The rise of the disruptive upstart — the Ubers of the world — has ushered in a sort of second wave dotcom era. So said Adrian Berry, senior associate, Toronto interiors studio manager, B+H Architects, while co-presenting an IIDEX seminar titled Office of the Future: Trends in Tech Workplaces.
The first wave dotcom era, which spanned the mid-1990s to the early aughts, informed the now culturally entrenched vision of what the disruptive upstart looks like.
“I remember building entire office places out of plywood because they didn’t know whether they were going to be there next month or next year, and in a lot of cases, they weren’t,” said Berry.
Another key feature of the disruptive upstart is a flat organizational structure, added Berry’s co-presenter, Joslyn Balzarini, senior interior designer, B+H Architects. The organizational structure allows companies to empower employees, get speed to market and fail fast.
Today, however, the notion of what a tech company looks like has necessarily expanded, said Berry, because companies are competing for the same skilled workers across sectors. At the same time, a growing body of research has shown that office design has a profound impact on employee health, well-being and productivity.
“This is important to understand from a tech industry perspective, because the tech industry hires the smartest and the best people,” said Berry. “I think that concept of a people-focused effort is starting to spread across all industries and this is evidence that is helping that argument and backing it up.”
Staffing represents a significant portion of a company’s costs, and attraction and retention are inextricably linked to company culture and engagement, which, as Balzarini pointed out, designers and architects have the ability to influence. She highlighted defining features of the new workplace, which are a collection of familiar trends.
There is the emphasis on team space versus individual space, as demonstrated by the decrease in the size of workstations and increase in the provision of collaborative areas. There is the preference for function over status, giving employees a range of space types to choose from, including casual options such as cafes, rather than reserving swaths of space for private offices. And there is the tech-enabled mobility that allows employees to move freely through that range of spaces.
Also integral to the design of the new workplace are company brand and culture, which are about much more than slapping a logo on the wall, as Balzarini explained.
“How am I empowering the employee to function throughout the space? Am I allowed to make decisions? Can I walk right into the CEO’s office?” she asked rhetorically. “All of these are very much visual as designers, so the way we lay the space out has a huge effect on culture and brand.”
And it’s the culture that facilitates the sharing of ideas that spurs productivity, or engagement as it’s now termed, said Balzarini. The change in terminology reflects a change in the way productivity is measured, given that the skilled worker isn’t outputting widgets that can be counted.
The interior designer noted that the physical environment can quickly be changed, unlike the culture, which won’t take root without buy-in from both management and employees. This demands upfront work by the designer to determine a company’s current culture and its preferred culture, which is precisely what B+H Architects did for a Microsoft project.
Through visioning exercises, Microsoft’s more than 200-person group of graphic, industrial and user interface Windows designers established a few key goals for the project: It wanted to come together under one roof (the designers were previously spread across different buildings). The group wanted to have its own unique identity (i.e. to differentiate itself from other groups such as marketing). It wanted to have the feel of a 20-person start-up. And it wanted to have the flexibility to break off into small groups and come together for large meetings.
From the resulting design concepts, the group ultimately opted for a middle path of a clean, minimalist look with touches of comfort and texture. The space brought together the group of designers under one roof, in 20-person neighbourhoods that can be expanded and contracted with ease by opening and closing doors. Within the neighbourhoods are individual workstations on casters that allow employees to move around freely. The space also features a central hub with conference rooms whose walls slide away to make room for monthly group meetings. An eclectic mix of seating types lends the space the feel of a tech start-up.
Berry also highlighted a project that is currently underway in Shenzhen, China, for a company called Tencent, which runs a popular social networking platform. NBBJ is behind the architecture of its new headquarters, which takes the concept of a tech campus and lays it out in two vertical towers connected by three bridges. B+H Architects is responsible for the social space within the facilities, which will include an auditorium, basketball courts, full-service food facilities, a rock-climbing wall and a theatre, on floors wrapping around a central atrium.
For Balzarini, with workplace trends changing so rapidly, the discussion for designers comes back to company culture.
“How we can go in early on, become part of the trusted advisors to the leadership and really help design space around culture and ask the questions people aren’t asking?” as she put it.
And those questions are about behaviour and how the company is working in its space as opposed to about numbers of seats and conference rooms in a space.
Michelle Ervin is the editor of Canadian Facility Management & Design.