For the past couple of years, there has been hopeful anticipation in the real estate and architecture professions that improvement in the economy will yield new jobs and that those jobs will, as they have traditionally, drive real estate demand. As in this report from Architect magazine, there is very little in the hope, anticipation, analysis and discussion that reflects the big shift that was taking place before the Great Recession began and that, I expect, will only accelerate now that the economy appears to be improving.
The state of the art in workplace design in the last decade has reflected a focus on “performance” as a key goal or metric. The definition of the term varied greatly depending on context and time. I recall that it arose first in the domains of human resources as a reflection on an imperative to enhance the context of work to engage employees and enhance their performance as “knowledge workers.” In a relatively short time, the term was used to reflect the imperative to capture the output of the “high performance” workforce, becoming, in other words, a new term for the conventional preoccupation with metrics for productivity.
The term was taken up in the real estate domain to then reflect the financial performance of a real estate portfolio or bundle of leases. In this context, performance was about maximizing the occupancy of a property, or reducing the area per person dedicated to the places where people worked.
This led then to a progressive redefinition of the workplace, the development of workplace performance indexes driving comparative space standards with diminishing returns and then, through advances in technology and the capture of generational social trends, into “mobility” programs through which a new standard of “performance” emerged: butts per seat.
In the meantime, significant other changes influencing the world of work were taking place. The flexibilities and freedoms of mobile technology, an increasingly networked workforce, the ability to focus on purpose rather than production, and the rise of the power of small and agile organizations began to look less like an outlying cultural change and began move with momentum into mainstream consideration. In other places, there has been considerable conversation around the concept of a “jobless recovery” or at least an economy without the usual correlation with jobs and space.
This matters to me because I believe that the anxiety over the past two years and the urgency to deliver the evidence of recovery seems to be overriding and suppressing the opportunity to think about work in different ways. I believe we have an opportunity to extend the Big Shift, and consider a move from conventional metrics of performance to new attributes (I hesitate to say, metrics) of potential. I think this is a matter both of significantly reduced and realigned demand, and also of new perceptions and definitions of quality.
In this shift, “Class A Office,” which defines a financial equation, will mislead those who are considering a new workspace and perpetuate a form that has little relevance to the new or emerging ways of working. More critically, “Class A Office” represents a way of thinking that raises place over purpose. The dominance of the term in conventional parlance makes the object a goal and diverts attention from the attributes of a new economy that is focused on purpose.
I’ll return to this subject in some upcoming posts. I will propose that new ways of working require new ways of thinking about space, that there are great benefits in reconsidering people before place, and that new metrics for the emerging workforce will be shaped around the experience of working which evokes new approaches to the portfolio of places where it occurs.