NCIDQ: The Enduring Workplace- Sustaining Change

June 1, 2007

By Carol Jones

The office of the future should be adaptable and support its occupants, enabling them to keep pace with the speed of business.

Imagine changing your socks once every 14 days ... putting on a clean shirt every 90 days, or donning fresh pants once a year. Not only would the odor emanating from your cubicle drive others away, you would be quickly ostracized as a stagnated soul.

Yet, when you consider the speed of technological advancements, corporate organizational transformations and facility modifications, a similar scenario occurs regarding change in most office settings. Technology appreciably changes every 18 months, while most major corporations undergo substantive business change every three years. The work environment fundamentally changes only once every 10 years, typically coinciding with a lease expiry. Adding fuel to the fire, an entire new generation enters the workforce every 15 to 20 years, and base building revitalization occurs about every 40 years.

A facility, composed of people, places, processes and technology, must work in harmony in order for a business to function at peak levels. We now know that this alignment occurs about as often as the sun, moon, stars and planets align. One simply needs to consider the "speed of change" and pace differential between these elements to realize that today's facility designs cannot keep up and quickly wear out  to the point of inhibiting business performance.

Traditionally, facilities are designed for a snapshot in time of an organization. That "photograph" may be taken a full 24 months (or more) before the renovation is completed. Often, employees inhabit office spaces designed for what the company looked like two years ago! The physical office quickly becomes outdated, yet is too costly and would likely cause too much disruption to change. Quite simply, current workplace design fails to keep pace with business change.

When we say, "sustainable workplace," visions of environmentally-appropriate materials-recycled carpet and energy efficient lighting may come to mind-all move in the right direction to my way of thinking. However, I also challenge us to consider a sustainable workplace as one that wears in, not out. I envision a workplace that maintains an ecological and environmental balance with the elements that it was designed to support.

The sustainably designed workplace provides places for individual and collaborative work; and it contains areas for refreshment,  entertainment, social interaction, knowledge creation and  dissemination. It is composed of a series of systems and networks: information, communication, knowledge and social. A workplace ambiance reflects the corporate brand; the workforce comprises people representing a number of distinct business activities under the brand umbrella. The physical work environment is transformable-able to morph in its physical characteristics and emotional experience. It can accommodate any work style preference while the envelope can support a population density that can vary by 50 percent at any given time: This is the "office of the future."

One company that has strived to implement some of these concepts is Gravity Tank, a design strategy firm in Chicago. The organization needed to create a flexible layout for project teams that coagulate for months at a time. Groups of four or five employees cluster in semi-enclosed "bays" built from thick cardboard. The bays are easily reconfigured to suit the needs of each team. Gravity Tank also has lightweight cardboard dividers hanging from an overhead grid, making it easy to adapt workspaces to changing project team requirements.

Cisco Systems, the technology firm headquartered in San Jose, CA, converted its open office space into a flexible multi-functional environment where employees can park laptops wherever they want. They also added audio-privacy rooms, Internet phones and rolling furniture to support mobile workers. Google workers are assigned offices and desks arranged around a central atrium. Pool tables and kitchenettes stocked with snacks are located nearby to encourage conversation and interaction. Collapsible conference rooms are scattered throughout the office to provide private places to work on problems; a central staircase has electrical outlets built into the steps to serve as an informal meeting place ("Designing the 21st Century Cubicle," Business 2.0 Magazine).

Office furniture manufacturers have been leaders in creating sustainable workstation components. A few months ago, Steelcase's 100 percent recyclable Answer product line became the first workstation to win Cradle-to-Cradle  certification. However, taking a lead from Gravity Tank, there is an opportunity to manufacture a more transitional, lightweight moveable partition that is 100 percent recyclable. Technology and wiring, which has inhibited physical facility changes in the past, may become a non-issue with more and more wireless office installations.

Creating enduring and sustainable work environments ... providing solutions for design problems we have not yet imagined for companies who will continue to grow, merge, change and transition into other organizations ... calls for interior designers who are trained to think beyond pre-conceived boundaries. This dynamic environment requires strategic thinkers-designers who are certified by education, experience and examination-to balance innovation with fiscal accountability and to help move the world of business forward with sustainable speed.

Carol Jones is a principal in Kasian Architecture Interior Design & Planning Ltd., one of Canada's largest integrated design firms. She is an NCIDQ Certificate holder and serves on NCIDQ's board of directors. Jones is a former president of the Interior Designers of Canada (IDC) and the International Interior Design Association (IIDA). She has been inducted into the College of Fellows of three associations: the Interior Designers Institute of British Columbia, IDC and IIDA.

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