The Mobile Office

Jennifer Busch

Technically, we no longer need space outside our home. We can shop at home, entertain ourselves at home, educate ourselves from home, and now we can even receive diagnosis and treatment at home for common ailments via emerging Internet telahealth companies like Teladoc. And despite Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer’s well-publicized order to the company’s remote workers to return to the office, the work-at-home culture is alive and well in North America. In reality, the workplace no longer performs a necessary function, so much as it has a purpose. Increasingly, the corporate office is designed to promote culture, support collaboration, build community, and encourage fortuitous interactions among staff.

Today, the term “mobile worker” is just as likely to refer to a person who works in the office as one who works outside of it, and “mobility” happens within the physical confines of the office environment every day. Wireless technology has untethered us to the point where it is no longer necessary to sit at one’s desk to be productive, and a heavy emphasis on collaboration in the workplace is pushing us toward working together in teams more than working independently. So, as interior design follows work culture, we see movement away from personal space and toward shared space within the most progressive office environments. Routinely, office workers are getting up from their desks—if they even have one—and going somewhere else within the office to work.

This is not necessarily news. What is more interesting is how this trend is being manifested in today’s office environments. A typical but really good example is the open office floor plan for Adobe San Jose (Calif.), designed by Valerio DeWalt Train, which shows a miscellany of shared spaces, of varying shapes and sizes and ranging from casual to formal, aptly labeled Entry Gate, Conference Room, Break Area, Breakout Space, Team Room, and Open Collaboration, to hint at their functions.

Adobe Floor Plan

A typical office floor at Adobe Headquarters in San Jose, Calif., designed by Valerio DeWalt Train, features a wide variety of meeting and shared spaces to accommodate groups of varying sizes and needs.

Primo Orpilla, principal of Studio O+A in San Francisco, speaks frequently on the variety of ways space is utilized within the office, emphasizing that the workplace must be designed to support a broad range of collaborative and personal behaviors. The firm’s design for AOL’s headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif., incorporates these principles—and vividly illustrates the opportunity for designers to think outside the box to do something creative with functional space.

 

Certainly it is no coincidence that two high tech companies are cited here, as the Silicon Valley culture tends to be more entrepreneurial and experimental when it comes to space design. But corporate executives in any industry like to learn from and emulate success. In the 1980s, staid and traditional aesthetic values guided office designs for corporations that wanted to declare their solidity and deep roots; in the 1990s, transitional values conveyed images of established yet progressive organizations. Today, young, agile, and fast-paced are the mantras for success, so the energized work cultures popularized by the high tech industry are also being adopted with increasing frequency by other segments—even conservative ones like the legal and financial services industries.

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Microsoft Studio in Redmond, Wash., designed by Studio O+A, is an example of highly flexible space that can quickly adapt to the needs of a fast-paced team. Photography by Jasper Sanidad.

Extreme mobility in the workplace has given rise to “hackable space” a phrase coined by Gensler to refer to interior environments that are “easily transformed, including technology, so that spaces can morph for instant changes in use. This isn’t just for occasional flexibility; it’s for constant change. Hackable space can be reshaped on the fly to meet a team’s fast-changing needs,” according to the firm’s 2013 Design Forecast.

In addition to creating and supporting a culture of collaboration, other benefits of the mobile workplace include physical and mental well-being. Human health demands physical activity, and with health insurance costs soaring, corporations are looking for opportunities to promote wellness and healthy lifestyles among their employees. Design that encourages workers to move around throughout the day is one such method. One of the key advantages of biophilic design, as described in The Economics of Biophilia, a whitepaper by New York-based environmental consulting firm Terrapin Bright Green, includes increased employee productivity. Studies have shown that a workplace designed with nature in mind can save the average company more than $900 per employee per year in labor-related losses. And though biophilic design typically conjures images of views to nature, the innate human need for changes of scenery and meaningful stimuli—things that nature readily provides—are part of the same equation. A mobile workplace can provide these.

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Acoustical concerns introduced by the popular use of hard surface flooring in open office environments like Jones Lang LaSalle’s headquarters in Philadelphia, designed by Re:Vision Architecture, are mitigated by the introduction of soft surfaces such as carpet tile in work areas and meeting rooms. Photography by Don Pearse Photography, Inc.

With all the emphasis on mobility and shared space, however, some experts are suggesting that the open, collaborative office environment has gone too far. Lack of acoustical control in open office environments—exacerbated by the trend toward benching and/or low panel heights between workstations—can stymie even the most focused worker trying to concentrate. And some people just need quiet and/or privacy in order to be most productive. This can be more of a problem in interiors that favor today’s hot materials, like glass, concrete, and sculptural solid surfacing. And let’s not forget the valuable older generation of workers, who either by desire or necessity have elected to remain in the workforce, and cannot be expected to adapt to plopping down on the increasingly ubiquitous bleacher-style seating to churn out tomorrow’s presentation.

The integration of sound absorbing materials like wood, carpet tile, textiles and other soft surfaces can and do help with acoustical control.

Moreover, “private” space seems to be making a comeback, though not necessarily in the form of the private office. For example, Biogen headquarters in Cambridge, Mass., designed by Nelson Architects, blends the best of both worlds with an open office furniture plan supported by an abundance of small, enclosed spaces for use by individuals needing quiet or small groups in need of an acoustically isolated meeting place.

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The Biogen offices in Cambridge, Mass., designed by Nelson Architects, feature an abundance of small, enclosed rooms on each work floor, providing open office workers with acoustically controlled spaces for quiet work or small group meetings. Photography by Halkin Mason Photography

There is little question that the concept of teaming is here to stay in the corporate enviornment, at least for the foreseeable future. Its influence is pervasive in other market sectors as well—particularly in education, where open plan schools at the university, high school, and even elementary school level are intended to prepare students for the collaborative approach to work that they are likely to encounter in the business world. Like all trends, however, each evolution raises new questions, and with them new design challenges. In the coming years, balance will be key.

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