Freelancers and temporary employees were once considered…well, they just were not considered, especially when it came to where, when, or how they work in an office. Spurred by economic changes, advances in technology, and perceptions of work among new generations, attitudes toward temporary workers have shifted, causing companies to reevaluate how they are assimilated with full-time staff. This poses a unique set of challenges for designers who are creating offices to suit a flexible and ever-changing workforce.
Known as contingent workers, this diverse group comprising consultants, independent contractors, freelancers, and temporary workers—really, just about anyone working outside the bounds of traditional full-time employment—has grown steadily since the recession. According to a March 2013 study by Accenture, such workers make up as much as 33 percent of the U.S. workforce, up from 6 percent in 1989. The growing strategic value of the extended workforce is driving businesses to rethink how independent professionals are integrated into the workplace.
For businesses seeking to stay competitive amidst global competition and rapidly changing markets, contingent workers are doing much more than simply boosting productivity in times of need. They also provide an infusion of fresh ideas and step in to fill critical knowledge gaps—often transferring valuable expertise in the process.
While this vision of work is not new—author Daniel Pink called attention to it in his 1998 Fast Company article “Free Agent Nation”—a confluence of factors is driving the growth of the extended workforce. This fuels predictions of a 1:1 workforce, comprised of half traditionally employed and half independent workers, within a matter of years. These factors include mobile technologies, affordable remote collaboration tools, changing attitudes toward work—especially among millennials—and a shift away from conventional roles-based organizations to project-based work models. Elance, a leading online freelance exchange with 3.4 million registered members, reported that while media-related work dominates its site activity, financial services, management, law, science, and even real estate enterprises are engaging growing numbers of professionals who favor the flexibility and choice that self-employment affords. Freelancers consistently report high satisfaction rates, suggesting that the contingent workforce will remain a major component of the talent equation in the coming years. Human resources groups are scrambling to adapt. Should workplace designers take note too?
Making the right kind of room
Planning for the extended workforce rarely follows a straightforward formula, and part of the problem is that such workers are difficult to account for. While independent contractors and temporary workers are typically covered during the process of understanding when and why different workers come in to the office, accurately estimating the total number of extended workers is often more elusive.
Many freelancers go uncounted when outside contracting is handled through employment agencies rather than internal human resources. Furthermore, a company’s hiring managers will sometimes bypass company protocols for bringing on contingent employees due to burdensome paperwork and a long approval process. As forward-thinking human resource professionals expand their scope to include
a network of internal and external talent, accounting for workers may become easier. Until then, the designer must seek to understand the full scope of a client’s staffing.
For example, when Woods Bagot designed the North American headquarters for shopping mall developer Westfield in Los Angeles, the designers undertook a comprehensive consulting phase to determine work styles among all staff through a series of workshops, interviews, and surveys. The space was designed to accommodate full-time staff, seasonal teams, and project-based teams, totaling 580 people, 10 percent of whom are contingent workers. Woods Bagot cross-referenced Westfield’s human resource numbers with projections from business groups and team leaders to verify estimated figures. We then determined a menu of work settings—part of Westfield’s workplace standards that we developed—to tailor the space to the office’s needs. The solution included collaborative spaces where project teams could camp out, and flexible workstation modules designed to comfortably seat six to eight people according to seasonal demand. The standards also anticipate the flow of staff between Westfield’s other global offices while retaining local character. The palettes and finishes vary between offices to suit regional tastes, while the core components of the workplaces can be designed similarly to provide a sense of familiarity from office to office.
As part of the change management process, we worked closely with the Westfield HR team to determine mandates and orientation for all staff in the new workplace. Contingent workers were given an orientation packet upon arrival to inform them about the different workplace settings within the office, and when and how they were to be used. Additionally, permanent employees were trained to understand the way spaces were made flexible for all of the work styles and types of employees within the company. The primary objective of the design of the Westfield project was to bring the organization together as one.
Supporting teams, not roles
In the past, when contingent workers were hired primarily to augment existing staff, companies often located temporary workers in adjunct spaces with fewer amenities and less space per person—a tactic that underscored their transience and undermined their sense of accountability. The new model prioritizes collaboration as essential to accomplishing the best results as well as cultivating an ongoing affiliation with sought-after contractors.
At the new Melbourne headquarters of National Australia Bank (NAB), a leading financial institution in Australia known for its pioneering technology-driven services, Woods Bagot developed eight work style profiles—ranging from desk-based “knowledge coordinators” to highly mobile “intellectual nomads.” The company’s current census and projected demand for the different profiles provided the basis for an ambitious program of 25 percent fixed and 75 percent flexible spaces—with no private offices.
The high degree of flexibility and mobility greatly expands workers’ ability to choose when, where, and how they work, creating the breathing room to accommodate a constant flux of project teams. Yet we also observed that to best support team dynamics and efficiency, the design needed to position critical desk-based workers within collaborative team environments. NAB’s project hubs distribute flexible work points around a fixed zone to ensure that more mobile team members always know where to go for support and information.
By supporting the work rather than the roles, NAB’s headquarters blurs the distinction between in-house and outsourced workers—an issue of increasing importance to contingent workers, according to HR experts. The limited use of assigned workstations and the absence of private offices diminishes the sense of organizational hierarchy and minimizes the physical cues that can set types of workers apart. Whether an independent contractor is an industry veteran serving as an advisor, or a recent graduate skilled in programming, NAB’s activity-based workplace facilitates their introduction to the team.
Building trust beyond the office
Trust is another key issue that arises as the extended workforce grows. A 2013 Tower Lane study conducted for Elance found that 66 percent of companies were managing freelancers on site, even when work could be handled off site. While up-front, face-to-face time can enable valuable bonding and communication, mandating work on site is sometimes at odds with activity-based work and result-based practices, and can set apart contractors from employees who enjoy greater flexibility or even reside in different parts of the world.
The question of trust dovetails with the widespread adoption of mobile technologies that broaden the realm of where work can occur, as well as bring-your-own-device (BYOD) programs that have employees increasingly working on personally-owned devices. The research conducted for the 2013 Woods Bagot white paper, “Knowledge Management in a Mobile World,” found more companies using virtual socialization tools such as Yammer or mobile intranets to keep staff engaged and to foster connections between staff. To better support mobile work, companies like GPT Group, for which Woods Bagot designed an office, have made significant investments in collaborative technologies that link the home office with remote team members.
While BYOD programs do raise legitimate questions about security, they can also further blur the distinction between employee and independent contractor. Having tools in place to foster connectivity between mobile team members will ultimately bolster trust. The mobile world white paper concludes that enabling trust, rather than setting rules, is a key step in the process.
Planning for a flexible future
While Woods Bagot strives to satisfy our clients with their space requirements, the varied nature of contingent workers’ schedules and expectations now demands varied solutions. Therefore, employers are increasingly creating teams from both full-time and project-specific staff as part of a contingent workforce to fully resolve their needs.
Companies looking to adopt a workplace strategy that taps into the value of the extended workforce should also trust their instincts about the right amount of change to take on. The beauty of the extended workforce, activity-based workplace, and mobile work tools is that they allow companies to pilot ideas, gather results, and improve. No wonder freelancers
are feeling so satisfied.
Christopher Blackadder, IIDA, is a principal in the New York office
of Woods Bagot. He joined the firm in 2010 to lead its interiors practice in North America. Blackadder has more than 20 years
of experience as a design leader focusing on corporate interiors and workplace strategies.