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"The answer is not to build a better cubicle"
The nature of work is undergoing a fundamental change - from efficient, process-oriented tasks to effective work that is based on knowledge, creativity, and communication. Instead of a factory, the office that supports effective work will resemble a village with a mix of private space for creating and concentrating, a wide variety of common meeting places for communication, and sidewalks - real or virtual - that enable easy interaction and spontaneous communication. It might be called the "Village of Effective Work."
Many disciplines are involved in designing, building, and maintaining this village. These include architects and interior designers; office furniture manufacturers and furniture dealers; and information technology specialists and facility managers. Their task is to integrate business processes, technology, workspaces, and people. But in order for this integration to happen, barriers related to space, furniture, and technology must be overcome.
The Changing Nature of Work
Before examining the barriers to change, it is instructive to explore how people work and the forces that are driving change. One way to classify knowledge workers is by the type of work they do. These classifications are general in scope and are not mutually exclusive; workers may regularly perform two or even three types of work:
Managers want employees to spend less time on process and more time concentrating, creating, and communicating. As a result, there is a relentless drive to reduce process through the application of technology. Managers also want effectiveness instead of simple efficiency. While both efficiency and effectiveness are important, many managers now say effectiveness comes first.
Today there is a greater emphasis on teams and groups and a lesser emphasis on individuals. Fifty-eight percent of workers in one survey said their work requires a high degree of interaction with teams and groups. Further, this collaboration must be able to take place anywhere. Because work does not take place in just one setting, but rather in multiple locations in and out of the traditional workspace, business must move away from the idea of "one butt, one chair" to the concept of "one butt, many chairs."
Barriers to Progress
Workspaces Although surveys by BOMA and others show the percentage of space devoted to individual offices to be shrinking and team space to be increasing, there are still significant design and technological barriers to creating villages of effective work. The majority of knowledge workers are not well served by conventional office layouts. Architects and interior designers continue to struggle to find a balance between satisfying the need for individual concentration and supporting the need for group collaboration. Conventional conference rooms and other non-personal workspaces often do not provide the flexibility necessary for teams to function at optimal levels.
Office Furniture Conventional office furniture is another obstacle. The so-called universal plan with cubicles arrayed in "six-packs" along a spine wall was developed to manage churn, as facility managers realized that it is easier to move people than furniture. A fixed spine wall works well only when the workplace is a "production line." But business is moving away from the process-oriented functions, so the answer is not to build a better cubicle. Office designers often feel constrained in their creativity by what furniture manufacturers can provide. Right now their chief complaint is that creativity is limited by colors, finishes, and options that are available. Soon they will be concerned with larger issues as design and technology converge.
Technology In addition to space and furniture design, technology itself can be a barrier to effective work. In general, technology has been designed around individuals and not teams. Effective communication requires the ability to capture, store, and evaluate information - wherever and whenever it is needed. But the technology infrastructure in many workplaces has constrained teams by restricting access in the very areas that are most conducive to teamwork. Cabling and wiring need to be modular, expandable, and relocatable.
Designing the Village of Effective Work
In order for truly effective work to take place, architecture, furniture, and technology must converge and allow communication and collaboration to occur everywhere. Although they play an important role in today's work environment, architecture and furniture are strictly physical mediums that allow work to be accomplished. The real focus needs to be technology, because it enables individuals and teams to communicate and collaborate more effectively than ever before. Technology makes possible "plug and play" accessibility to the information needed for an organization to create, evolve, and grow. The integration of technology into architecture and furniture is the key to success in creating the Village of Effective Work.
This convergence of architecture, furniture, and technology requires a far greater degree of involvement by all parties than is typical today:
Implications in the Workplace
The convergence of architecture, furniture, and technology has the potential to be the catalyst for significant changes in the workplace. The Village of Effective Work will result in a better balance between the needs of individuals and teams. Workspaces will become less generic and better suited to specific tasks. There will be more areas for shared work and equipment. The convergence will also support a broader range of unpredictable work patterns, including alternative work scenarios.
Going forward, much of the impetus for new products and system enhancements will be driven by the need to effectively manage increasingly complex technology. To meet changing business needs and encourage effective work, architecture, furniture, and technology are converging, but the process must accelerate in order to transform the "office as a factory" into the Village of Effective Work.
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