Two recent Gensler research initiatives have harnessed the crowdsourced power of multiple cultural, geographic, and practice-area perspectives on the future workplace.
In a 2008 Dialogue interview, management guru Charles Handy predicted that mobile technology and urban densification would hasten a “work anywhere, anytime” model and weaken our attachment to dedicated workplaces and workstations. His foresights suggest how work settings and behaviors reflect larger social, economic, and technological changes. He based them on a lifetime of experience, but two recent Gensler research initiatives, both focused on the future of work, crowdsource from a global cohort of 4,000 Gensler practitioners.
“Work in the City” is part of a Gensler research program, “Reimagining Cities,” started in 2011. In 2013, Gensler’s Shawn Gehle, who led the effort, asked the firm’s practice areas to develop 2,000-word position papers considering the future of work in the city to 2025. Collected, they became the basis for a series of regional forecasts. Finally, each of the firm’s 46 offices developed a speculative scenario for its own city. “You need a model this comprehensive to make global research locally relevant,” Gehle says.
Gensler’s Lisa Bottom and Janet Pogue led a parallel future-minded effort focused on Metropolis magazine’s “Workplace of the Future” competition. They saw it as a catalyst to ask, How will we work in 2020? More than 20 Gensler teams explored this question in their competition entries. Three teams—from Dallas, Newport Beach, and New York—were finalists, but the weekly conference calls over the course of 10 weeks “allowed us to talk in depth and build a common vocabulary for looking ahead,” Pogue says. “The ideas, feedback, and visuals got better and better,” Bottom adds. Like “Work in the City,” this crowdsourced research approach identified emerging themes for the future of work. Here are highlights from both studies.
Virtual interactions have strengthened the desire for physical space. They put an even higher premium on meaningful in-person encounters, as retailers realize—intensifying the customer experience to set their stores apart. Lab and research settings similarly benefit from serendipitous, face-to-face interactions that real places make possible. This points to a growing need for adjacency to break down work-team silos. Education also foresees a greater blurring of boundaries. New hybrid, real/virtual models of higher education will influence the city by fueling the growth of intermediary cultural hotspots that feed the desire for personal connection in the physical sphere.
The new appreciation for the tactile will fuel burgeoning maker-industries that cater to local urban markets. Gensler planners and education specialists believe that the growth of such niches will undo 20th-century urban development, which created single-use districts, in favor of older patterns that generate a richer, denser mix.
The hospitality sector is positioned to offer a “home away from home” environment where travelers and locals alike can work, relax, eat, gather, and collaborate. At work, the creative types will opt for ambience; in 2025, look for hospitality-like amenities and comforts to attract them.
While face-to-face encounters and facilitated collaboration are attributes of shared work settings, the ability to move seamlessly into focused work modes is critical. Several of the Metropolis proposals addressed this need with furniture-scaled modules that can be deployed almost anywhere. The foldable nano-office and the focus desk and pod combine interactive smart surfaces with customizable ergonomics to create instant personalized retreats. When grouped together, they can grow into pop-up coworking spaces that are untethered by place-specific or infrastructural constraints. “Choice is the future,” says Bottom. “It empowers people to work in the most effective way for them at any given time.”
Both in the workplace and the city at large, Gensler foresees new spatial typologies to support tech-free and/or silent zones. Designing cues for toned-down behaviors will be the challenge, and some forward-thinking workplaces are already on board. “People can work anywhere and anytime, so the next big wave in work will involve developing common agreements about appropriate behavior in shared work settings—including airplanes if they let people use their phones,” Bottom says.
A greater focus on health and wellness as cornerstones of a productive workforce will lead to a greater integration of movement and rest with work. Facilitated by wearable devices, several of the Metropolis competition entries envisioned incorporating walking and other exercise into hybrid work styles aimed at rousing people from stasis.Even traders could be freed from their desks to interact spontaneously with others without losing access to data. As wearable devices become more intuitive, invisible, and constantly present, they could spur a return to the more physically active work styles of the past.
An emphasis on health can scale up to the city too, becoming an important factor in urban planning decisions. Cities will address health and wellness for their residents, both at work and outside of work. These realms are converging to support the holistic social goal of wellness. Because today’s young, mobile workforce views the city primarily as a lifestyle choice rather than an employment imperative, a city’s livability and wellness offerings will be critical to its ability to attract talent and support a robust economy.
Making the most
Software will facilitate softspace, Gensler’s researchers believe. As urban densification heightens the need for space efficiency, technology will reinvigorate larger workplaces and also support a diversity of smaller work settings across the city. Older buildings will be challenged to keep pace with fast-changing technology and work habits, leading one team to imagine the iconic Woolworth Building in Manhattan recast as a vertical neighborhood that remixes uses and amenities as a series of rapidly reconfigurable modules of different scales. The city’s ground level also has more potential; two teams envisioned public open spaces that, with Wi-Fi and work surfaces added, could serve urbanites as hybrid park-offices.
The new math: 1+1=3
That these important Gensler research initiatives both add up to more than the sum of their parts reflects a strategy of leveraging the collective insights of Gensler as a diverse, globally connected, locally grounded community of designers. The “Work in the City” initiative “speaks to a commitment to our clients’ futures,” Shawn Gehle says. Meeting it requires “continually prompting conversations about where our practices and offices are headed, both in terms of markets and geographies,” he notes.
“The brainpower in a highly collaborative organization of our size is amazing,” says Lisa Bottom. Taking a collective, global approach has two benefits, Gehle adds. It lets every Gensler office develop a local point of view about the future of work, directly applicable to its clients and markets, informed by global research, data, and analysis. Yet research findings have real nuance, highlighting both the global commonalities and the crucial local differences.
Yukiko Bowman writes and blogs about design from San Francisco.