Office as an App (OA) is an exploration of the potential to reverse the conventions of supply and demand in the design and delivery of real estate where what we call work is done. It is also an exploration of an emerging context in which the corporation’s real estate and the corporate real estate function have lost relevance, and therefore value, through its own active and passive actions. It is, in the end, an exploration of the implications of social media, the trend in dumping corporate real estate, the rise of work swarms, learning from Nonaka, and the transfer of value from centralized and controlling organizations to agile and networked clusters of individuals. The “app,” as an expression of a “programmed” tool cleverly designed to deliver customized experience and value to its user well beyond its cost, seems like a good device to frame this concept of transformation.
I am very interested in developing a new “killer app.”
Over the past several years, the “content” of data informing the planning and design of the workplace progressively increased, yet the value of the resulting corporate real estate to the people who worked there dramatically plummeted. It seems that just as place-makers’ apparent interest in the user was increasing, the users’ interest in the places-made declined.
Now, hordes of “knowledge workers,” frustrated with corporate “mobility” programs that spun them out into the stunningly unsatisfying Starbucks-branded “third places” of the world, roam the planet seeking places and spaces to support the kind of work they want to do to generate a new economy and new prosperity in the world.
Even as their demand for new kinds of working spaces increases urgently, nowhere, it appears, is anyone stepping up to provide a solution for them. This is because the physical infrastructure of the workplaces of the past half century was shaped by a “big capital” business model that generated a huge oversupply of now irrelevant real estate led by professions who have no service application of value to emerging organizational models and new ways of working.
My new AppOffice will radically invert the currently stagnated supply and demand system, act as a catalyst for the design and delivery of new types of workplace, and reshape city planning and development, enabling a new global real estate economy based on the premise that the leading organizations of the future will be the ones who “own” the experiences of working.
In recent years, there have been a number of developments that had the potential to change the way that designers responded to workplace needs and trends.
There was, of course, the often cited evolution of technology that made equipment progressively lighter, eventually more mobile, and, with corresponding evolution in communications technologies, eventually raised questions as to whether place had meaning any longer. The impact on workplace policy, practice, program and design was the rise of mobility programs and their apparent overnight acceptance as the preferred way to work after initial resistance based on the older management value of attendance.
Additionally interesting was the growth of the involvement of the users or occupiers of space in the process of programming. Those who designed, planned and provided space were interested in how the user of the space actually used it. The information gathered in these processes of direct engagement, however, were frequently discounted (“wish lists”) or ultimately generalized to such an extent as to universalize the workplace and remove individual imprints.
Further evolution of this trend was brought by insights from other professions like ethnography, and the utilization of more sophisticated technology borrowed from security, each providing a richer an more nuanced view of how space was actually used. Ethnography provided certain tools and disciplines like direct observation to illuminate things not otherwise in the direct expression of those who used the space. Presence technologies, registering who was in a space, for how long and engaged in what activity, provided further information that could be read either to provide data on what kinds of spaces actually worked, or to prove a growing tendency to discount the value of corporate space.
The latter turned out to be the dominant insight. Corporations, more interested in reducing the costs of operations in the great economic collapse, saw the fact that staff were not using the space they had provided them, now wanted to dump that space as quickly as possible.
Ironically, as greater information and insight was being gained about how people used space and how space affected their performance, and as the potential for real innovation in workplace design was at the threshold, the power for spatial planning and decision making was transferred from the occupiers and users of space, and from corporate facilities professionals to the finance suite and the corporate real estate function.
While one segment of the workplace domain was finding a way to provision it more effectively, another segment was challenging its very existence. The change was also occurring so rapidly that those in the middle, snagged by jargon, fell in behind the trend and facilitated the rollover through “alternative work strategies” into “mobility” programs and out the door.
From shift to drift.
Instead of “shift” taking place, “drift” was taking over.
“Shift” seemed to be a value developing at the beginning of the century that accepted that new ways of working were at hand and that design needed to be responsive to this change. “Drift” occurs, however, when the policies put in place fail to keep up with the change that generated them and their implementation falls short of or even subverts their intentions.
That is, while the time was ripe for challenging the conventions of workplace planning and design, the philosophies, policies and practices that could enable change drifted from critical relevance into destructive subversion. Corporate management having become comfortable with counting something else rather than heads in cubicles became concerned about the creative output of their organizations. Recognizing the power of workplace socialization, they then tried to draw workers back into the organization to mingle with each other. The spaces they provided, “touchdown” workstations, were in many cases merely clusters of the same dreary workstations their staff had come to learn to hate once they got into the mobile outside world. Others tried cafes ala the Starbucks that everybody was touting as the highly valuable “third place” but these were stunted by the fact that working at the in-house cafe was not “work” in the same way that mobility enabled freely collaborative “work” at Starbucks.
Those left out in the cold were the knowledge workers who we all had come to believe needed nothing more than a laptop and a cell phone. These knowledge workers, however, are people who want to do good things in the world, and who want to achieve and feel the pleasure of recognition for their achievements. They are people motivated, by themselves or their companies, around a sense of purpose and an opportunity to do things differently. They are people who saw the collapse of the economy that supported them by the failure of artificial values and who seek now to embed authenticity in their work.
These knowledge workers, with the generational and technological capabilities they had gained, began to understand the power and potential in the networks they were forming. Conventional forms of working were no longer effective for them, and the places and spaces that had supported the conventions of work were also no longer relevant to them.
Now, as this form of working accelerates, neither a return to yesterday’s real estate nor the misfit of Starbuck’s satisfies. A new model of working places and spaces is needed.