In the latest installation of The Workspace of Tomorrow, two architects envision the future of the office space and how we will work—and live—in it.
We spend more than enough time “at work”—at our desks and in our offices, on conference calls and gathered around conference tables, and, of course, on our iPhones at all hours of the day—so it’s no wonder that today’s work environment is evolving at a rapid pace. And with that evolution, the most productive workspaces have become the ones that operate as mini-cities, comprising of far more than just rows of uninspired desks and offering instead a holistic and diverse ecosystem that not only encourages collaboration and community, but also satisfies human needs like leisure and wellbeing.
To explore the changing nature of the workplace in modern global cities, ROOM assembled a panel of experts at the Equinox Hotel’s new Industrious at Equinox workspace at New York’s smart-city-within-a-city, Hudson Yards. Moderated by Spencer Bailey—founder of the media company The Slowdown and co-host of the Time Sensitive podcast—the conversation featured two of the leading figures in workspace architecture today: Kay Sargent, director of workplace at global design, architecture, engineering, and planning firm HOK, and Shohei Shigetmatsu, partner at architecture firm OMA. Here, we explore the future of the workspace through the eyes of the people who are creating it.
Technology ≠ Smarter Workspaces
Just like smart cities, smart workspaces are more than just technology—they’re about creating deeper connections for employees. When Sargent is designing a new workspace for a client, the questions she asks are not about state-of-the-art systems; they are about how to engage those who will be using the space day in and day out. “It’s really about people,” she says. “How are we making it easier for people to navigate? How are we bringing people together? How are we connecting them in a more meaningful way and enabling them through the way that we design a space? It’s far, far deeper than the integration of technology.”
For Shigematsu’s part, the concept of the smart city or workspace is met with skepticism. “Smart people don’t call themselves smart,” he quips. “Smart cities often fail in trying to show off their smartness.” What truly makes a space “smart”—whether it’s a workplace or an entire city—is intuitive planning that responds to the human condition. The more we work in sterile spaces, the more we crave natural environments. The more we have technology taking care of us, the more we crave human interaction. Ultimately, a workspace isn’t better for its gadgets. It’s better when it’s shaped by the needs of humanity, eliminating pain points with technology and design, while encouraging people to be active and engaged.
The Data Debate
Today’s modern workspaces are built largely on data. As workplace behavior changes, the data that businesses collect shows how they can become more productive and use their spaces more efficiently. In OMA’s designs for Facebook’s new campus at Menlo Park in Silicon Valley, for instance, Shigetmasu recalls an instance in which data collection enabled the creation of more reactive workspaces in real time.
“If the data shows that a meeting room is not being used enough, the design allows for Facebook to dismantle the space in about two hours and turn it into something else that will be more reactive to the behaviors that are being performed more often,” he explains. Responding to that collective social behavior is what architects must facilitate in the modern workspace.
Sargent, however, warns against the overuse of “thin data” in workspace design. Relying solely on narrow data to build a workspace often negates common sense, she says. “People are collecting all this data and they don’t even know what problem they are trying to solve. If data is not done well, it can actually lie. There is absolutely a science to what we do, but we need to be cautious to make sure we’re collecting good, thick data.”
Sargent also cautions against prioritizing data over evident human needs. “If the data tells us we need more conference rooms, but we walk around the office and see that conference rooms are sitting empty, we know we need to be more intelligent about how we’re working with that data.”
The Workspace As Mini-City
In many ways, modern workspace design is driven largely by the younger generation entering the workforce for the first time—there’s a desire to attract young talent and feed innovation. And according to Sargent, this new wave of employees brings to the office a new mind-set: “Access is the new ownership.”
The modern office design is shifting significantly from the classic layout to a model that is based on creating geographical units based on specific needs. “In the past, you’d give every floor a basic conference room,” she says, “But what makes more sense today is to have one floor in the building that has an amazing conference center with service and IT, and everyone can access it when they need it.” Buildings, Sargent adds, no longer need to operate as silos, fulfilling every need within its four walls and individual floors. Rather, buildings should be viewed as precincts, part of a bigger ecosystem that encourages movement and connection beyond its front door.
Shigetmasu says OMA’s Facebook project supports this notion. The Menlo Park development is essentially a city within a city, with the company’s offices woven into a mixed-use network that includes retail shops and a grocery store, as well as schools and affordable housing. The result is a community that blurs the line between “working” and “not working” modes and reflects the way that most of us work today.
“If you expand the notion that the workspace can be anywhere, then the workspace ultimately becomes more and more flexible,” Shigetmasu explains. “Then you can start to think about amenities like parks and beaches and cafes—even elevators can be spaces that you think about differently.” The benefit of this urban workspace is ultimately that people are happier in their work—more fulfilled in their physical space and more mobile and connected in their day-to-day activity.
Still, Sargent counters that however enjoyable that blurred line may seem, bringing leisure activities into the workspace can have a dangerous side effect that’s being seen all too often: It could be contributing to the American obsession with productivity—and propagating that “always-on” mentality. “It’s the re-rise of company towns like Hershey, Penn., and Corning, N.Y.,” she says. “It’s almost cult-like in its notion of designing and controlling every aspect so that you don’t have to leave as often. The whole everything-you-need-is-right-here mentality is built on keeping you where you are. Whether that’s a good or bad dynamic is another question entirely.”
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