What will the future workplace look like?

January 19, 2011: 1:19 PM ET

Businesses can capitalize on the evolving nature of the office by striking a balance that combines virtual and physical workspace.

By Andrew Laing, contributor

A "work den" at Cisco's McCarthy Ranch campus in Milipitas, Calif.

Unless you have been on vacation for the past few years, you are probably aware that the workplace as we know it is rapidly changing. The 9-to-5 grind spent in an "official" office is giving way to the virtual work environment; the at-my-desk-by-8:59 is becoming the on-my-Blackberry 24/7, and the Starbucks coffee break has become the Starbucks "home" office.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Businesses can capitalize on the evolving nature of the office by striking a balance that combines virtual and physical work and space. This could ultimately increase productivity and lower costs without sacrificing company culture or individual motivation.

Information technology has turned the assumptions of where work happens and the role of buildings inside out. Innovative corporate leaders have already recognized that technology allows their employees to be mobile, to work with colleagues remotely and across time zones, and to get work done in a variety of settings both inside and outside of the traditional office. These businesses have saved money, increased work flexibility, and made the best use of their real estate. And these new flexible workplaces are also providing gains in worker productivity.

Today, companies are increasingly focusing on the predicament of how to help employees concentrate and get work done -- which is traditionally thought to require an enclosed office space -- while also allowing for the significant benefits of open and flexible office environments, including creativity, knowledge, teamwork and coordination. We know that open environments can inhibit work; we also know that they can promote interaction and knowledge sharing.

So what is the solution? Enter the hybrid workplace.

Hybrid environments provide a mix of enclosed and open work spaces that are available for users to occupy on an as-needed basis.

The mobility we now have allows individuals to choose how and where they work best. A flexible work environment can balance the needs for individual work with the need for interaction. The advent of untethered technology and mobile ways of using space has all but eliminated the challenge of deciding between openness versus enclosure when designing a workplace.

Hybrid work spaces offer both open and closed environments that can be useful in a variety of ways. In a hybrid workplace, employees have the option of working individually in a quiet space or working with their colleagues in open, collaborative team areas or rooms. Furthermore, the hybrid workplace can take advantage of technology to combine face-to-face and virtual collaboration -- both within the office and remotely.

Cisco's (CSCO) McCarthy Ranch campus in Milpitas, Calif. has gone the way of the hybrid workplace. Hundreds of mobile workers who use the campus have access to eight different kinds of unassigned work spaces: workstations, touchdown spaces, privacy rooms, focus booths, open project spaces, team rooms, lounges and dens. The spaces support many different kinds of virtual collaboration using IP technology and audio and video conferencing.

And Cisco is far from alone. As reported in the New York Times today, companies like Intel (INTC) and Deloitte are using similar strategies to make the office space they have more flexible.

What is on the horizon for the workplace? It's fair to expect the following:

  • Continuous change in the way workers collaborate brought on by new technology
  • New cultural norms and protocols for virtual working
  • More opportunities to plan for shared work spaces with third party organizations, like incubators and coop workspace providers
  • New demands for cities and city governments to create space to support new ways of working

All of these changes will present challenges to the way in which workplaces are designed and built by developers, architects, landlords and suppliers of all kinds.

The assumption that virtual communication and remote work environments will entirely replace the need to physically gather people together is flawed. The richness of face-to-face communication allows for fast paced and ad hoc interactions, which help to speed up decision making and information flow in ways that have not yet been fully matched by purely virtual work environments.

At the same time, traditional work environments are becoming increasingly unproductive and will soon be outmoded among the leading corporations, if they aren't already. The hybrid workplace is the future and will be essential for businesses looking to stay ahead.

Andrew Laing is managing director at DEGW North America, a strategic business consultancy that helps clients improve workplaces.

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