What Should the Workplace Look Like in the Distributed Economy?

Designers must tackle issues of disconnection, communication, and transparency.

All photography courtesy NBBJ

The following piece considers the present and future of workplace design. If this topic is of interest to you, consider entering the Tomorrow’s Workplace Design Competition, sponsored by Metropolis and Staples Business Advantage, which asks designers to envision offices that could be executed within the next five years. 

Coming innovations mean that work will be unconstrained by a building, free to expand and evolve, to shrink and transition. Given the evolution of technology, we will continue to work from anywhere and across multiple time zones. In fact, in the next decade, estimates suggest that upwards of 40 percent of the workforce will work remotely or within a distributed work model.

Paradoxically, the new workplace is also about community, social interaction and culture, because as people work more remotely, they encounter new points of interaction. Perhaps people want a place to gather, a place that fosters community brainstorming, and a place that would allow for deeper interpersonal relationships to develop.

So how can we reconcile working in the distributed economy and designing for it?

Recently NBBJ, in partnership with Time Inc. and Power to Fly, hosted a global hackathon on the future of work and the workplace in the distributed economy. The event, which spanned eight days, brought together the design, technology and business communities to tackle some of the problems inherent in the distributed workplace—cultural and social disconnection, fractured communication, and insufficient transparency.

Work is more than just the tasks that we complete. It’s about the casual relationships that develop from a chance meeting in the hallway, or the impromptu brainstorming session that happens when team members meet around the coffee bar. So NBBJ is focused on creating workspaces where people want to gather and collaborate with fellow employees, clients, and the community around us.

With these insights and our experience with the hackathon, here are three frameworks that architects and designers should consider that would allow distributed workers to be more connected with their peers.

Architectural: Our work environment should be unconstrained; it should be designed to fit our need for movement and for change. Research shows that we are more effective and more innovative when we can move and interact with our environment. For instance, an entire building could adapt to a user’s needs, with easier access to ramps and stairs, to remove the physical and physiological barriers of being on a different level. A more novel but entirely possible idea, as advancements in modular architecture occur, is to have building amenities such as conference rooms and meeting spaces physically move to employees as needed.

Studies have also shown that some types of workplace-related stress arise from the inability to control unwanted stimuli, such as light, temperature, airflow and, most especially, noise levels. That’s why we recently installed sensors that will allow people to choose the right ambient noise levels, light and temperature for their individual or group needs.

Distributed workforces will also require designers to create a sense of continuity across global offices and accommodate workers who travel between locations. Airbnb’s designers have been working to do this across its customer experience centers, starting with its Portland office, by getting rid of assigned cubicles, desks and phones and by creating various types of seating arrangements that employees and contractors can float between.

Digital: We should design our workspaces in tandem with technology, and to a certain extent we already do. What are missing, however, are the crucial personal connections so fundamental to vibrant, healthy and innovative workplaces. Products such as 3D, real-time, virtually networked “whiteboards”—a digital concept led by James Isaac and David Kosdruy that won the hackathon—or telepresence devices, such as those from Double Robotics, could reintroduce the spontaneity, creativity and interpersonal connectedness that distributed teams often lack.

Hardware: We should design hardware—including furniture, tablets and microphones—to allow for a more open dialogue between people. One concept might be a digital display wall that projects a series of images, culled from social media, which represent a person as they walk by it. By bringing in this visual representation of a person’s tastes and values, it would provide a catalyst for colleagues who don’t normally connect with one another to engage around shared interests. The idea is that people are more likely to engage in impromptu and casual conversations when they know a bit more about the person they are standing next to.

As we continue to gather more data about how people work, communicate and engage with one another, it is increasingly evident that we need to design spaces that allow us to have meaningful interactions with each other, that allow us to engage with and move through our physical and natural environment, and that foster a sense of community and culture. In short, we need to design spaces that are much more in tune with our diverse and distributed society. In doing so, we will create a future where workplaces allow us to be more comfortable, innovative, and happy.

For more insights into how today’s work places affect our well being see the  Staples Business Advantage 2016 Workplace Index.

Categories: Sponsored, Workplace Interiors