American adults spend nearly half of their waking hours at work, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That's a long time to sit in a cube farm, corner office or around a collaborative table. Research shows that office design heavily influences productivity, underscoring the importance of office design for business performance. As the nature of work becomes more mobile, flexible and knowledge-based, the spaces where employees spend so much time is evolving to support workers' roles.
In his book “Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace,” author Nikil Saval explores the history of white-collar American workplaces, beginning with 19th century counting houses where clerks and business owners worked side by side. As different technologies—especially the telephone and typewriter—were introduced to the workplace, businesses expanded and workers became more organized and specialized. Their opportunities to interact with peers of all levels diminished. By the 1980s, the cubicle reigned supreme.
Fast-forward to today, when the Googleplex and similar company campuses are ushering in a new wave of collaborative offices. Employers are engineering serendipitous moments for workers to bump into one another. At Pixar’s Emeryville, Calif. headquarters, Steve Jobs had designers place bathrooms and cafeterias in a central atrium where workers from different departments would be encouraged to mingle.
Office design as a science
There’s a science behind designing an office space that encourages productivity, Kay Sargent, vice-president of Teknion, a manufacturer of high-end office systems and furniture tells Business Insider. She uses the current trend in open office layouts as an example. "In an open workspace, introverts will shut down," Sargent says. "On the other hand, you put an extrovert in a room by themselves for hours at a time and they'll go crazy."
According to research published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, open-plan offices make employees less productive. Some companies are trying to strike a balance between open design and the need for a semblance of privacy. Chicago-based JMC Steel Group provides executives their own offices—behind glass doors—and allows other staff to reserve cubicles. San Francisco-based gaming company Kixeye uses echo-reducing panels to minimize noise distractions that arise in its open workspace.
At the same time, more employees are working remotely, which begs the question, will we even need structured offices in the future?
Workplaces of the future
U.K. design student Julie Berdou tackled a number of these challenges when she created a concept for networked workspaces to accommodate increasingly mobile workers. Called WW, the tiny offices would be spread across cities, enabling workers to stop in and work on the go. The structures are simple glass walls outfitted with touchscreen computers. Workers can display their company logo on the glass while they work to encourage interaction.
"It responds to the needs of a younger workforce, Generation Y, and especially the mobile worker," Berdou tells Fast Company. "[It's] a work community that needs to connect with fellow workers and is less dependent on one definite work location or office." Her concept won an RSA Student Design Award.
Saval says that no matter what the future holds, people will want some semblance of an office to support their work. The rise in co-working spaces is just one indication that the physical workplace will remain relevant. With the freelance economy gaining momentum and the number of remote workers rising, 780 of these spaces have popped up across the U.S. “It seems to at least prove that people need something like an office setting,” Saval tells NPR. “And it means that the office is sort of bleeding out into the rest of the world.”