Part Two: Greg Lindsay on the Future of the Workplace

Earlier this summer, the marketing team attended an IIDANY Facilities Forum focused on the topic, “The Evolving Workplace: Change or Adapt?” Moderated by David Craig, Associate Principal at Cannon Design, the discussion featured insights on the evolving workplace and what this means for our industry from two workplace innovators, Greg Lindsay, Contributing Writer for Fast Company, and Bart Higgins, Director at ?What If!

Greg agreed to elaborate on some of his ideas for our blog, including explorations into what he calls “the blurring of the office and the city.” Read “Part One” of our interview here.

DH: You’ve written about Google and mentioned them at the IIDA event. Innovant has seen three global RFPs from them in the last four years, which is an extreme example of a company undergoing rapid growth at rapid speed. If you can speak to this, how do such companies deal with the chaos of space planning, workplace strategy, and establishing standards under these conditions?

GL: As a journalist, I’ve never been on the inside of such hyper-growth, so I can’t really speak to that. However, I am fascinated that the biggest cloud company in the universe is massively investing in physical space. The second Googleplex (i.e. the Bayview Campus) and London headquarters are evidence that Google values proximity.

DH: Do you think your amazement that Google is investing so much money in physical space relates to the idea of “engineering serendipity” that you’ve promoted? Are they really able to think in those terms when they’re moving so quickly?

GL: Yes, I think so. One example is Google’s “people analytics” group. The company was prescient enough to create a dedicated data analysis group to study how people in the company actually work. Eventually, most companies will follow suit in molding functions of HR and facilities management to actually manage people and space together as a single unit — or at least they should.

Another responsibility of Google’s people analytics group is to manage social interactions among Googlers. There’s a reason the Googleplex has a bee-keeping club, and it’s not to keep employees at the ‘Plex 20 hours a day, which is how such programs are typically seen from the outside. Instead, they’re trying to figure out how to mix employees in unforeseen combinations that go beyond corporate roles and politics.

I’ve seen the chronic coffee machine and water cooler metaphors come up frequently in this context. When companies try to figure out how to increase workforce cohesion or introduce people, the solution is invariably adding or moving the coffee machine around. After all this time, we seem to have no better idea for bringing people together than to leave food lying around the office kitchen, as if you were trying to attract a pack of wild animals. I’d be curious to track the people analytics group’s results, which may suggest new social modes for bringing people together.

The third example is Campus London, where Google has stacked an incubator, an accelerator, and two floors of co-working beneath a satellite office on the top floor. Google’s presence is the draw for the entrepreneurs who work there, while the appeal for Google is this hive of activity beneath them they can keep tabs on, learn from, and hire from. I think this is an interesting lesson for companies — especially considering we talk all the time about the benefits of industry clusters. Though the work clusters may not be competitive, they’re close enough to drive innovation.

DH: You also mentioned Facebook at the IIDA event, describing how Zuckerberg was very vocal in the design process with Gehry. How does Facebook measure up in the world of companies growing so quickly when they’re the ones driving the design of their workplace?

GL: I don’t think this makes Facebook much of an outlier since I imagine Google gave NBBJ a lot of input. Facebook is evolving, hiring, and adding new functions so quickly that the company believes it must be able to spawn out a whole new product group at a moment’s notice. The result is that it’s very reluctant to conform to planted physical space. Instead, they’ll just mount work surfaces on castors so they can rearrange the space as necessary. I think this is: A. Really interesting, B. It’s similar to the urban dynamic I write about, which describes why cities work so well, and C. If I were an architect it would scare the hell out of me because they’re basically saying, “You can’t figure us out. You can’t design spaces for us that morph as quickly as we need them to, so just give us a big box.”

DH: We’ve seen sit-to-stand workstations established as a standard in Scandinavian countries and other parts of Europe at a rapid pace. In the US, however, that’s been lagging. Recently, Innovant has seen a surge in requests for adjustable height desks. Do you think this notion of adapting our workplaces for health and safety reasons is a real and sustainable shift, or is it just a trend?

GL: I don’t have informed opinion on this, though I would say yes. I think it’s a real trend, which is part of the larger notion of choice and the awareness that people no longer have to sit in an uncomfortable chair at an uncomfortable desk. Instead, they’re demanding a range of motions and a range of environments for work.

As Nilofer Merchant put it, “Sitting is the smoking of our generation.” I’ll be curious to see whether this achieves the status of a crusade, though it will be hard to trace its origins since there seems to be a greater acceptance of design and choice in the US. I certainly think the desire for public space and a range of motions at one’s desk are a part of a larger trend.

DH: Based on what you know about how work is changing, how do you envision the workplace of the future?

GL: The key is that it’s not just a workplace. The workplace of the future is merged intimately with the other environments around it. You’ll have environments that exist either to put your head down and work alone, or you’ll be involved in socializing; either you’re plugged into the cloud or you’re really involved in physical space with people while executing multiple work modes at once.

The workplace of the future won’t start by walking into an elevator lobby or parking your car outside a suburban office complex and going inside to sit at a desk, where there’s nothing but desks and there’s nothing but work. I imagine the street intersecting with the building, so that the moment blurs when you walk into the office out of what today would be a coffee shop, restaurant or retail complex.

The people you’re working with are not necessarily your professional colleagues. You chose that space because it’s designed for the kind of work you want to do and it houses the kind of people you need to work with (or not work with). I imagine you won’t necessarily be choosing where and how you work based on who is paying you. Instead, you’ll base your decision on a space’s relevant functions, which will blend with the city somehow.

The word I keep coming back to is permeability. We need to break open the walls of the office to allow other elements in. This will allow the office to leak out into the city and the city to leak into the office. I think the next step is to determine exactly how that looks. We’ve begun talking about multiple environments in a workplace, but when we take that further, the discussion will be about the environments of the city and vice versa.

DH: What I find most exciting about your vision is the notion of choice –

GL: Exactly! Choice, something we don’t normally associate with going to work.

DH: Right, it’s empowering to think that someday we’ll have the choice to flow throughout the office (or even out of it) in an attempt to find the right workspace.

GL: I don’t think this change will come because employers are more enlightened, which is what we’re seeing with technology companies now. Anybody who’s involved in knowledge work knows what it takes to come up with good ideas. What makes a good working environment on paper is a diversity of opinions and backgrounds, a certain environment, and a certain mental mindset to even be able to think warm thoughts and come up with good ideas. Employers are going to give you the flexibility of choice so they can better harness your work, not because they’re warm and fuzzy. They simply want the best work from you.

DH: What will it take to convince employers that giving employees the flexibility of choice will produce the best work?

GL: Everything I’ve said so far is a mix of anecdotes and hypotheses. The real question is whether we can test any of this — what new styles of work, collaboration, and organization are emerging in cities? What kind of environments will be disrupted by these shifts?  What solo- vs. group work patterns exist, how are they evolving, and how can they be mapped, understood and enhanced? How can new ways of organizing work in cities make people more creative, productive and happy? And what are the benefits of doing so— better retention rates? Higher productivity? Greater innovation? And how do we measure any of this?

I’m putting together a team of architects, data scientists and researchers to explore some of these questions. I’ll let you know when we have some answers.