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Why Are Open-Plan Offices So Awful?

Open-Plan Office

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Every aspect of office culture seems ripe for satire, from management incompetence in Laurence Peter’s Peter Principle to… well, management incompetence in Dilbert and The Office. But, at least in the American version of the beloved TV office sitcom, one could also argue, as Keith Flamer does at Forbes, that “the open-plan design” of Dunder Mifflin “was essentially the main character—the catalyst for office chaos…. Inevitably, coworker interruptions, noisy personal calls, public dramas, and privacy intrusions dominated the hit sitcom’s work day—exaggerated scenarios of the real corporate world.”

Perhaps one of the reasons the show resonated so widely in the U.S. is that “open-plan design still represents 70% of all U.S. offices.” If you’ve paid any attention to current research, you’ll know this is a problem, and the denizens of those offices know it all too well. London based consultant Alina Manda recently summed up the issues in a Tweet:

Open-plan offices have been found to reduce productivity and impair memory. They’re associated with high staff turnover. They make people sick, hostile, unmotivated, and insecure. Open-plan workers are more likely to argue more with their colleagues.

Cue Dwight Shrute.

Some of the research on the negative effects on employee health is summarized here. In short, the lower initial costs associated with open-plan offices aren’t worth the long-term tradeoffs in “decreased job satisfaction and wellbeing,” as Swedish researcher Tobias Otterbring notes in a Karlstad University study. Designers and decision-makers “should consider the impact of a given office type on employees,” says Otterbring, “rather than focusing solely on cost-effective office layout, flexibility, and productivity.”

Speaking of productivity, Forbes reports that in open-plan offices “distractions sabotage employee focus, decreasing productivity anywhere from 15% to 28%.” It’s hard to see the upside. As Geoffrey Jones at Inc. puts it, “most people would rather work at home and or tolerate angry stares from the other patrons in a coffee shop (should one need to make a call) than try to get something done in an open-plan office.”

It’s certainly true that some people can thrive in open offices, but such designs assume that all employees respond to external noise and distractions in the same way. But as Susan Cain—TED-talker and bestselling author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talkingtells CNBC, quieter employees “react more to stimulation. If they’re out in an open floor all day long with lots of noise coming at them and interruptions… it makes it neurobiologically that much harder to get their work done.”

Cain doesn’t condemn all open designs. Office social spaces encourage interaction and can offer workspace for people who prefer more stimulation. “That’s great,” says Cain, “as long as everybody at all times has access to their own private space.” New York City software developer Joel Sapolsky agreed, in 2003, when he designed the offices for his company with some specific requirements in mind.

Number one on Sapolsky’s architectural brief: “Private offices with doors that close were absolutely required and not open to negotiation.” His rationale for this insistence was that “there’s a lot of evidence that the right kind of office space can improve programmer productivity, especially private offices.” But he also insisted on a “hang out space,” since “programmers essentially live at your office” and should feel comfortable in a home-away-from-home kind of way.

Quiet Spaces

Photo via Steelcase

In a more recent, more widely-applicable, solution, Cain and Steelcase have teamed up to create Quiet Spaces, which she calls an “antidote to the open office plan.” Forbes describes the concept as encompassing “five distinct designs, each uniquely suited for different purposes,” from deep thinking and focus to a living-room like feel for relaxed conversation. “Ranging from 64 to 100 square feet, each space features frosted glass walls and advanced technology to block out distracting sounds.”

Designed, says Cain, “with a non-corporate feel,” Quiet Spaces seems to herald a major upgrade from cubicle farms and noisy open-plan offices, perhaps just one of many salutary moves toward affordable office design that actually works.

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Oakland’s Development Boom Could Mean an Office Space Squeeze

Fox Theater Oakland

Photo by Sergio Ruiz, via Citylab

“Is Oakland the next Brooklyn?” asked Fortune magazine in 2014, in yet another iteration of the hackneyed formula used to measure the growth and development of scrappy, smaller cities. The answer came as something as a refreshing variation on the theme: “It’d rather not be.”

But undoubtedly, within the last few years, Oakland has been experiencing its own “modern moment” in its own way, attracting hip businesses by the dozen. In 2016, Forbes placed Oakland at #13 on its list of America’s fasting-growing cities. The usual concerns about displacement and equity that come with rapid growth, in Brooklyn and elsewhere, apply here, with questions about the scarcity of affordable housing, and of residential real estate more generally.

What does all this growth mean for commercial real estate? “Between 2000 and 2015,” notes Citylab, “only two commercial office buildings… were built in Oakland. In the same time period, Oakland’s population soared by 8,000.” Then, in just a few short years, the city added another 7,000 or so residents, soaring to its current population of approximately 426,000 as of 2017.

“Oakland is quickly reaching capacity,” warned Citylab. In 2016, the San Francisco Business Times reported that office rents had jumped to an all-time high: “As dozens of tenants have migrated to the city from San Francisco, local businesses have expanded and almost no new office construction has occurred in the last eight years.”

The situation is changing, slowly, with some long-overdue construction projects creating 20 new towers Uptown and in Downtown Oakland in the coming years. Much of this new construction will house residential units, though two new office complexes are in the works: a large new office tower at 1100 Broadway, next to (and incorporating) the Key System building, and a mixed-use project at 2401 Broadway.

“The East Bay’s largest city,” writes The Mercury News, “is poised for an influx of companies and other organizations.” These will include an increase in start-ups and established companies alike trickling down from San Francisco as the city across the Bay is projected to hit one million people by 2030.

Will the current rate of commercial construction be able to keep pace with demand? That remains to be seen. As developers seek to maximize space by building above designated height limits, residents push for compromises on affordable or low-cost housing, as well as space for retail and grocery stores, bike and car parking, and other uses, to avoid being crowded out by office buildings.

These battles will intensify as the city expands—if the recent histories of “next Brooklyn” cities are any indication. And reasonably affordable, accessible office space may soon become a relative rarity in a downtown area that just two years ago, Citylab described as “strangely empty.”

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800 Pound Gorilla CoStar Dominates the CRE Data Market

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Photo via Real Estate Tech News

If we are living through a second gilded age, as it is often said, then perhaps we are also living in a second age of monopolies. For both businesses and consumers, options have narrowed to a handful of companies, particularly when it comes to big data. For those in the commercial real estate market, access to data typically means just one thing: the CoStar Group, the major national player for CRE information and analytics. CoStar received antitrust clearance from the FTC for its most recent purchase of ForRent.com, and while it was pressured by the agency after its acquisition of LoopNet in 2012, recently retired acting bureau director Tad Lipsky has stated that the company has yet to violate antitrust law.

Legally, then, CoStar is not a monopoly. But even so, Lipsky admits that it might “behave in ways that, even though they are perfectly legitimate, cause customers to have that complaint.” The “complaint” is widespread. As Orlando-based broker and CCIM President Robin Webb puts it, “the loss of competition at a level that prominent is certainly challenging to the industry. It eradicates the choice, and that’s not usually good for the buyer in any instance…. It certainly opens up the opportunity for abuse any time there’s a single player.” Many others have expressed similar concerns about CoStar’s aggressive pricing and notoriously litigious nature.

Webb’s comments came after CoStar effectively eliminated its last serious national competitor, Xceligent, a company, ironically, that the FTC forced CoStar to sell when it acquired Xceligent’s owner, LoopNet. In recent years, Xceligent and CoStar have battled it out in some publicly nasty lawsuits. CoStar charged intellectual property theft; Xceligent, in turn, filed an antitrust countersuit, alleging “years of anticompetitive behavior.” As the battle heated up, both companies frequently updated their clients with emails and announcements detailing the alleged abuses of their opponents. (The tactic was not well-received.)

Then, in December of 2017, Xceligent folded, and filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Other possible competitors, like CompStak, have also faced lawsuits from CoStar. CompStak founder Michael Mandel tells Bisnow, “when we speak to clients and prospects, we hear universal concern around CoStar’s business practices. Quite frankly, the industry views CoStar as a monopoly that takes advantage of the fact that it’s a monopoly day in and day out.” The company’s practices may not alarm regulators, but that does not mean they don’t have a negative impact on both its competitors and its users.

“Since 1999,” Bisnow reports, “CoStar has filed at least 32 lawsuits against 28 different entities, most alleging copyright infringement and other intellectual property complaints,” a strategy CEO Andrew Florance defends as a “vital and prudent investment.” Many of these suits—some against its own users—“never proceeded on the merits (that means ‘went to court’ in legalese),” writes Franco Faraudo at <propmodo>. Just this month, Florance announced that the company “invested significant legal fees and efforts over the past two years” to bring Xceligent “to a complete stop.” It is now directing those resources at so-called “freeloaders,” says Florance, as many of 30,000 of its users who are allegedly accessing the company’s database without a valid license.

CoStar’s dominance in the market has not endeared it to many smaller brokers and sellers who feel particularly squeezed and aggrieved. “CoStar knows how a lot of people feel about them,” says Atlanta broker Daniel Levison, who notes that the company’s services can constitute one of the largest expenses small brokerage firms have. (Not only does CoStar control the CRE market, but it has also taken over the rental market with its recent purchase of ForRent.com and ownership of Apartments.com and Apartmentfinder.com.) The company has become, writes Faraudo, “the 800 pound gorilla in the commercial real estate industry” and that seems unlikely to change anytime soon.

On the other hand, the company relies on the data fed to it by property owners, which it then resells to brokers, investors, and developers. And it relies on brokers to post listings to its sites. If enough owners and firms stop using or contributing to CoStar’s services, the company will be forced to adapt to the needs of its users, or it will eventually succumb to smaller, more nimble competitors who will meet those needs more affordably. When it comes to rentals, at least, new competitors like Apartment List might successfully take on CoStar. The field for challengers in the CRE data and analytics market is currently wide open.

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Bad Office Lighting is Killing Our Souls

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Photo via Lux Review

We’ve arrived at the point in discussions about workplace health where we can compare sitting to smoking and no one bats an eye. We’re likely well versed in the various recommendations: Get a standing (or biking or treadmill) desk! Take walking meetings! Don’t stay in one place too long! All good advice. But while the conversations about physical positioning have advanced over the years, it seems that talk about lighting ergonomics has just begun to filter into the general public. If “sitting is the new smoking,” spending long hours in badly-lit environments may be the new “slowly sapping your life force”—or at least, your ability to stay awake, alert, and engaged.

“Vision has become the most neglected of all our senses in the workplace,” writes Buildings.com, despite widespread, chronic eyestrain, headaches, and fatigue attributable to poor lighting conditions and “computer vision syndrome,” a form of repetitive strain injury with symptoms including blurred vision, irritated eyes, and neck and back pain. Various apps—and some operating systems—have features that dim or brighten computer screens automatically depending on the time of day, and adjust color balance for a softer, more pleasing appearance.

But many office spaces still make unintelligent use of lighting. Business efficiency expert Andrew Jensen cites a study conducted by the American Society of Interior Design which found that 68 percent of employees complain about office lighting. “The two most common scenarios for poor office lighting,” he writes, “are lights that are too dim and lights that are too harsh.” Both inadequate and overly bright, especially fluorescent, lighting can lead to eye strain, headaches, and other unpleasant symptoms.

Most researchers suggest that natural light is best. It keeps our body’s circadian rhythms, fostering alertness and feelings of well-being during daylight hours.

Natural lighting renovations have been shown to result in happier workers, less absenteeism, and fewer illnesses, and, because better lighting encourages satisfaction among workers, it also results in increased productivity.

Large windows aren’t always an option, and too much sunlight can cause irritating glare if located too close to computer screens. Of course, even office spaces with large windows need additional artificial lighting. The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety offers a tutorial on lighting ergonomics, with a tour of the varieties of lighting schemes and fixtures. If in doubt, determining the best lighting scenario for a particular space might be best left to professional designers like Sabine De Schutter, an award-winning Berlin-based lighting architect, who offers some general “lighting hacks” for the non-specialist.

De Schutter’s first recommendation is to use lighting to “create atmospheres where your ideas can develop,” by using a combination of “direct and indirect lighting” and avoiding “having only downwards-directed illumination.” (Studies show that indirect lighting has the best effect on employee health and happiness.) Up to a 36 percent increase in productivity can result from lighting improvements, according to Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering. Lighting temperature is as important as lighting direction, and different spaces within a single office can be optimized for different uses with the right lighting.

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Image via UNC

UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School offers the recommendations above as a guide. So-called cool or cold lighting temperatures, bluish-white light over 5,000 degrees Kelvin, offer the best simulation of daylight, and thus improve alertness and lower the amount of melatonin in the system, reducing short-term sleepiness and long-term fatigue. Conference rooms may benefit from slightly warmer temperatures, which can be more welcoming while still keeping people awake. And more intimate, relaxing settings like break rooms benefit from warmer, comforting red to yellowish-white lighting up to around 3,000K.

“If you don’t have access to daylight,” the researchers note, “studies have also found that working under ‘blue-enriched’ light bulbs that are 17,000K actually increases work performance by supporting mental acuity, vitality and alertness.” In general, using the best available research to improve lighting conditions seems like a highly effective way to make an office happier, better-rested, and free from debilitating eye-strain and headaches that contribute to stress and soul-killing burnout.

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How Better Collaborative Technology Supports the Trend Toward Remote Work

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Photo via Summit Business Technologies

This is the year, predicts Cisco’s Roland Trollope, that “’working from home’ will become just ‘working.’” How’s that? “The trend towards people working from home or other locations is unstoppable.” And the technology that drives remote work continues to improve. This does not mean the demise of the central office location, far from it, but it does mean collaborative teams will continue to develop across geographical distances, leading to a rapid decline of “‘place-ism,’ the discrimination against people who aren’t in a central office.”

As remote workers get their due, the ways that headquarters communicate with them will have to change as well. Older videoconferencing technology can be alienating and glitchy. Most remote workers connect through the web, but “pulling in to a conference room with a few co-workers and huddling around a laptop to connect a remote worker isn’t a good experience, Trollope writes. “People will begin to ask for more team-friendly tools in more work spaces.”

They’re already asking, as Microsoft’s Office blog pointed out in 2016. As technology enables more working from home, the trend then pushes technology forward. Younger workers especially, “expect high-quality video conferencing services… as an almost default collaboration tool.” A new generation entering the workforce has become accustomed to exponential advances in technology and easily acquires new tech skills with little need for training.

Apps like Slack bridge workplace communication tools with a more informal chat spaces, making the office even more mobile and adaptable. Of course, online videoconferencing tools all integrate chat features. Microsoft cites a Redshift Research survey that suggests the ways more business-oriented videoconferencing technology may increasingly integrate social networking tools:

Fifty-four percent of respondents showed interest in customizing the viewer’s experience with social media sharing tools. Twenty-one percent would prefer real-time language translation and pop-up bubbles that provide LinkedIn and Salesforce information on meeting participants.

As improved videoconferencing tech becomes commonplace in meeting situations, it also becomes standard for applications like job interviews, now frequently conducted remotely with out-of-state and international applicants. But regardless of actual physical distance, videoconferencing can create a psychological distancing effect, a “continued feeling of separation.” How do you stay connected with colleagues when gestures may be hard to interpret, eye contact difficult to maintain through a webcam?

Microsoft suggests that VR meetings might foster a greater sense of physical presence, and some experts believe VR conferencing will become the norm in a matter of just a few years. This all depends, however, Samantha Cole writes at Fast Company, on “where the trends in remote work go.” Some companies have turned against the practice, hoping to rebuild an onsite culture: “IBM, one of the pioneers for remote work, recently gave its scattered workforce an ultimatum: Come back to the office or quit.”

Nevertheless, most signs point toward businesses accommodating more remote working situations, not less, so that distantly-located employees can relax in their homes while still collaborating productively with coworkers in the central office. (As this happens, Trollope, writes, “the conference room will become the living room of the office.”)

The global videoconferencing market is projected to expand 7.9% between 2018 and 2026. And given the diffusion of projects among teams scattered over multiple states and countries, and the reliance on contingent employees and younger, tech-savvy workers, it seems that even corporate mandates like IBM’s can’t stem the tide of remote work for long, nor hold back the tech developing to support it.

 

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The Crisis of Chronic Stress in the Workplace

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Chronic stress, the Mayo Clinic writes, “can wreak havoc on your mind and body.” This is not an exaggeration. The effects of sustained, elevated adrenaline and cortisol levels have, in study after study, been linked to high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, sleep problems, digestive problems, joint inflammation, diabetes, depression and anxiety, and other serious and potentially fatal conditions. Combine stress with the widespread deadly effects of prolonged sitting and diets high in refined sugar and processed foods and we have the makings of an epidemic of chronic disease that places a massive burden on the health care system, generally making people sicker and creating serious problems with memory and concentration.

What does this mean for the workplace? “For many Americans,” writes Anne-Marie Slaughter at The New York Times, “life has become all competition all the time. Workers across the socioeconomic spectrum, from housekeepers to surgeons, have stories about toiling 12- to 16-hour days… and experiencing anxiety attacks and exhaustion.” The current workplace culture, argues Carolyn Gregoire at Huffington Post, is no longer sustainable. And the problem goes beyond employee health.

Jeffrey Pfeffer, professor of organizational behavior at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business has issued a dire diagnosis in his new book Dying for a Paycheck. “We are harming both company performance and individual well-being,” he says, addressing CEOs and business leaders, “and this needs to be a clarion call for us to stop. There is too much damage being done.” Pfeffer refers to a culture of long hours sitting in front of computers, increasing job insecurity, and a decrease in health benefits.  “The business costs are enormous,” says Pfeffer.

Companies have problems with presenteeism — people physically on the job but not really paying attention to what they are doing — with lost workdays from psychological stress and illness, with high health care costs. Seven percent of people in one survey were hospitalized — hospitalized! — because of workplace stress; 50% had missed time at work because of stress. People are quitting their jobs because of stress. 

Pfeffer’s criticism is harsh, and he places the blame on executives, who may themselves be subject to the same kinds of debilitating pressures. Are there ways to mitigate the effects of chronic workplace stress that don’t involve a total overhaul of the global economy? There are several recommendations for reducing workplace stress, including taking walking meetings and making sure to get enough sleep. Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) has been shown in dozens of high-profile studies to significantly reduce chronic stress, such that most major medical centers now have MBSR programs.

Interventions like meditation, diet, and exercise can certainly work wonders at the individual level. But this systemic problem requires institutional change as well, whether it be a company-wide focus on prevention or the redesign of office space around wellness. One company, Work Well Win—founded by a former executive of the co-working chain We Work—has built its business on both of these principles. With five locations in major U.S. cities, including New York, Chicago, and Santa Monica, and 20 more “in the pipeline,” the company offers spaces “built around core elements of wellness that addresses not only the design and operations of our buildings, but also how they impact and influence human behaviors related to health and well-being.”

Work Well Win’s design solutions include “purified air and rooms for yoga and meditation,” notes L.A.-based real estate new site The Real Deal. The company “joins a handful of other smaller co-working firms in Santa Monica that are competing with giants like We Work.” Given the expanding popularity of co-working spaces in the gig economy, as well as their increasing use by established companies, it’s possible that the Work Well Win model will catch on and spread, not only forcing We Work and other competitors to center wellness in their work spaces, but also bringing such focus into more traditional offices. Design solutions cannot alleviate the intense market pressures driving overwork, but they can significantly help workers constructively manage stress on the job.

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How VR Is Changing the Real Estate Game

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Image via Matterport

For decades now, sci-fi visions of virtual reality, from The Matrix to Ready Player One, have been packed full of action and adventure—virtual car chases and virtual kung fu. In the popular imagination, VR is a place to live out fantasies, and while increasing sophistication surely creates no small number of opportunities for wish fulfillment, the practical applications are just as important for driving innovation forward and solving problems in everyday life. From VR art galleries to movie theaters, campsites, karaoke bars, and comedy clubs, the tech bridges distances between people and places. Nowhere is this more useful, perhaps, than in real estate, where buyers often have to travel hundreds or thousands of miles to view a property before they buy—or buy sight-unseen and prepare for unpleasant surprises.

For the past couple years, both start-ups and well-established giants have offered VR technology as a means of touring properties in far-off places, or still in development, or currently rented to tenants and not quite in the shape an agent would like. Using Facebook’s Oculus Rift, Amazon’s Sumerian—a new VR and augmented reality tool—or real estate-specific VR services like Matterport and Transported, potential buyers can not only get a sense of different layouts in properties still under construction, but they can also get a sense of “space and depth” that is impossible to convey with 2-D video and photography, notes Stephanie Davis of Virtual Xperience, a company that creates VR experiences of properties still in development or under construction, with both 2-D images and 3-D walkthroughs and flythroughs.

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Image via Matterport

While VR is obviously a boon to developers, sales agents, and purchasers, if also offers incredibly useful applications for existing tenants, who may soon be able to browse VR libraries for (virtually) hands-on tutorials answering such questions, notes Venture Beat, as “How do you work the laundry? The security system won’t work for me! Where is the switch board and how do I use it?” With VR technology, potential renters and buyers can also populate empty properties with their own choices of furnishings and décor to personalize before they commit.

As Forbes notes, the “virtual staging technology” company roOomy draws “from a catalog of more than 100,000 furniture and household items…. This is the future of open houses and online property marketing.” Available on Google Play, the roOomy app mixes real-time live views of properties with customers’ own selections of interiors design ideas. These kinds of applications can sell apartments in New York, and they can sell office space in any major city, allowing companies to see first-hand, in a way, how various spaces can accommodate their needs.

While it grows more sophisticated every year, VR still has a way to go. Moving too quickly through some virtual environments can sometimes cause glitches, and while some VR renderings are photorealistic simulations, some still resemble computer game environments. Nonetheless, as Andreas Johansson, of Berkovitz Development Group says, the technology is “a game-changer…. You no longer have to rely on basic renderings to showcase your project, clients can now see through VR what they’re buying, and developers can get deals done quicker.”

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The Limits of Tracking Tech in the Workplace

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Photo via Digital Trends

While the quaint phrases “punch in” and “punch out” live on in the lexicon, the now-vintage image of employees sliding cards into a timeclock has given way to fingerprint scanners, facial and voice recognition systems, key cards loaded with monitoring tech, and GPS and biometric tracking software installed in company vehicles and mobile devices. Surveillance technology is becoming so commonplace that PC Magazine now puts out a guide for “The Best Employee Monitoring Software” and the site GetApp posts the cavalierly-phrased list: “5 Employee Tracking Apps for iPhone to Spy on Your Staff.” It maybe goes without saying that employers should be cautious and diplomatic when introducing surveillance software, biometric data gathering devices, and other kinds of tracking technology.

As employee monitoring becomes increasingly sophisticated by the year, human resources and legal departments have to move quickly to address legitimate privacy concerns. The Atlantic reported last year on the “murky… legal landscape around tracking employees,” which might reasonably make people shy about surveillance technology. Amazon’s patent for employee tracking devices, for example, made many negative headlines recently. Several lawsuits have already been filed in Chicago under the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act (BIPA), which “limits how companies can collect and use biometric data of individuals,” reports Bloomberg.

Part of the problem is that “biometric timekeeping vendors are selling systems to employers without discussing the legal obligations that go with the technology.” The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) issued a guide for employers in January for the implementation of employee monitoring programs. These should all include “clear policies, effecting training, implementation strategies” and “tactics for handling sensitive employee information.” Avanti software adds guidelines like, “Don’t surprise your employees with a biometric clock.” Transparency is key. Employers, they note, should give workers the opportunity to voice concerns and should clearly show how personal data will be kept secure.

As with every rapidly progressing technology, legal limits will likely always trail behind the limits of the tech. One company, Humanyze, “an MIT spinoff,” reports Digital Trends, “aims to overlay biometric analysis and analytics over the traditional employee badge technology.” Their ID badges are equipped with RFID, near field communications (NFC) sensors, Bluetooth, “an infrared detector capable of tracking face-to-face interactions, an accelerometer, and two microphones,” writes Digital Trends. The microphones “creep frighteningly close to Big Brother territory,” but the company assures potential users that “they don’t have the ability to record conversations. Instead the mics measure tone, volume, and speed, along with potentially monitoring stress.”

The last function listed for Humanyze’s tracking tech points to one possible employee benefit of tracking programs—the potential for reducing employee burnout and health-related issues. Workers with elevated heartrates or blood pressure, for example, might be encouraged to take a break, take a walk, meditate, or take other de-stressing measures. Other benefits “range from accounting for employees in emergency situations to protecting employees and employers from unfounded complaints” by creating an evidentiary trail. Whether or not benefits outweigh the risks—including the risk of hacked devices—employee tracking tech has inevitably expanded far beyond monitoring internet use and reading employee emails, and it will inevitably continue to do so.

The tactful implementation of a monitoring program involves multiple considerations, not the least of which, writes Susan Heathfield at The Balance, “is the potential damage to a work culture that fosters trust and employee commitment and motivation.” As Manny Avramidis, senior VP of the American Management Association, puts it, “99% of the population will be fine without electronic surveillance; fewer than one percent of employees are causing the damage that allows all of the bad stuff for employers to kick in.” Heathfield recommends that employers have employees sign off on company security policies, “then, take a deep breath and—trust them.” Her advice might sound just a little too altruistic to many security experts.

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WeWork and the Evolution of Co-Working Spaces: From Hackers and Activists, to Scrappy Start-Ups, to “Enterprise Clients”

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Photos by Lauren Kallen, via OfficeLovin’

Contrary to appearances, the trend in co-working spaces popping up in major cities all over the world did not begin with tech start-ups, but rather with a “relatively small, scrappy set of independent contractors and do-gooders,” notes Laura Bliss at The Atlantic. “Its history might begin with the European hacker spaces of the 1990s, where independent programmers swapped coding skills in dark basements with an air of techno-anarchism.” The original “co-workers,” in other words, probably included no small number of squatters.

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“Americans caught on a few years later. The first true co-working space, so called, emerged in 2005, renting square footage from a feminist collective in San Francisco’s Mission District.” Enter companies like WeWork to monetize the concept and create what WeWork co-founder Adam Neumann calls a “capitalist kibbutz.” Opening their first location in New York in 2010, the Brooklyn-based start-up has, in the last eight years, come to dominate the co-working world with a business model based on “rent arbitrage,” as a research report from CBInsights puts it, “charging its members more than it has to pay its landlords.”

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How much more? CBInsight relates an anecdote from a 2014 event at which Vornado Realty Trust’s chairman Steven Roth sarcastically remarked, “Adam [Neumann] always says, ‘No schmucks and no assholes, but the definition of a schmuck is someone who rents a property at .5x and then turns around and rents it at 1.5x.’” In reply, Neumann “reportedly held up two fingers, indicating he actually charges members double.” Jokes aside, the strategy has paid off big-time for the company, which was valued last year at $20 billion after raising $760 million in its latest funding round.

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The question investors and market watchers have asked for several years is whether WeWork has been overvalued. Functioning more like a tech-startup than a real estate company, WeWork first crafted its appeal to gig economy workers, an “eclectic mix,” writes Bliss, “of freelance writers, labor organizers, financial consultants, and app developers hustling for investors.” The problem with this approach is that the company’s selling point—creating community for workers choosing, or forced into, contingent labor—is also its greatest weakness, since many of its members lack security and, writes CBInsight, “can pick up and leave if they want to, leaving WeWork on the hook.”

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To hedge risk, the company has begun purchasing properties and targeting more “enterprise clients,” with 30% of its members now fitting that description. In a planned WeWork space coming this fall to Durham, North Carolina, for example, 55,000 of 130,000 square feet of office space will be leased by Duke University. Corporations like Salesforce, HSBC, and Facebook are also major clients. The demographic shift as a whole in co-working has been away from individual contractors and freelancers and toward large firms and small businesses, meaning that the anarchic, freewheeling feel of co-working spaces is beginning to give way to the more organized, workaday feel of the traditional office.

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It makes sense in a certain respect to compare WeWork to a tech company. They achieve “maximum efficiency” in part through the use of machine learning. “To decide how many meeting rooms to construct” in each location, “researchers at WeWork created a neural net that collects information on its existing building’s layouts and meeting room usage.” This enables them to make predictions about usage for layouts yet to be built. And each of their spaces is unique. As you can see you can in the photos here from its quirky, homey Long Beach offices, WeWork spaces include such welcoming accommodations as a secluded “Mothers Room” (above) and a “Phone Booth” (below) that can be sealed off from the hubbub with a glass door.

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What is it like to work in WeWork spaces? Bliss shares many positive impressions from members, but also notes the degree of overt corporate capitalism evident in the “capitalist kibbutz”:

Members are encouraged to mingle, network, and leverage one another’s talents, frequently under the auspices of a corporate sponsor: Witness taco pop-ups promoting internet phone service; talk-therapy circles sponsored by a women’s activewear brand; cocktails served up by the payroll-software giant ADP. Billed as community-building programming, the events can feel more like exercises in targeted advertising, with members as the marks. 

The net effect, she writes, “can feel like an all-inclusive cruise.” And when it comes to getting work done, “cruises, of course, aren’t for everyone.” Additionally, WeWork has sold its enterprise clients on productivity schemes that involve monitoring employees with “data-harvesting sensors and facial-recognition software.” WeWork promises this data will not be used to track individual employees. Such promises should be taken with the appropriate amount of skepticism given many other companies’ carelessness or misuse of such tracking data.

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In any case, it remains to be seen whether an aggressively corporate version of the improvised spaces once created by anti-corporate activists and hackers will have long-term success. But for now, WeWork is thriving, expanding into smaller cities in the U.S. like Durham, and across Asia with WeWork Japan, WeWork Pacific, and WeWork China. The company, notes Forbes, is “now worth about the same as hotel operator Hilton Worldwide and more than commercial real estate giant Boston Properties.”

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Do their offices encourage more partying and promotion than productivity? Or more marketing than creativity and innovation? Or more surveillance than office freedom? Have they “humanized” work, as they promise, or created trendy, expensive rental digs for more of the same? It’s hard to say. Bliss concludes with some incisive observations about WeWork and the direction of the co-working model more generally: “A future where co-working is made entirely of big fish and little fish content to swim in one transactional bowl is a future that seems to leave out a lot of other fish: the vegan-meal-kit makers, the community bail fund, and hey, the journalists. We, too, are working here.”

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The Office of the Future Will Still Have a Coffee Machine

Trumpf Logistics

Trumpf Logistics Center, Ditzingen (Photo: Ina Reinecke)

When it comes to office design, it seems that few styles stick around for long. “We have been repeatedly planning working and office environments for almost 25 years,” says Berlin-based architect Regine Leibinger, “and hardly any ‘trend’ was really lasting during all these years.” In an interview with the site World-Architects, Leibinger and Martina Bauer of Barkow Leibinger discussed the “Office of the Future,” with the general proviso that “it’s primarily the way we work, the way buildings are used that is changing—and we have to react to this.”

What exactly does this mean for working architects? “In addition to maximizing floor space,” says Bauer, “increasing flexibility and the associated provision of conversion options and technical installation is becoming ever more important.” But creating modular designs that can accommodate any number of possible technical or “smart” scenarios comes with aesthetic, and human, costs.

“On the one hand, it is an exciting task… On the other hand, this also means that everything becomes more and more interchangeable the more it is subject to pre-defined extension grids and consensus-oriented equipment and furnishings. An office world with character, an environment that is really tailored for a company, its employees and their work processes is becoming increasingly rare.”

The huge new offices of companies like Salesforce and Apple show that the bespoke office is alive and well, but also perhaps a rarified commodity. Leibinger and Bauer speak to the recent phenomenon of high-tech offices as de facto playgrounds: “there are, of course, some industries where such lounging areas or a ball pool really do fit,” says Bauer, “In our experience, however, everyday life—which is much rarer to see in magazines—looks different.” Bauer sees the necessity in most situations for “a good medium” between the extremes of distracting arcades and dystopian cubical jails.

The primary concerns for the designer remain, as they always have, an integration of form and function that centers basic needs: comfort, light, air, acoustics, social interaction. “What good is the greatest open space if everyone wears headphones to concentrate?” Leibinger asks. “How far do we want to push the depth of rooms for efficiency’s sake? To be healthy and motivated at work, you need light and air. And atmosphere. We certainly do not find the right solution at the lower limit of the workplace directive.”

Leibinger and Bauer do not address “biophilic” design trends, which aim to bring natural air, light, and growth into the office environment, or bring the office further out into nature. Perhaps such offices, like the toy-store lounges of many a tech start-up in the past couple decades, will come and go, like every trend architects have seen over the years. In any case, the basic design of the humans who work in offices is unlikely to change much in the near future.

“Perhaps the office of the future will not be so different from the office of today—who knows?” says Bauer. “We will certainly benefit from ever new technologies… but tables, chairs, windows, a coffee machine—I can imagine all this in the ‘Future Office.’ We strongly believe in the future of the office as a physical space of encounter and interaction, and not so much in science fiction.”

Read their full interview here.