The Evolving 21st Century Office Space

By: Brian P. Whitmore, AIA, NCARB, LEED®AP, Vice President of Design and Associate Principal of BCA Architects

In an innovative culture, change is part of the process of advancement, so what will workplace environments look like in the next 100 years? Well, there’s a lot of discussion about open workspaces and it has often been praised for enhancing creativity and collaboration. It's fielded fame for taking on the office’s traditionally-prized corner office, but does anyone really know why? And what about the ability to concentrate and lack of privacy? 

According to a Forbes 2013 article entitled, “Why The Open Office Fails, and A Solution,” it says most “mobile workers spend less than 60% of their time in their offices.” Furthermore, it says, “[companies] don’t want to pay for…empty spaces, corridors and hard walls” that won’t be continually used by workers. However, workers can also find generic open workspaces chaotic, busy, and not private.

Dr. Marla Gottschalk, Director of Thought Leadership at Kilberry Leadership Advisors describes in her January 2013 article, “The Death of the Corner Office: What Our Workspaces Say About Us,” that companies want spaces designed for “more transparency, increased opportunities to communicate, flexibility, and fluidity.” While Nigel Scott-Williams, regional director for the Switzerland-based furniture company, Vitra, says, “vast open space[s] where [workers]…can all see each other and hear each other…” is not desirable to workers, as it doesn’t acknowledge the fact that different workers work differently. As more companies look to be more efficient, architects looks for ways to incorporate all the needs of a modern workplace. How? Read on.

First, architects are looking at ways to encourage flexibility. Open floor plans and revolving workstations seem to be the way many companies are heading. But to quote Michelle Goodman’s August 2013 article entitled, “Hate Open Floor Office Spaces? There’s A Better Way” adjusting to this “non-hierarchical workplace” can be difficult for older employees or for professionals in the legal and financial sectors, among others. Employees need to communicate and collaborate, but they also need time to get away from distractions and think deeply. Some creative ideas are hatched in a vacuum. The key is to incorporate all of these elements into the design of the modern office. This includes a combination of open office areas and secluded areas that are not necessarily assigned, empowering employees to pick and choose their working environment freely. This also supports telecommuters, as a landing zone from time to time, or to support the more regular (video) conference call.

Not to mention, creating spaces that are focused on comfort, versus spaces that are focused on productivity, is okay. As Goodman concludes her piece, the “happy medium” allows “employees immediate access to both quiet, private spots” and “collaborative areas for…working in teams” and thereby giving options that “will foster more productive, balanced employees.” Working together with architects to nurture company culture and staff development is the key to bringing the best solutions to the evolving 21st century workplace.

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