, Facebook and Apple, office furniture designs of tomorrow, and the future of cubicles, it might be time for us to step back and ask a question that might be on the minds of many commercial developers, architects and business leaders as they look toward the future — will the workers of tomorrow even need office space in the first place?

The jury is still out, but the most recent data gives us hints about where the future of office space might be heading. According to a January 2015 Gallup report called “State of the American Workplace,” almost 40 percent of full-time workers in the U.S. work remotely, and of these, approximately 15 percent are permanently out of the office, and those numbers continue to rise. And many of these workers are not necessarily working from home but are working in coffee shops, shared spaces and other outside-the-office locations, which shows that many people simply want a change of scenery outside the office. Another noteworthy Gallup study concluded that the most engaged employees in the workforce actually spend up to 20 percent of their time working remotely.

And The Muse reported that research conducted by Nicholas Bloom, a Stanford professor who studies workforce trends, confirmed that working remotely actually increases productivity, overall work hours, and employee satisfaction. Over a nine-month period, Bloom observed 250 employees at a Chinese company where half the employees worked from home and half worked in the office. The data from studies like these speak volumes. Bloom found that removing the time it takes to physically commute to work and the distractions of the in-office environment made a huge difference. People who worked from home completed 13.5 percent more calls than the office workers, performed 10 percent more work overall, left the company at half the rate of their colleagues who worked in the office, reported feeling more fulfilled at work, and actually saved the company $1,900 per employee.

With that many people working remotely, and working more productively, the need for more office square footage must be unrealistic, right? Karim Rashid is just one of many industrial designers who is raising that important question  — “We’re losing institutions, losing banks, colleges. Do we even need physical space anymore? What about the office context? Does it need to physically exist anymore or not?”

But Rawn Shah, contributing writer for Forbes and occasional remote worker, believes there will always be a need for physical office space. In his article, “The Workplace of the Future is Still the Office,” he points to the fact that 45 percent of all jobs in the United States work only part of the time from home or on the road and that “the idea of a significantly virtual organization with no need for office space, or everyone sitting in co-working spaces, is not the reality for the majority of companies … and it won’t be for a while, if ever.” The reason?

Shah believes that physical office space “creates serendipities and opportunities that you don’t really get when working entirely virtual or remote. Without it, you don’t run into your peers, or come across new challenges and ideas that may lead to new ideas, collaboration or innovation.” He believes there will be a movement around “mobility desks,” particularly in large companies. “What makes this more acceptable is a mind shift away from the primary view of ‘my office’ as a specific location in their company building, to seeing it more as a virtual space they access from a laptop or smartphone.” He calls this the “hybrid future” of office space.

But in the end, just like any design, building or consumer product, physical office space must provide clear, undisputed benefits if it’s going to survive in the future. “If you are expecting people to commute every morning to get to a specific place, there has to be some pay-off,” Steelcase CEO Jim Keane told Wired. “It has to be the best place they can work. However, if their dining room is better than the office you provide, then they should stay home. And you should save even more money on real estate.”

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There is one question that might be on the minds of forward-thinking office developers, architects and construction companies: Will the growing trend toward working remotely eventually impact the office construction market because of a lower demand for office space? After all, when more of the nation’s workforce is working from home or remotely, you would think the demand for more office space, and architecture and construction services that go along with it, would decline as well.

Today, the commercial office space market is the strongest construction sector in the country. Industry experts predict sustainable revenue growth in the office sector for the next several years, with revenue of $33 billion and 106 million square feet of office space predicted for 2016, $39 billion and 129 million square feet of office in 2017 and $45 billion and 150 million square feet of office space in 2018. That could certainly be considered an upward trend. But even industry experts must agree with the rule of “supply and demand.” While there will probably always be a need for some variation of office space to reinforce the spirit of collaboration and teamwork most organizations desire from their teams, fewer workers sitting in offices will inevitably result in less demand for office space.

So in the end, what does the future hold for office space and the workers of tomorrow? Open floor spaces and futuristic office furniture in every corporate headquarters? Or no office buildings at all? The answer is probably somewhere in the middle. Balance will be the rule of the day for many commercial developers, office designers and business leaders when considering the size and scope of their office spaces and how they will accommodate their workers in the next ten years, and beyond.

Kay Sargent, vice president of Teknion, a manufacturer of high-end office systems and furniture, told Business Insider, “While there clearly isn’t one particular ‘office of the future’ there is a science behind designing a space that increases productivity. Just like there’s no outfit of the future, there’s no office of the future either. There might be a style, but not an outfit.”

As Shah puts it, “The imagined idea of entirely virtual organizations is similar to how we used to think of the future as full of flying cars and colonies in space. Reality is much more invested in hybrid-in-office plus scenarios. Physical space is still a strong element of work …”

What is clear is that for an organization to decide on its ideal office design and furniture, it must understand itself first. What are its goals? What are the demographics of its employees and how do they work best? What is the company culture and what kind of social interactions, collaboration or focused work, fuel and strengthen that culture? And what is the power structure of that organization? Answering these questions first will help organizations make important decisions about the kind of physical office space, office layouts, perks or remote advantages they need to provide their people.

Unlike the workspaces of the past two hundred years, there may never again be a cookie-cutter approach to designing and constructing commercial office space that fits the needs of every business. In the end, the number of concepts and predictions for the “office of the future” will be as vast as the number of companies that compensate people to deliver results for them.

This post was written by Suffolk Construction’s Vice President of Marketing and Communications Dan Antonellis, who can be reached at dantonellis@suffolk.com. Connect with him on LinkedIn here and follow him on Twitter at @DanAntonellis.

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