by Jodi Williams — Originally published in the January/February 2017 issue of FMJ
Each morning, millions of alarm clocks sound across the globe. People snooze or shower, brew a cup of coffee or scramble some eggs. Then, they take to the streets. They move with purpose and maybe a little bit of bed head. They search for their key fobs, they open their computers and they take their sentinel cubicle posts.
This crew is the world’s workforce.
But it’s a dying breed. Their way of life is already fading as new trends permeate the workplace and generational shifts change the office landscape. So how did we get here? And, more importantly, where are we going?
The workplace is more than just a set of desks and collaborative spaces. It’s an ever-changing environment, and its history plays as much of a role in its present and future as with any company or nation. So, before exploring its future, it is imperative to remind ourselves of the past.
The modern concept of the office began with the merchant class, in as much as a large open room of the ground floor of a home can be considered an office. It wasn’t until the early 1900s that the workplace saw a shift to the open-office plan. Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1906 Larkin Administration Building in Buffalo, New York, USA, was among the first to feature an open floor plan.
But what is the first word you think of when it comes to offices? Cubicle.
First suggested by Robert Propst, a designer for Herman Miller, the cubicle was seen as a way to transform the workplace from a wasteland of enclosed offices to a more open and space-efficient area.
As the new millennium approached, it was clear that the workplace needed another change. That was when workplace strategy entered the scene. Today, most companies see the workplace as a source of competitive advantage, not simply a cost burden. Well-designed offices increase productivity, save money for companies, attract top talent and have a small impact on the environment.
Companies and designers can look back and see how offices have developed. They know, more or less, what works and what to avoid. But being innovative means never being stagnant, which is why it is equally as important to look to the future and predict how our workplaces will be changing over the next few years.
Over the next one to five years, the areas that will be most affected are: the worker, the work location and the building. The worker represents the changing dynamics of who we are and what we do, the work location highlights where we work and how we get there, and the building involves where our workplace is housed and how we use it.
Technological advancement will be central to evolution within each of these categories and the workplace. It would be easy to simply say that technology will change the future of the workplace, but numerous other factors — from the economy to geopolitical volatility to climate change — will impact the workplace. Despite these variables we can make some predictions about the workplace in the next one to five years.
Bye, bye nine-to-five
We live in a stressful day and age, and much of this stress is attributed to our jobs. Eighty percent of workers feel stress in their jobs, 46 percent feel that their workload is the biggest stressor in their life and 20 percent report that the biggest stressor is trying to juggle work and personal lives.
Now, employees are seeking a better work/life balance and increased flexibility — and employers are accommodating. In fact, research shows that giving workers increased flexibility has positive implications for both productivity and financial performance. Companies must cater to this desire to stay afloat. Companies in some European countries have even begun to adopt shorter workdays. Studies show that Sweden’s six-hour day helps employees get sick less, have lower stress and work harder.
We can also expect to see workplaces popping up in mixed-use areas where employees can live, work and play. Cutting commuting time and giving employees access to all their daily needs will help produce a better work/life balance in the future.
Diversifying, not only economically
We will also notice a large generational shift. Baby Boomers are beginning to retire and Millennials and Gen Z are taking over offices. In fact, by 2019 Gen Z (depending on how you define it) will make up more than 20 percent of the workforce. Managing this new generation will mean shifting organizational strategies to align with a workforce that is increasingly entrepreneurial and less motivated by money.
Even as Baby Boomers say their goodbyes to the nineto-five grind, retirees are coming back to work, usually as consultants or temporary workers. The return of this older population in conjunction with the fact that people are working longer means that soon the workplace will incorporate more wayfinding and graphics that are accessible to those with aging eyesight. Employees will also see a rise in ergonomic programs, furniture and tools that support arthritis.
The Uber generation
We’ve already seen an increase in the number of offices that allow employees to work remotely. One statistic says that between 80-90 percent of the U.S. workforce would like to telework at least part time, and since 2005, working from home among the non-self-employed has grown by 103 percent. This trend will only grow over the next few years. As organizations gradually employ fewer full-time professionals or allow them to work off-site, there will be less need for massive office complexes. Workplaces will begin to shrink, establishing and maintaining smaller real estate footprints. We will see smaller lease sizes and increased demand for smaller floorplate sizes or larger sub-divisible floors.
Inherently embedded in this concept is the idea of coworking. Companies like WeWork, Oficio and Industrious offer office spaces for shared groups of people. This means multiple companies and freelancers working under one roof. The coworking concept promotes community, connection, education and growth, as well as lower costs and top-of-the-line amenities.
This growing trend will also spur the already growing popularity of the gig economy. In fact, analysts estimate that within five years up to 40 percent of the workforce will be consultant-based. Workers are looking for the flexibility afforded by consultancy and job sourcing with companies like Uber, Homepolish and Upwork. On Uber’s fifth anniversary in January of 2015, the company announced that they employed more than one million drivers in more than 300 cities worldwide. This number, and numbers for similar companies, will also continue to grow.
So, what does this mean for facility managers?
These trends mean a change in the way that we look at the places we work. Shorter work hours may mean that salaried employees spend less time in the office, but the rise of the gig economy means more wear and tear on the building during off hours. Workers in this consultant economy tend to work earlier in the day or later at night, and many also work on weekends. This requires both increased security and access. Workers must be able to enter and leave the building as they please, but must also be protected.
Ingress and egress to buildings will also increase as flexible schedules take the place of the classic nine-to-five schedule with a short lunch break. Facility managers will need to be prepared for increased foot traffic in lobbies and on elevators.
A desire for a better work/life balance (and a happier work experience in general) will drive building design to include a welcoming lobby, comfy couches, mixed-use spaces, coffee shops and more. Millennials and Gen X demand these kinds of services, and buildings will need them in order to attract top companies and top talent. – FMJ
JODI WILLIAMS is an associate vice president at the global architecture, design and planning firm CallisonRTKL. She leads the firm’s strategic consulting group, focusing on workplace strategy and change management for both public and private sector clients.