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Commercial Real Estate

Defining The Workplace

BOKA Powell Principal Andrew Bennett on two opposing views of where the evolution of workplace could take us.
BOKA Powel

Boring title, but the dialog can last hours or days when dissecting the very nature of what it means to have a “place” to “work” and define what that might mean to the bottom line of a successful and profitable business.

A little less boring was the title “People Are Doing Everything Everywhere.”

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That phrase was created back in 2016 when our interior workplace design team at BOKA Powell rolled out a presentation to be shared with the brokerage community in Dallas.

The premise was — and still is more than ever — that technology and the power of the PDA (sentimentally called the “phone”) in our hand allowed us to do our jobs efficiently and effectively wherever we are. Coupled with ever more powerful laptops and cloud servers, the idea of being unchained from one’s desk became palpable.

There is certainly much more complexity to doing our jobs than just the technology platforms we rely on. Collaboration became the buzzword over the last two decades, so often used, it became cliché. Wellness and sustainability initiatives have increasingly shaped the workplace over those same two decades.

Fundamentally, the core issue for any workplace designer is to design an environment that attracts workers back to the office and is compelling as “experience-driven architecture.” This publication has published many articles on the pros and cons of the work-from-home necessities created by the COVID-19 pandemic, and in the last twelve months, I have personally read more white papers on the workplace than I had in the previous twelve years.

What does it all mean?

Where are we going to work?

What is the “definition of workplace” now in 2021 and moving forward away from this pandemic?

I want to point out two opposing views of where the evolution of the workplace could take us. Keep in mind, though, that they are not necessarily mutually exclusive views. A hybrid model is likely and favors another overused word: flexibility.

First, human contact and face-to-face meetings drive progress. If that were not the case, we would have billions of one-person companies. We are all going back to the “office.” It is time. Do we have too many meetings? Absolutely. We are all beyond fatigued by the endless back-to-back-to-back Zoom/GoToMeeting/Teams meetings created during the pandemic to drive progress, and even more importantly, to show everyone their value and their desire to stay plugged in the flow of business — regardless of industry.

Our design teams at BOKA Powell were exploring highly-amenitized workplace environments well before the pandemic, mostly due to the attraction-retention competition across all industries. The pandemic has put an even larger spotlight on that trend. Healthier building mechanical systems, greater access to outdoor spaces, and a continued focus on work-life balance stand out as key components to maintain the phenomenon of creating a compelling “experiential workplace.”

The notion that one historic year — that no one could have predicted — will not change more than one hundred years of workplace patterns is driven home by the very salient points made by Lionel Laurent in his article for Bloomberg called “It Really Is Back To The Office This Time.”

At the core of Mr. Laurent’s points is the measurable fact that people are more productive at the office. Everything I noted above regarding amenitizing the workplace works favorably to mitigate meeting fatigue and, in many ways, supports better, more productive meetings by shaping the environment around them.

The counterargument to the full return to the office is the notion that “the genie is out of the bottle,” and in fact, millions of people around the world did thrive in a work-from-home environment. Are the positives from this forced experiment a long-term good result? That remains to be seen.

In a very provocative article written before the pandemic, Srinivas Rao explores “Why It’s Time To Get Rid Of The 8-Hour Workday.”

Prefacing my thoughts on that article, keep in mind, about 90 percent of the workplace design that BOKA Powell has completed over our 45-year history is for the knowledge worker — work that is not assembly line-based.

Victory Commons Rendering

More recently, there has been a trend to design for the creative types, spaces that invigorate the creative class, but even that has a gray area when trying to separate the two. Mr. Rao says:

“If you observe the working habits of artists or people who do creative work for a living, they are much better at managing their time and attention than knowledge workers. Their survival depends on it. If they aren’t producing, they aren’t eating.”

There is some truth to that, but I would argue that the same is true for widget makers, which takes us back to the assembly line — which cannot be done remotely. Workers must be present to build cars, generators, air conditioners, and the like.

The article provides ten reasons the eight-hour workday is broken and provides tips for each to mitigate the mess it can create. Now, nearly two years after that article was published, the correlation clearly supports remote working — the freedom to find the best way to produce, unleashed from the office or cubicle.

For this model to work in its extreme, the two most important factors are: communication and trust. I alluded to the former earlier with the insane number of meetings held online in 2020, and that will continue to evolve for the better. But what remains to be seen is whether corporate America — or the leaders of corporations around the globe — will build enough trust in their business platforms to allow work to be done largely remote?

So, five years from now, our workplace trends presentation might still be called “People Are Doing Everything Everywhere” — and that is okay.

It turns out defining workplace was right there in front of our noses.

The elements that support this claim are ever-evolving, and I still submit that the single greatest effect on how we work will be the technological revolution that is still in its infancy. While guiding and mentoring our staff to make smart decisions about how they get their work done is key; equally, key is allowing people the latitude to define the best way for them personally to get their work done and provide an environment that supports these complexities.

There will never be a one-size-fits-all – read: functionality – solution to the workplace, and frankly, the built environment will be better for it.