Originally published in Interiors & Sources

05/01/2013

Change is Here

As I prepare to pass the baton of the IIDA presidency and NeoCon rolls ever closer, the phrase “Out with the old, in with the new” takes on a profound dimension.

By James Williamson, IIDA, LEED AP

 

Yahoo! employees will soon be returning to the company’s offices, including its headquarters in Sunnyvale, Calif., as management tries to turn around its disappointing stock price and increase innovation.
photograph courtesy of Markus Spiering/spieri_sf via Flickr
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But how will that goal be achieved? After as much time away from the office as many workers have spent, it’s hard to imagine that something hasn’t changed in the DNA of their working methods. The idea that everyone will snap to, return to full work weeks spent in the office and bring productivity up across the board seems pretty unlikely. Companies like Yahoo! would do well to communicate with their employees in this initial return period and seek feedback on what they value in a work environment. Clearly the days of offices being little more than workforce warehouses are behind us, and even the long-clichéd cube farm has fallen out of favor.

So what will the workplace of the future invite for those who inhabit it? If collaboration is the key to innovation—as Yahoo! asserts it is—and productivity is also a major concern, there’s no way we can simply return to previous office models. New work environments will have to integrate aspects found in the traditional workplace with decidedly new sensibilities that take into account the altered needs of workers who have become used to working in less formal and structured surroundings. That means meeting spaces that invite personnel in and put them at ease; open spaces with furniture that combines comfort and visual appeal for a relatively informal social setting; and natural light to decrease the drain inherent in fluorescent lighting and stimulate vitality.

Comfort and ease of use are concepts that we hear referenced a lot in terms of the gadgets that set the workforce free in the first place. These are elements that workers might expect to find upon returning onsite. So not only will collaboration-friendly spaces be of great importance, but spaces for intense focus when necessary, as well.

As I previously stated in my blog, “I really need to get work done so I’m going to work from home tomorrow,” is an often-repeated phrase, but one that should have significance for the design of spaces in the future. Open-door policies and the necessity of being virtually chained to email have made this a particularly physical, emotional and technological challenge for anyone requiring that extra level of concentration. The office environment has a tendency toward interruption, broken flow and counterproductive stress. As designers, we need to seek physical solutions to help minimize the impact of such an environment, and create spaces that will engender a positive feeling, a fluid energy, and a desire to be a part of a space and the culture it contains.

As I’ve said before, this is the key: Creating spaces that will entice the worker to come in every day feeling fresh and invigorated. If all you’re being offered is another day in a stress-filled environment filled with little more than computers and a pervasive sense of dread, the call back to the office may only serve to foster discontent—leading to diminished productivity and, very likely, a staff looking for the exit.

By making primary workstations appealing and introducing user-friendly elements to modernize the work environment, business owners show a commitment to the innovation they seek to achieve. But in doing so, they also earn the appreciation and loyalty of the workforce that has sacrificed a percentage of its freedom—and, let’s face it, its work/life balance—for a return to the stricter routine of office life. Those employees will be happier in the short and the long run, and business owners will see the benefit in productivity over time.

 

IIDA International President James Williamson, IIDA, LEED AP is a practicing interior designer and principal at Gensler in its Washington, D.C. office. You can reach IIDA at (312) 467-1950 or at iidahq@iida.org.

 


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