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The Mobile Office: Designing for a New Breed of Business Travelers

March 29, 2016

New design trends in airports, hotels, and coworking spaces appeal to remote and traveling workers

Technology has been redefining where and how we work for more than a decade. With that shift has come new expectations and challenges when accommodating multiple generations of business travelers. Airports and hotels are changing rapidly to keep pace with the realities of a modern, mobile workforce.  

“When we think about corporate design and how the travel industry can accommodate business travelers, connectivity, physical workspaces, and amenities that help balance mental and physical well-being are all considered,” said Melissa Mizell, principal and design director at Gensler.
Around the globe, hotels and airports are being reimagined with trends that blur the lines between workplace and hospitality. Gone are the uncomfortable plastic seats and stark business centers tucked into corners. A new option for business travelers is emerging: coworking spaces that allow transient workers to drop in and out as they please.  

The Productive Passenger

Flight delays can make travelers feel like they are being held captive. Designers are working to change that stereotype with amenities and an appealing array of spaces that mimic today’s cutting-edge offices.

 “We used to see airports responding to the needs of business travelers with actual workstations,” said Mizell, who recently completed projects in Terminal 2 and Terminal 3 at the San Francisco International Airport (SFO). “But we find that workstations take up a lot of space, and more importantly, aren’t as effective and delightful as offering choices about where and how people want to work.”

Those choices mean business travelers relax in a comfortable chair with a charging station, people-watch while perched at a high-top table with a laptop, or work alongside a colleague in a café. At SFO, airport leadership has honed in on the idea that passengers will be happier with their experience if they have opportunities to be productive with the time spent there. Facilitating “productive wait time” was a top goal for designers and architects involved with projects at SFO.

“You have to show up earlier at the airport than you did 15 years ago to make it through security," said Mizell. “An airport is very much like a library or a coffee shop. It’s kind of neutral, and there’s a buzz of activity, but no one is interrupting you.”

Workplace Wellness on the Road

As more workers put a premium on the wellness benefits offered by their employers, business travelers are also seeking amenities that allow them to stay balanced while in transit. While hotel fitness centers are expected and airports are beginning to following suit, designers are infusing other elements that encourage stress reduction and relaxation for business travelers.

Fort McMurray International Airport, a category winner of the 42nd annual IIDA Interior Design Competition, is Canada’s fastest growing airport. The new three-story hub provides access to the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo in Northern Alberta and its burgeoning oil industry.

“The vast majority of users at Fort McMurray are business travelers in the broadest sense of the definition. As designers, we addressed this through spatial organization and a sequence that lends itself to very fast efficient passenger flow and a reduction in visual clutter, which fosters a mental well-being for working travelers,” said Michelle Biggar, principal at mcfarlane biggar architects + designers.

The airport also includes a landscaped outdoor courtyard that brings natural light into the space and allows travelers the option of an outdoor waiting area.

TUVE, a boutique hotel in Hong Kong and a category winner in the 2015 IIDA Global Excellence Awards, employs similar strategies. While guests still have the opportunity to connect and be productive, TUVE is designed to be a space for the “senses to be revived.”  

“We use light and shadows throughout the hotel to create an atmosphere of serenity,” said Lam Wai Ming, design director at Design Systems Ltd. “We understand that travelers need to catch up with their work, but instead of creating an office away from the office, we encourage travelers to take a step back from the stress and hectic schedules.”

Connectivity and Community

According to a recent report by the travel website Skift, 60 percent of international travelers have taken trips that combine business and leisure, which means that being tucked away in a hotel room is no longer an attractive option. Business travelers want to experience the community. “We used to design enclosed corporate spaces where business people could rent a room, do work, and leave,” said Pablo Quintana of VOA Associates Inc.  

Coworking spaces are shifting the paradigm. “The key is to design communities, spaces that appeal to people at the communal level,” added Quintana.

While the rise of coworking spaces initially accommodated the needs of workers by providing office and collaborative spaces without the downside of a long-term lease, the trend is gaining popularity as an option for travelers and remote workers because it helps them connect locally.

For Troy Durst, owner of Opus 314, a coworking space in Chicago, that means offering flexibility, natural light, views of the city, and access to green spaces where people can congregate, collaborate, and connect with the local community.

“I want people to feel grounded in the space,” said Durst. “It attracts a diverse community—from someone doing business in the start-up phase to solo entrepreneurs and more transient employees. It encourages collaboration and gets people talking to one another.”

That kind of camaraderie can reframe the experience of working while traveling, and reimagine the comforts of the home and office.

Louisa Fitzgerald is the senior writer and editor at IIDA, which can be reached at 1-888-799-4432, [email protected], or www.iida.org.

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