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Designing Future Offices Around Future Workers


We can’t talk about the office of the future without talking about the worker of the future—or the worker of the present, for that matter, often in a radically different position than even a decade ago. In 2016, for example, 35% of the U.S. workforce was made up of freelancers, a number expected to climb to 43% by 2020. With so many workers moving, and being moved, into the gig economy (and with the number of people who telecommute part or full-time having increased fourfold since 1995), traditional office spaces serve a rapidly decreasing number of employees.  


We need radical new visions of what, exactly, constitutes an office. Bypassing urban glass and steel towers, ex-urban office campuses, the local coffee shop, or the home office tax write-off, one proposition for a mobile office would likely have appealed to Buckminster Fuller. Jie Zhang’s FoAM—inflatable office bubbles of various sizes and shapes—even includes a geodesic dome model, perhaps in tribute to the great architectural innovator. (Other concept designs include an umbrella shape and what appears to be just a bubble that inflates around one’s head.)

“It is impossible for architects and designers to ignore the needs of 30% or more of the US workforce who are freelancing,” Zhang, co-founder of design startup OPT, told Metropolis magazine of her proposal. FoAM‘s ingenuity earned it the runner-up spot in Metropolis‘ Tomorrow’s Workplace Design Competition, which asked the question, “what will the workplace of 2021 be like?” A massive shift in workforce demographics “presents tremendous opportunities, but also a challenge for us to think beyond the conventional client-designer model for office designs.”


Zhang’s quirky design anticipates a need to recoup urban spaces like parking lots, notes Metropolis, which may become largely abandoned “with the widespread use of shared autonomous vehicles.” FoAM might also be called maximally biophilic design, if set up in the right environment, offering “office” space with a direct experience of nature. Each FoAM would be equipped with wireless charging options, powered by a transparent solar cell. Additional amenities include a “360 projector/camera,” a “radiant floor pad” for heating and cooling, and “modular inflatable furniture.”

Anyone who has gone camping will immediately note some of the possible problems. These include not only the hassle of set-up and tear down, but also concerns about long-term structural integrity, and the nuisance of lugging around a massive lump of heavy plastic that may never fold neatly enough to fit back in its carrying case. But the intentions behind this brief acknowledge societal shifts taking place outside the office that may render most traditional spaces obsolete in the near future.

Co-Gen Space

The winner of the Tomorrow’s Workplace Design Competition, Co-Gen Flex Space by Ethelind Coblin Architect, also began with a demographic shift, this time toward a multi-generational workforce comprised of seniors and semi-retired people and working parents in need of childcare. The architects designed their co-working space by “taking into consideration that there is also a growing number of seniors that are not simply retiring but that choose to (or have to) participate in active social and work life.”

A “co-generational work environment,” proposed for New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, the Co-Gen Flex Space incorporates a coop-funded daycare facility, “work spaces of varying privacy and size,” and all of the technical services any modern office might need, including on-demand 3D printing and conferencing technology. In both the Co-Gen Flex Space and FoAM, we see office design that begins with the reality of a rapidly changing workforce—increasingly mobile, contingent, multi-generational, and with a variety of needs and schedules that cannot be easily accommodated in outdated 9-5 office spaces.


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Zen and the Art of Worker Bliss

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In my neverending search for the ideal office layout,  I’ve pored over countless articles riddled in contradictions. Workspace designers often reference the Harvard Business Review study heralding the death of the cubicle in favor of open designs, yet there’s recent research by Fuze and others stating that open plans completely destroy productivity. Who’s right?

Adding to the confusion, an increasing number of people are working from home these days, yet numerous companies believe that innovation comes from serendipitous in-office collisions. And then there’s the reality that in-person brainstorming sessions totally matter. Oy Gevalt!

I think where all of this is headed is employee choice. Balance is required, and just like in the real world, we need places for seclusion, quiet work, open community, and smaller social/collaboration areas.

I really like where Knoll is at in this regard.

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In the Knoll-provided graphic above, “Primary spaces” are defined as areas where you have your permanent office home. Sure, call it a cubicle or small private office. The point is, it’s yours and for concentrated work time. This eschews the trendy “hot-desking” concepts where employees never have their own permanent workstations.

They also have places for assembly, community, enclaves and refuge. “Activity” areas are all those places that are not your primary home.  Here we see a blend of about 50/50 between Primary and Activity space.  Historically, private areas have been at a ratio of 70% and higher.

What all of the aforementioned research appears to leave out is that we all work totally differently. Doesn’t this help explain the controversy? And we also change over time. Some of us prefer working in social areas all the time and some of us really want to be left alone.  It’s important for managers to recognize this. Aside from meetings or brainstorming sessions that require groups to gather, let people choose what’s best for them.

You may be familiar with the Myers-Briggs test, which made huge leaps in better defining our personality types. It was based on Carl Jung’s recognition that humans experience the world using four principal psychological functions – sensation, intuition, feeling, and thinking – and that one of these four functions is dominant for a person most of the time. From my perspective, this begs the question: Where are the studies that map Myers-Briggs personality types to preferred office environment? Introverts want constant privacy. Extroverts would rather be dead than spend all day in a cubicle.

Forward-thinking companies need to finally get on board recognizing and catering to the plethora of personality types and what drives each of us towards productivity bliss.





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Ground Control to XTX: A Sci-Fi London Office

Open the pod bay doors, Hal… it’s time to design an office for robots.


Stephen Bennett / Peldon Rose

London-based trading firm XTX Markets has built a new office space that’s all about the future. They know a thing or two about it: all of XTX’s traders are self-learning machines. Don’t worry, we’re not in Matrix territory yet… there are still plenty of humans keeping those machines in line. So XTX’s Kings Cross workspace is all about the blend of sci-fi tech with creature comforts.


Stephen Bennett / Peldon Rose

Design firm Peldon Rose took inspiration from movies like Tron and Blade Runner to create XTX’s new space, putting machines and servers on display behind glass walls with glowing blue lights. One hallway looks like something from Star Trek, with a working airlock door, a Battlestar Galactica cylon, and a moving mural of more than 30,000 LED lights. The company’s restaurant even has a replica of the Apollo 11 landing capsule, complete with seating inside. But there are also plenty of cozy spaces that are more living room than space station, with egg-shaped lounge chairs, inviting leather couches, and bunk beds.


Stephen Bennett / Peldon Rose

Maybe we can learn to live in harmony with machines… or at least, maybe we can design offices with that idea in mind. Take your protein pills, put your helmet on, and check out XTX’s new space in this video from Peldon Rose.


Stephen Bennett / Peldon Rose

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The Oak-town Cometh!

Hey Oakland, Get Ready to Work. Your time has come.

Bay Area residents are used to a few things: great weather, good restaurants, and fog on any major holiday involving fireworks. Unfortunately, another thing we’re used to is traffic. With many offices located in tech hubs — Mountain View, San Jose, San Francisco — lots of Bay Area residents take cars, shuttles, carpools, and BART on a daily basis. Commutes from the East Bay to San Jose can take upwards of two hours. Two hours on a freeway vs. telecommuting? No wonder people prefer to phone it in via FaceTime.

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What’s the fix for this commute nightmare? Enter Oakland, with a prime physical location, a downtown ripe for revival, and pre-existing major BART lines. Looks like Oakland’s ready to host a whole new generation of workspaces. The Mercury News reports that downtown Oakland is about to get a new office tower on a historic site, saying “Oakland’s time has come.” The new office tower is slated to be built on a lot next to the historic Key Building downtown, which will be renovated and connected to the new tower. The new tower is only a block away from BART and should be ready in 2019 — and it’s already 50% leased. Developer James Ellis thinks the BART location is a big deal for this tower, saying: “Tenants are really demanding that they are much closer to mass transportation than they used to.”


New office construction that blends historic with modern seems to be the trend in Oakland, and it’s hard to even take a headcount of all the new development projects in the works. TMG Partners is revamping a 1930’s Art Deco furniture store into office space, and plenty of other developers are looking into similar revamps. Uber has just sold Oakland’s former Sears building, and it looks like that Art Deco classic will also have a new life as office space. Harvest Properties has plans to renovate the iconic Tribune Tower. And with the Oakland A’s eyeing a stadium site at Jack London Square, the downtown skyline might look pretty different in a decade or so. (Come on, A’s, don’t leave us…)

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It’s not just tech companies driving the Oakland office boom, either. A wide range of industries are seeking out space in Oakland, and TMG Development Director David Cropper says that traffic and location may be the driving force: “Employers want to be closer to the East Bay not for the cheaper rents, but for all the stuff Oakland has,” Cropper said. “BART has always been important, but is even more important now that traffic is only getting worse.”

So, East Bay denizens, watch this space. Lots more to come on the booming Oakland office market…

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How did WordPress go so wrong in their office, that all the employees abandoned it?

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I’ve been deeply pondering this article for the last few months since the day I read it. WordPress, with over 500 employees, got 15,000 square feet of space in San Francisco to support its workforce. In their efforts to compete for hiring with Google and Facebook, they also told employees showing up was optional.  Employees could get a $250/month stipend to go to a co-work space.  Guess what happened?  No one showed up at the office and they’re letting their expensive office go. Poof!

What does this tell us about the future of work? Do offices matter? Do we want to be home?  The value proposition of WeWork and co-working at its core is certainly about removing loneliness, so it appears WordPress employees choose to work with strangers locally over commuting.

Ok… So we don’t want to be home alone, but we don’t show up for work.  We choose to work at WeWork or the local cafe over the co-working space our company provided.  How did WordPress fail?  Would a series of smaller micro-offices around the Bay Area have better served the company?  Would those have felt more lonely than WeWork?

As a former CEO, I never really loved when people worked from home. We tried it, but we definitely lost momentum.  My partner, who works at a giant software company, gets on her company-provided bus every morning at 6am and commutes 2 hours each way. Working from home for her is not an option and she’d probably feel very dismissed if she didn’t show up.  I don’t think the future of offices is no office. Offices need to evolve.

I believe that face time matters.  In-person matters. Avoiding loneliness matters. WordPress somehow failed in creating an environment worth going to. Maybe companies need a Chief Fun Officer.  I’d love to try to dig in over the coming months and interview ex-employees who lived through this and get their take. What are your thoughts?

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The Grateful Dead had the Wall of Sound, But Amazon has a Wall of Ground

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Appears there is a new kind of war between the titans: Google and Apple, doing their best to out-do each other on their Biophilic design. Now enter Amazon’s Spheres — Seattle Times has the best scoop yet.  Yes, I want to go there. Yes, It makes me want to work there. Yes, I’d brag to my friends.  I think if my work environment looked and felt like the outdoors but in a climate controlled environment, I’d be excited to go to work every day.

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LEED certification was so 90’s. We’ve moved into the “WELL Standard”

You’ve probably heard or seen the LEED logo on buildings near where you work, or if you’re lucky, on the building you work in. LEED ensures landlords are building spaces that adhere to green building design.  This has become commonplace for new building development, and next-generation builders are thinking about wellness.

The design of your office, from comfort level, to lighting, to air quality is mission critical when it comes to employee retention and happiness.  All hail the WELL standard!

Screenshot 2018-01-27 at 9.51.55 AMThe WELL Building Standard marries “best practices in design and construction with evidence-based health and wellness interventions. It harnesses the built environment as a vehicle to support human health, well-being and comfort. WELL Certified™ spaces and developments can lead to a built environment that helps to improve the nutrition, fitness, mood, sleep, comfort and performance of its occupants. This is achieved in part by implementing strategies, programs and technologies designed to encourage healthy, more active lifestyles and reducing occupant  exposure to harmful chemicals and pollutants.”

For someone building out workspaces, or for a developer thinking more endemically about how this plays into building construction, read their  documentation defining the standard. It’s free at their resource center.


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New Software Empowering Landlords and Tenants to be more “We-Worky.”

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Building owners and software companies are struggling to keep up with the tech-centric, community-centric WeWork. Enter HQO, a new kit piece of software enabling an easy entry point for making workspaces funky-fresh. One consumer-facing software app to rule them all, enabling:

– Visitor registration and room booking
– Transportation and shuttle integration
– Access to your parking garage
– Retail promotions
– Food ordering and purchasing
– Appointment booking and reservations
– Community directory and messaging functionality
– Event postings and building announcements
– Custom content to highlight tenant success and encourage community engagement

Check it out:

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Nordea’s new HQ in Copenhagen is a sustainable workplace of 2000 people, and the knowledge flows like a fine wine

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In the new Nordea headquarters, employees don’t have permanent workstations. A range of flexible rooms, multi-rooms, project tables, ‘phone booths’ and touch-down workspaces facilitate the mobility of employees throughout the day offering them to shift between varying working situations:

“Close to the facades, we have placed office spaces for focused work – creating a feeling of almost working on Amager Fælled. Through the façade design, we have ensured that workspaces have a daylight factor of 2%. This results in energy savings and in addition lead to comfort and well-being. A ventilated floor in the trading floor secures optimal air quality and cooling directly integrated into desktops guides heat away from trader floor computers recycling the heat.

On balconies ─ zones between the facade and the open atrium spaces, we have placed coffee stations and a range of the more informal work zones. Access to smaller, closed spaces with the possibility to meet more remote colleagues is a significant factor in securing the exchange of knowledge across an organization. In this way, employees in the new Nordea headquarters have the possibility to define and vary their workday in a healthy and sustainable environment. Participation, flexibility, and well-being lead to independence and job involvement.”


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Office of the week: Klap Verzekeringsmakelaar – Amsterdam

I love the warm inviting tones, dark woods and cozy vibe at this insurance company. Hell, I’d even work in insurance if I got to work here! The office embodies the Dutch’s mantra that everything must be “Gezellig”!!!

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