The nature of work is changing, yet too often our workplaces do not reflect the way we work, who we are or what we value. Simultaneously work is becoming more collaborative and mobile, causing organizations to rethink the balance of individual and shared spaces. In fact, given that people can work almost anywhere using mobile technology today, the business world is examining the shifting value of working in an office.
Because we don’t use office buildings the way we once did and now that sustainability is a key focus shared by many companies, the question facing the workplace is “How can we make the office more sustainable while creating the kinds of places that help people and organizations thrive?"
There is little doubt that office buildings need to do better on all counts. Responsible for 25 percent of domestic carbon-dioxide production, business structures are an important target for creating a more sustainable society. At the same time, they must respond to changes in current and future work styles. Based on more than 30 years of experience working with a wide range of companies, New York-based DEGW, a global strategic-design consultancy, believes that the following six ideas will make office buildings more effective and sustainable.
1. USE LESS MORE
DEGW research consistently shows that individual workspace within a typical office building is only occupied 30 to 40 percent of the time between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. during the week and up to 10 percent during weekends. Not only does this mean that energy used for offices is wasted 60 to 70 percent of the time, it also indicates that we are often building more space than we need and requiring people to commute to work when they may not need to. Workplace strategies that capitalize on the increasingly distributed, mobile and collaborative nature of work make it possible to build less space and utilize it more efficiently and effectively. For example, DEGW provided several Richmond, Va.- based Capital One and New York-based Accenture locations with 20 to 30 percent space savings by using a combination of strategies based on workstyle analysis. DEGW suggested the companies increase occupancy through shared space and enable employees to work from locations outside the office. While increased occupant densities can mean greater HVAC loads and technology requirements, building less always will have a more positive impact than specifying sustainable materials for an inflated building.
2. THINK OUTSIDE THE BUILDING
When planning an office building, always consider the context around the facility, including transit options; local amenities; and opportunities to share space, particularly in off-hours, with nearby organizations. For instance, DEGW developed a corporate conference center for Shell in The Hague, Netherlands, which functions as a hotel and training center for employees during the week and is open to the general public during weekends. The design of different zones within buildings can control where and how different user groups interact and address any potential security concerns. Shared spaces inside and outside an office building maximize the utilization of space and technology while providing social benefits.
In addition, the new concept of coworking— sharing workspaces to offer a group work environment—exemplifies an innovative rethinking of the traditional office configuration. Coworking spaces, which range in style from informal coffeehouse atmospheres to more traditional settings, offer the advantages of affordability, scheduling flexibility and improved utilization.
Also, by allowing people to work remotely, such as in San Jose, Calif.-based Cisco’s satellite Smart Work Centers, space needs at the main office and commuting are reduced. Amsterdam, Holland, for example, has implemented Smart Work Centers outside the city. The centers enable residents to work from remote stations without traveling into the city. Video-voice-data technology and on-site day care, dining and banking make the centers attractive to companies and employees.
3. GREAT ROOMS ARE GREAT
Rather than planning office buildings as compartmentalized assemblies of specialized rooms, which tend to be underutilized, designs should include more versatile, multifunctional spaces. Great rooms are a residential alternative to homes laid out with separate living rooms, kitchens, family rooms and studies that are often empty or isolating. Creating work spaces that serve multiple purposes, like great rooms, can reduce space needs, enable flexibility and increase interaction between workers because they become magnetic gathering places. This means a space that easily can accommodate individual work also is a place for collaborative work, lectures and events. The Extended Schools initiative in the U.K. provides an interesting precedent. Officials plan schools to function as community centers with day care, adult education and other community needs, enabling better utilization of facilities and improved learning outcomes.
4. SHOW YOUR TRUE COLORS
A successful workplace meets three interdependent criteria: efficiency, effectiveness and expression. When the third element is neglected, a space often lacks character rather than reflects a particular company’s values and culture. It is important to consider what message a building or interior sends about sustainability and whether its green commitment can influence occupant behaviors. For instance, space can be the most vocal communicator of a green agenda by promoting reductions in energy use and advocating recycling programs and mass-transit initiatives.
In DEGW’s work for European companies, such as Espoo, Finland-based Nokia; Berlinbased Siemens; and Bern, Switzerland-based Swisscom, the workplace has been recognized as a key communicator of its brand and values. Statements are made, for example, through the use of locally relevant materials and by showcasing core activities, such as collaborative meetings.
5. DESIGN FOR CHANGE
The workplace is in constant flux. As a result, when planning an office structure, designers must consider the office’s temporal significance and allow for flexibility at different scales of time—from the day to the decade. Typical design responsibilities for an office building have different life cycles, which DEGW has articulated as different layers: site, shell, services, scenery and settings. By thinking about how each aspect will change and at what frequency, workplace strategies can be developed to accommodate growth and new ways of working while utilizing materials appropriately. For example, allowing users to adjust aspects of their work settings on a daily, even hourly, basis to meet their changing needs can make larger, wasteful renovation less frequent.
Ongoing assessment of space, resources and technology usage also can inform planning decisions in the context of time.
6. BUILD SOCIALLY
In addition to providing ecological and economic sustainability, the social aspects of workspaces also must be considered. This goes beyond providing for occupant health and comfort to address broader social aspects, like connecting people to the environment and each other. Just as cities are planned with zoning guidelines ensuring access to light and air, office buildings should be configured to provide daylight and views to all occupants. Such strategies provide intangible and measurable benefits.
For example, the workplace strategy DEGW developed for the Genzyme Center, Cambridge, Mass., incorporated these ideas about zoning, access and connectivity to support the architect, Los Angeles-based Behnisch Architekten, in creating an effective and sustainable workplace. The finished building has produced not only striking architecture, but also tangible results documented through comparisons of pre- and post-occupancy studies conducted by Genzyme based on DEGW research.
By following these six guidelines, businesses can take their sustainability strategies a lot further. Immediate benefits include saving money and boosting productivity. The long-term picture is even brighter: By moving out of an era of underutilized workspaces, we’ll make a powerful, positive impact on our environment.
Elliot Felix is an associate director at DEGW, New York, a global strategic-design consultancy. He specializes in design thinking applied to information, products and spaces. Felix can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and (646) 520-4106.
1. In the U.S., 25 percent, or 6.6 billion tons (6 billion metric tons) of total, annual carbon-dioxide production is workplace related: 18 percent from buildings and 7 percent from commuting. –U.S. Energy Information Administration, Washington, D.C., and U.S. Department of Transportation, Washington
2. Commuting accounts for 28 percent of a typical U.S. workplace’s carbon footprint. –U.S. Department of Energy, Washington, D.C., and U.S. Department of Transportation, Washington