Letting go of old paradigms: The workplace of the future

See how the roles of flexibility, modularity and system security are driving emerging workplace trends

by Jodi Williams and Jeanne Wood — (Originally published in the January/February 2019 issue of BOMA Magazine.)

Change, goes the cliché, is our only constant. It is self-evident to say that our world is changing, and that the pace of that change increases exponentially. As real estate professionals, we can point to few examples where the tectonic shifts of “change” register as much and as deeply as they do with the workplace, especially when it comes to design and operations. By monitoring the seismology of the field, it’s possible to understand where the industry is heading; what owners and landlords can expect; and how best to future-proof real assets.

It is impossible to understand the future of the workplace without understanding where the nature of work is heading, so let’s start with some context. The traditional 9-to-5 workday shattered years ago and new, more dynamic models have begun to take root, some with more success than others. Today’s college graduates entering the workforce no longer expect a “job for life.” They are wed to their craft, not their employers. And, thanks to technology, they can practice that craft almost anywhere. It’s no wonder that telecommuting, hoteling and “free address” scenarios have proliferated over the last decade, redefining what we mean by the workplace.

But, change goes deeper than this. Tomorrow’s employer of choice will need to embrace fluid organizational models that allow employees to move in and out of their orbits, driving the need for flexibility, modularity and system security even higher. Consider how a movie studio creates a film. The team is comprised not of full-time employees, but a collective of “free agents” who come together under a studio banner. The team is focused on a project (making a movie) and is anchored neither to a place or the administration of a traditional organizational model. This is the coworking scenario taken to the extreme, but we can see the company of the future heading in that direction: Business exists as a dispersed ecosystem scattered across multiple locations or time zones, and teams assemble in the ether or in some loosely defined neutral territory.

The ripple effect this type of scenario will have on building operations and management will be far-reaching, and owners will need to embrace the “retail” sensibility of coworking concepts like WeWork and Impact Hub. Commercial space will become more dynamic, more fluid and more responsive to the needs of an agile, easily distracted workforce—just as retail space has. Shared facilities, plug-and-play technology, hyperflexible lease structures to utility pricing and network security will move from being considered features to becoming expectations.

Layer on top of this the changing demographics of the workforce, the impact of technology and a shift toward more flexible working arrangements and we have fertile ground for major disruption. For the first time in history, up to five distinct generations are working side-by-side, making employees and their expectations of employers and workplaces more varied than ever. Many see this as a positive trend, of course, as there are commercial benefits to effectively harnessing the power of such a workforce—talent can be pulled from a deeper, broader pool. And, often the more diverse a company is perceived to be, the more of a competitive edge it has.

Brick-and-mortar offices and corporate hierarchies will never evaporate entirely, of course—people need to come together and decisions need to be made. But, we can learn a lot from how today’s leading companies are adopting new structures and corporate models to attract and retain a new workforce. And, we can prepare to better meet future demands.

The Wellness Revolution

The last few years have seen a new emphasis on striking a healthy work-life balance, with companies that invest in employee support and satisfaction succeeding in generating more engaged, more productive workers. The data are compelling:

  • A 2015 study by economists at the University of Warwick found that happiness led to a 12 percent spike in productivity, while unhappy workers proved 10 percent less productive.
  • While job satisfaction in the United States has rebounded since the depths of the Great Recession, just 50 percent of workers report being satisfied with their jobs today. And, a staggering 85 percent of employees say they are either not engaged or actively disengaged with their jobs, according to Gallup’s 2017 State of the Global Workplace report, at a cost to the global economy of $7 trillion in lost productivity.
  • The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that U.S. employers lose approximately $225.8 billion annually because of employee health issues.

As a result, we spend an increasing amount of time designing workspaces that are functional, yet flexible enough to support a framework for future wellness initiatives, whatever they may be. The types of facilities and amenities an owner provides—incorporating natural light, social zones, fitness centers and so on—can be instrumental in promoting health and wellness in the workplace. What’s right for you? That depends on a variety of things: leasing climate, company culture, mission, brand. Whatever you decide, be prepared to change it out or adjust based on employee or tenant demand.

While it seems likely that the wellness trend will be with us for the foreseeable future, measuring its tangible benefits remains elusive and many clients have been slow to adopt the full breadth of the movement. The most popular rubric, the WELL Building Standard from the International WELL Building Institute, is a performance-based system for measuring, certifying and monitoring features of the built environment that impact human health and wellbeing. WELL is not a small investment for landlords and owners, however, and many are hard-pressed to point to a clear return on investment (ROI). In fact, the conversation has shifted from wellness ROI to VOI (value on investment), which focuses on controlling or reducing healthcare costs, improving employee health and boosting productivity.

Physical wellness is not the only nascent focus of design: Wellbeing and mental health are moving up the agenda across society, with a growing recognition that we all need to look after our social and emotional wellbeing in the same way we care for our bodies. Employers and property managers alike must be more cognizant of this when planning workplace offerings; and designers must consider the wellbeing aspects of layout, design and finishes. Further, managers must be mindful of potential stress triggers, especially tenant safety (fire alarm testing, active shooter drills), cleaning product chemicals, noise, light and air pollutants.

The Myth of Future-Proofing

While promises of future-proofing may be largely snake oil, laying in the right infrastructure to support smart technology is critical and among the most effective ways of promoting flexibility and long-term viability. Easily modified, smaller floor plates, movable walls, adjustable lighting, collaboration spaces and private break-out areas for smaller work groups or confidential discussions are among the simple steps to creating a space that can accommodate recurring waves of change and emerging trends.

Tenants or building owners should prioritize systems that are modular, standards-based and, where practical, networked. Systems, such as individually addressable LED ceiling lights, networked CCTV and access control systems and IP speakers, provide the ability for a tenant to evolve their space without calling in a contractor for every minor modification. Changes can be easily and quickly implemented remotely through smart building integration. With systems using widely adopted standards, the ability to grow and modify those systems over time goes a long way toward earning that future-proof claim.

Those looking to push boundaries should consider the introduction of smart technology to help meet the needs of their diverse workforces and impart a sense of control to employees. Artificial intelligence or machine learning algorithms may displace manual user interfaces for not only sorting email into categories, but also proactively controlling building systems, amenities and conferencing equipment. These same systems can, with careful planning in early stages, give tenants control over their environments, ushering in a new era of personalization for employees, who now can set lighting and heating preferences for the areas immediately adjacent to their desks. And, once employees set those preferences, the building remembers them, offering an optimum experience without being asked and potentially translating into tangible savings for owners.

But, not all of this is ideal. We live in an era where Apple, Facebook and Google regularly testify before government panels on data privacy and regulations; and, as a culture, we have grown acutely aware of the role technology plays in our daily lives. We may be approaching a tipping point where technology no longer encourages collaboration, but reduces it. To be sure, it is critical to understand such nuances as monitoring space utilization versus employee tracking.

This is where thoughtful design and a deft touch return dividends. The right workplace strategy should meet the needs of both the individual employee and the client. It should support top-line growth and long-term market competitiveness, as well as cost reduction. And, it should make the employee eager to come into the office every day.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS: Jodi Williams is an associate vice president of CallisonRTKL, a global architecture, planning and design firm. She works extensively with both public- and private-sector clients to develop thoughtful strategies and indepth engagement processes that bring together design, sociology/psychology and business goals. Jeanne Wood, a director of CallisonRTKL, helps large multinational corporate clients, as well as small boutique firms, understand how workplace strategy and design impact business performance at both the project and portfolio level. Wood works with executive leadership to determine clients’strategic direction for new initiatives.

BOMA Magazine is the official magazine of the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) International. It is a leading source for the latest news, issues and trends affecting the commercial real estate industry.