For the last decade, architectural and design firms, as well as corporate organizations looking to reduce costs and function more efficiently, have been focused on workplace trends. Several factors are driving this re-evaluation of workplace strategies—such as increased technology and connectivity and continual increases in real estate and operating costs—and creating the need to explore alternative ways in which to work.
The economy (particularly in the climate we’ve experienced the last couple of years) is one of the primary drivers for the re-evaluation of workplace trends. Real estate costs are typically calculated on a per-square-foot basis; therefore, significant amounts of money can be saved immediately, as well as over the life of a lease, if a building’s footprint can be reduced.
One of the primary ways organizations achieve a reduced real estate footprint is by hiring a design firm to create workplace standards based on need and function. These standards consist of office and/or workstation configuration and size, furniture standardization—often involving national purchasing agreements with manufacturers—and standard square footage allocation for each job type. In addition, a number of organizations in today’s economic climate no longer want to incur the additional cost and time needed to completely design a customized space for office relocation.
As a result, developers are hiring design firms to develop speculative spaces for their buildings. The firm completely designs the space to include reflected ceiling plans, power and communication plans, and millwork for pantries and workrooms. The developer then partially build-outs the space—such as completing all of the perimeter offices, conference rooms, and pantry—and leaves enough unbuilt space for a prospective tenant to easily revise the design and quickly build. Past successes in this approach have shown that having the finished drawings were enough to lease empty spaces that had been vacant for several months.
Today, for the first time ever, the workplace is made up of four distinct generations:
• Pre-Baby Boomers (Silent Generation)
• Baby Boomers
• Gen “X”
• Gen “Y” (Millennials)
One of the main reasons for this multi-generational workplace phenomenon is the current economy. The recession is resulting in many members of the older generations to keep their jobs longer than in the past. This range of generational differences creates a number of workplace challenges for designers.
One challenge is the diverse levels of knowledge and comfort with technology. This technology disparity greatly affects how we communicate with each other and with clients and colleagues. Organizations are aware of the differing communication styles and the need to encourage cross-generational communication. As a result, the workplace should include multiple types of meeting areas to foster impromptu and formal employee collaboration.
Historically, office size and location have been determined by seniority. Consequently, organizations with tiered seniority levels have multiple office size and location needs, which result in inefficient floorplates. Today, however, the old seniority method must now conform to the new, leaner organizations that thrive in today’s economy. Spaces need to be designed for function rather than for seniority or prestige. This design includes more collaborative, open space and less walls and private offices. The most efficient office standard is employing “Universal Design,” creating a standard one-size-fits-all office type. However, a one-size-fits-all office will vary depending on the office’s geographical location.
Geographical and Professional Influences
Though we are in a 24/7 global economy, there still are distinct, geographical differences in workplace standard expectations for office size and environment. For example, an executive vice president in an organization located in New York City would have no problem working in an open-office environment; however, a counterpart in Wash., D.C. would not only require a closed office, but an office with perimeter windows.
Different professions, such as law or journalism, have developed distinct workplace standards. Historically, lawyers always are provided with closed offices, symbolizing both prestige and the need for privacy. But this phenomenon is beginning to lose importance as younger attorneys take leadership roles. Turnover in the law profession, which used to be a rarity, has increased in many firms, necessitating actual office standards where none have previously existed. On the other hand, the publishing and journalism professions are not office intensive and have employed open office planning for decades. These workstations are typically designed with extremely low panels for professionals that thrive on the energy and excitement of an active open office.
One additional, significant characteristic that affects not only the future office but the current creation of office standards is sustainability. Sustainability is no longer an option in new construction or significant office renovation. Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) is not only well known across all professions and geographical locations throughout the country, but many jurisdictions have adopted the adherence to LEED as either required code or legislation for new construction or renovation of a minimum size. The awareness of LEED and sustainable practices is so acute that organizations are using their “green” workplace as a recruiting tool, and job seekers are looking to work only with environmentally-conscious organizations.
Of all the factors that contribute to the re-evaluation of existing workplace standards by an organization, the economy is the most significant. However, once the economic cycle revolves again, private offices and the amount of space per person again will become a recruiting and retention tool.
Ruth Jansson, CID, IIDA, LEED AP is a talented interior designer based in Wash., D.C.’s AECOM office. Her award-winning portfolio includes interior designs for law firms, commercial developers, the hospitality industry, and federal clients. Jansson has been published five times in industry publications and her office design work includes projects with LEED gold and silver certifications.