Designing the Workplace of the Distributed Economy

A Hackathon Suggests How to Design Workplaces for Both Remote Technology and a Sense of Community

November 21, 2016

Designer, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published by MetropolisPoint of View blog.

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.

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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.

Photos courtesy of Sean Airhart/NBBJ.

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We Need to Redefine “Efficiency” in Contemporary Academic Buildings

Collaborative Pedagogies Require Us to Rethink Approaches to Space Programming

November 10, 2016

Programmer / Architect, NBBJ

Today’s universities recognize that much of a student’s education happens outside the classroom. When students interact, exchange ideas and collaborate across disciplines with each other and with faculty, they become more creative and entrepreneurial.

This type of engagement requires flexible, collaborative, often informal spaces; however, traditional academic programming often doesn’t account for this style of learning. Efficiency — that is, the amount of space dedicated to academic programs like classrooms and faculty offices, excluding support spaces like corridors, stairwells and mechanical rooms — still drives many design decisions. Yet productive exchanges often occur in unprogrammed spaces like stairwells and hallways, where casual interactions naturally occur.

What we need is a different method of academic space planning. Not through expanding “inefficient” space — because few institutions can afford to spend money on spaces they can’t justify — but through a new way of programming for collaborative learning.

In new buildings, one effective strategy is to create a series of small-to-large spaces for collaboration, then give them names and functions and discuss ways to schedule them. For instance, in one recent academic project we proposed informal group study rooms, which weren’t originally a programmatic requirement. We looked at enrollment data, course sizes, the amount of time buildings were occupied and the amount of time students spent out of class. With this we calculated the necessary number of seats, then associated a square footage with each seat to arrive at the total amount of space. These calculations aren’t difficult — they just require us to think about space in a different way.

Renovations present different opportunities. In oversized corridors, space can be recovered outside classrooms for “linear lounges” to encourage informal interactions between students, faculty and staff. If a building has more entrances than necessary, some entrances can be removed and the leftover vestibules and corridors converted into group study areas. (This approach becomes particularly attractive as campuses become more concerned about safety and security within buildings on campus.) As offices shrink in size — as faculty need less furniture and fewer books — areas can be reclaimed nearby where faculty can come together or interface with students.

Sometimes, however, a university may need to recognize that efficiency, as traditionally defined, may have to decrease from previously targeted metrics. Collaborative classrooms require more technology and moveable tables where people can gather — so whereas classrooms formerly required only 15-20 square feet per chair, now as many as 25-35 square feet are needed per student. This supports new academic pedagogies, but is inherently less efficient.

On another front, class sizes are increasing at many institutions to help address overall increased costs for education. Consequently, a larger exchange of students occurs between classes, which requires oversized circulation zones — like corridors and stairwells — that further decrease efficiency. But this increase in space also presents opportunities. Wide, welcoming, day-lit stairwells, for instance, not only ease the strain on elevators, but also encourage students to be more active and increase the chance of informal encounters between people moving between floors.

Space planning should not only be about satisfying an efficiency requirement, it should also be about building the culture of a department or school. In response to evolving student-centered academic pedagogies, contemporary academic culture often focuses on building open and interactive environments to support new models of learning dynamics. To do that, decisions must be tied not to arbitrary percentages and metrics, but to the curriculum and to students’ expectations for their academic experience.

Image courtesy Sean Airhart/NBBJ.

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What the West Can Learn from China

Despite an Economic Slowdown and the “No Weird Buildings” Mandate, Workplace Design in China Continues to Show the Way Forward

October 24, 2016

Design Partner, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published by JLL Real Views.

In recent years, Chinese companies have mastered the art of being bold and taking risks in their workplace design.

By applying creative thinking to ambitious projects, they’ve built a plethora of noteworthy spaces which have attracted attention from around the world.

Now, the economic slowdown and a more mature market are changing the way architects and developers approach new designs but beyond simply thinking big, there are still valuable lessons to be learnt for Western companies.

Value
While Chinese companies are still willing to think differently, now, instead of trying something because it’s outrageous or never been done before, they expect architects to prove their value. There’s more focus on well-built, long-lasting buildings, and the tech industry is leading the charge. They still see the benefit of thinking differently, but now that thinking has to be proven out with value metrics, whether in cost, time, construction quality or creating a better place to work.

Façade Innovation
Tech companies are also looking at building façades as opportunities for innovation, to make them more intelligent, better built and more expressive than many in the West. In the wake of the mandate for “no more weird architecture,” the façade is one place where a company can stand out and express an innovative brand: a well put-together, innovative façade says “we’re an innovative company.” Whether that façade is sustainable, highly detailed or simply expresses a program in a different way, their brand comes through in the architecture. Alibaba’s new building by Kengo Kuma, with its dynamic screening systems, is a great example; so are NBBJ’s self-shading towers for Tencent.

Landscape
Many Chinese firms have commissioned excellent landscape design, including the Vanke Center designed by Steven Holl, or the Morphosis-designed headquarters for Giant Interactive Group. In many of the clients I’ve worked with, there’s very much a cultural connection to the landscape — from the species of plants, to the spaces created, to the ability to be outside in nature. And with research showing that access to nature makes employees healthier, happier and more creative, there’s a proven value to creating high-quality landscapes.

Family
Many of the younger tech companies in China value their employees and go out of the way to create an environment that is comfortable, productive, fun and almost family-like. That stems from a larger cultural emphasis on the family or group, but it’s also good for innovation and productivity. We’re more individualistic in the West, but workplace design can help stimulate that sense of community. Easy access to amenities, whether for socializing, learning or health, can be a critical part of stitching that “family” together.

Transportation
Many large Chinese companies like Alibaba take care of transportation as a perk for their employees. Tencent, for instance, is building 15 bus stops at the base of their new headquarters to help shuttle people all over Shenzhen. Thanks to dedicated bus lanes, buses get to the office faster, and they also contribute to the sense of family, when employees travel to the office together as a team. While transportation in China is very different from the United States, and while Google has come under fire for its buses in San Francisco, in places like the sprawling, auto-dependent cities of the American West and Midwest, they might be worth another look.

A greater sophistication is coming to corporate workplaces in China, which is good, but companies need to be careful not to become so conservative that it hurts their ability to pursue innovation. Despite economic challenges and “no more weird architecture,” however, companies in China still exhibit a willingness to be bold that the West can emulate.

Banner image copyright Sean Airhart/NBBJ.

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