office design

Survey finds link between office design, innovation

Gensler research flags workplace differentiators, forecasts disruptive trends
Thursday, December 22, 2016
By Michelle Ervin

In the early 20th century, much like today, city planners were preoccupied with how they were going to accommodate an influx of people in urban centres, said Annie Bergeron, design director, Gensler. However, unlike today, the planners were thinking about how they would deal with all the horses that would surely accompany the new arrivals to power the popular mode of transportation of the time: the buggy. That is, until the T-model Ford arrived.

“We hear a lot about the driverless car and the impact that’s going to have,” said Bergeron. “Whenever I hear that, I think back on those guys that were trying to plan for manure removal and big barns … this is the technology we know today, and that’s our current perception, so it might not be.”

Bergeron was speaking in the IIDEX seminar Today vs. Tomorrow: How Future Trends are Disrupting Business-As-Usual in the Workplace. The presentation brought together findings from Gensler’s U.S. Workplace Survey 2016 and Design Forecast 2016, which looks ahead 10 years.

Innovation in the workplace today

The 2016 Workplace Survey confirmed with hard numbers that office design influences innovation. Specifically, the survey showed a positive correlation between high marks on questions designed to measure workplace effectiveness and functionality and high marks on questions designed to evaluate creativity, innovation and leadership. The anonymous survey reached 4,000 U.S. office workers representing 11 industries and spanning all generations and organizational levels.

Gensler broke down the data further to understand what differentiated the top 25 per cent of respondents who ranked highest on innovation and the bottom 25 per cent of respondents who ranked lowest on innovation. One finding was that the top innovators, who are three times more likely to use sit-to-stand workstations, leave their desks to engage with their co-workers, said Kevin Katigbak, senior workplace strategist, Gensler.

“Rather than collaborating in the open plan or in their office, they’re going to a lounge or a meeting room to have these conversations; they’re getting up and moving away from the space,” said Katigbak. “The subtext here is that they have some choice to do that.”

In fact, he said, top innovators are five times more likely to report that their workplace equally emphasizes spaces for individual and group tasks and are 2.2 times more likely to be empowered to select their work environment. To socialize, top innovators are 2.5 times less likely to use individual spaces and 1.8 times more likely to use conference rooms, according to the survey. Top innovators are also two times more likely to have access to amenities and 2.5 times more likely to benefit from on-site specialty coffee.

In a report summarizing the survey, Gensler highlighted three key interconnected takeaways: invest in individuals, diversify group spaces and empower the community. In essence, the message was to provide employees at all levels of an organization with a range of functional spaces from which to choose to work. Practically speaking, that could include ensuring collaborative spaces are conveniently located and outfitting offices with Wi-Fi to facilitate smooth transitions between spaces, as Katigbak noted.

Trends with disruptive potential tomorrow

Gensler’s Design Forecast 2016 contemplated what the live, work and play of people residing in cities might look like by the year 2025. The report envisions a future defined by digital integration, experiences, just-in-time connections, maker cultures, in which resilience has supplanted sustainability and transit-connected, walkable hubs have transformed suburbs.

In the workplace, there is a growing buzz around health and wellness. It’s no wonder, given that, as Bergeron noted, innovators are 10 times more likely to be physically active. She credited tech companies, who trade in creativity, with first recognizing the provision of amenities as a way to promote happy, engaged employees, with their ping-pong and pool tables.

Another trend, the sharing economy, has likewise already made an impact on the workplace. With space at a premium in all types of real estate, millennials are more likely to rent certain things than to own them, such as party dresses, observed Bergeron. In the office, that has corresponded to the concept of hoteling stations and unassigned desks.

And it’s not just the way that people work that’s expected to change, but also the very nature of their work. In professional services firms, artificial intelligence is expected to take over lower-value work, which means real people will be tasked with higher-value work, Bergeron explained.

Relatedly, the uncertainty around future curricula has prompted educational institutions to design flexible environments, she said. The design forecast states that in some sectors certifications have overtaken degrees, and predicts that this trend will intensify. As new schools modeled on maker cultures offer career-targeted programs, traditional institutions following suit will require different types of educational facilities, it adds.

The digital revolution has made waves in so many areas, including in educational institutions and workplaces, but there is one notable challenge that technology has yet to overcome, Bergeron remarked. That’s the drudgery of long commutes and personal travel, which goes back to the arrival of the T-model Ford as well as modern flight. Consequently, she said, as digital natives lose their patience for wasted time, transportation nodes will need to offer an experience.

“Since people are so hooked on ultra-convenience, if they’re going to be in an airport for a few hours, there needs to be a lot of the amenities that you expect elsewhere, so that your time spent there can be something that is useful,” she illuminated.

Michelle Ervin is the editor of Canadian Facility Management & Design.

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