IDEC: Resourceful Adaptation

June 1, 2007

By Caroline Hill and Camille Venezia

A transforming workforce impacts workplace design.

More and more people in the United States are working outside of traditional office settings. These alternative work practices that were once considered suspicious are now being viewed as a way to save money, access required skill sets and increase productivity.

Commercial interior designers who want to remain competitive need to stay abreast of these shifting work practices that impact workplace design while also juggling client demands and multiple projects concurrently.

Likewise, design educators should be integrating this information into the studio curriculum. However, finding adequate time to assess changing work patterns and the corresponding design implications can be challenging for both practitioners and educators given the more immediate, daily demands of their own jobs. The good news is that these new complexities in the workforce are also bringing new workplace design opportunities.

Thankfully, industry partners and others are investing considerable time and resources to track these trends and disseminate their findings to the design community. Several recent articles and studies (Bond, Thompson, Galinsky & Prottas, 2002; Beatty, Saratoga/PricewaterhouseCoopers, Convergys, 2005; Knoll Inc. Workforce Research, 2005) have pointed to the fact that today's workforce is becoming increasingly mobile and global.

The study completed by Knoll Global Business Division (Knoll Inc. Workforce Research, 2005), included in-depth field interviews that were conducted with real estate and human resource decision makers within five Global 100 companies representing five different industries. The primary intent of the research was to better understand the impact of flexible and mobile work practices on  organizations, as well as the changing nature of the physical work environment. The research synthesized best practice examples to demonstrate that flexible and mobile work policies are legitimate business strategies used to establish competitive advantage and increase organizational effectiveness and performance.

The Knoll study defines "mobility" as a real estate business strategy that calls for the right combination of technology, workspace, and workplace support systems, which, in combination, enable people to work from multiple locations. "Flexibility," although related to mobility, is defined as a human resource business strategy that addresses how, when and where work gets done (e.g. work-athome, flextime). A "global" workforce is understood to be the collection of adaptable human talent who possess a rich mixture of skills reflective of the worldwide operation population. Four key themes emerged from the Knoll study:

  • Flexible policies attract and retain top talent through development and deployment. Flexibility strategies deliver results that benefit both businesses and employees, including annual savings on corporate healthcare costs and savings from reduced  absenteeism and turnover.
  • Mobile and flexible work arrangements increase organizational effectiveness. Credible metrics exist to prove that mobile and flexible work practices increase financial performance and market valuation.
  • Knowledge-based work relies upon "time" as the resource that drives productivity. "Time" is shared between employees and the organization, replacing the traditional measurement of "time spent behind a desk."
  • Mobile work strategies enhance productivity while reducing real estate costs. Mobile work improves revenue by increasing worker productivity through better time utilization and a reduction of real estate and facility expenses through higher worker-to-desk ratios.

The appropriate work environment for the global, mobile worker both encourages innovation and quickly adjusts to the ever-changing and competitive global marketplace. Designers can address  these workplace objectives by implementing the following design guidelines:

  • Design spaces that encourage movement, interaction and collaboration
  • Consider the "social architecture" (existing informal social systems and communication patterns) of employees, and design spaces that nurture those systems
  • Consider a greater variety of settings in the workplace (e.g. cafés, bars, brainstorming rooms, and more "residential" settings)
  • Focus on human-centered design that allows for individual customization of workspaces in terms of furniture, acoustics and lighting (one size does NOT fit all)
  • Ensure that workspaces are supported with appropriate technology tools and options
  • Focus less on dedicated personal workspace and storage needs and more on high quality, varied communal/unassigned spaces
  • Consider raised flooring, demountable walls, and mobile workstation components for maximum flexibility

Designers and business owners seeking to respond to the global, mobile workforce will undoubtedly face challenges. Juggling multiple cultural norms is one issue that requires heightened sensitivity while the security of both people and data in a more open, mobile environment poses another challenge. Keeping track of people and products and developing metrics to ensure that new policies and processes are truly supporting business initiatives are additional challenges. For businesses that embrace alternative work strategies, managing change and the communication of new  workplace strategies is a critical and potentially difficult task as well.

In spite of the challenges associated with responding to the changing workforce and workplace, innovative companies are recognizing that changes to both the physical workplace and related human resource policies are crucial if they want to secure and maintain the workforce needed to compete in today's marketplace. In turn, innovative design practitioners and educators are being called upon to respond to the changing nature of work by setting aside existing workplace paradigms and generating inventive workspace solutions that effectively respond to the complexities of the changing workforce.

Although change of this nature can be daunting, it is also an exhilarating time for designers as they venture into uncharted design territory. Designers are being empowered to create design solutions that will reshape the workplace and in turn, truly support the experiences of a new kind of worker. Design educators who can tap into the excitement and opportunities associated with these changing workplace paradigms are not only better preparing students to enter practice, but will also likely find students more energized about the creative potential of their projects.

No longer merely anecdotal, there is mounting evidence suggesting that integrated initiatives, policies, and physical environments that support flexible and mobile work strategies, lead to increased employee engagement, performance and share holder value. For design practitioners and  educators who rise to the challenge of designing for this emerging workforce, the results will  undoubtedly be personally and professionally rewarding.


Beatty, R. M., Saratoga/PricewaterhouseCoopers, Convergys Employee Care, (2005). Workforce Agility Study. Retrieved from

Bond, J., Thompson, C., Galinsky, E. & Prottas, D. (2002). Highlights of the 2002 national study of the changing workforce (3). New York: Families and Work Institute.

Knoll Inc. Workforce Research (2005). Time as a new currency: Flexible and mobile work strategies to manage people and profits. Unpublished manuscript.

Caroline Hill, M.S., is an assistant professor at Texas State University-San Marcos and a member of IIDA and IDEC. Camille Venezia, M.S., is the director of Workforce Research for the Global  Business Division of Knoll Inc.

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