Seeing as it’s a prime destination for tech companies leaving Silicon Valley and a hotbed for new models of real estate, Austin offered the perfect backdrop for Tradeline’s Space Strategies 2022 Conference this past October. The conference focused on the future of space planning in a newly hybridized workplace, incorporating lessons from the “private sector, academic, and government work environments.” Over the course of the two days, speakers tackled a wide range of topics, from how companies can break their ongoing reliance on leased space to the fulfilling of carbon neutrality commitments.
Among those speaking, Phil Kirschner, Associate Partner at McKinsey & Company, focused on “virtual-first” work environments that thoughtfully integrate physical workspaces into their culture. He started by explaining that shared experience and culture can materialize in a virtual context just as well as they might in a shared physical office. In either setting, he explained, policies, practices and designs must be carefully planned to cultivate a shared history that imparts a sense of trust and understanding amongst a team or organization. Using his own government and private sector clients as examples of intelligent design, Kirschner explained how new collaboration models and workplace configuration benchmarks facilitate this process.
PLASTARC’s work was well-situated in this broader discourse. Speaking on both days of the two-day conference, PLASTARC founder Melissa Marsh’s presentation focused on how changes to the workplace landscape are shifting workforces’ collective expectations, and how employers can conduct, analyze, and deploy research in order to meet those expectations. The traditional, now antiquated office, which used desks as the foundation of space planning, were designed for occupancy levels between 30-60%. By many accounts, these offices did a mediocre job at meeting employees’ needs and maximizing use of space. Today, a newly hybridized workplace has to accommodate an even higher variability of occupancy – between 20 and 80% on any given week. Through solutions rooted equally in space, technology, and policy, Marsh contends that the future workplace can better empower the organizations it’s designed to serve.
In order to do this, though, Marsh proposes a paradigm shift, from metrics that are centered around occupancy and maximal utilization of space, to metrics that are more holistically rooted in the needs and objectives of individual workers. By using a robust research program to determine what functions the physical office provides to its occupants, instead of relying on outdated or misguided assumptions, organizations can tailor their portfolios and policies so that they actually fulfill those functions. On most days, this calls for a radical reduction in the office’s physical footprint; PLASTARC estimates that the square footage of office space needed per worker has already reduced by a factor of 10 since 2008, from 250 sq. ft. / worker to 25 sq. ft. / worker. There are, however, days when organizations will need far more space for social events, activities, and gatherings. Opening spaces up to their surrounding communities and hosting external events present potential solutions to this variability of usage.
“You might say people are the new amenity,” Marsh explains. When asked what drives them to work on-site, 48% of respondents to a particular client survey said that in-person meetings bring them into the office, while 27% said that social time with colleagues brought them in. Even with this in mind, though, there is still a contingent of workers who rely on the office to achieve less social, more concentrative work that requires some degree of isolation. The workplace of the future, then, must be dynamic enough to provide concentrative and/or collaborative environments according to the varying needs of each day’s on-site workforce. “So we know we’re leaving this one-to-one person-to-desk model,” Marsh observes, “but where are we going?”
Using one of PLASTARC’s clients from the tech sector as a model, Marsh emphasizes that many organizations should look to modify their physical assets in order to meet the demands of a hybridized, increasingly distributed workforce. By shifting their focus from traditional offices and co-working spaces to collaboration and spark centers, Mozilla has established a property portfolio that can meet the fluctuating demand for physical space. Spark centers, in particular, give up the model of daily or hourly desk reservations in favor of multi-functional spaces, or “zones,” that can be reserved by teams for weeks at a time.
Many of these spaces will exist in a pop-up capacity: “Instead of five-year or 10-year leases, [companies will look for] one-year or six-month leases based on an upcoming product launch.” Portfolio expansions used to happen in response to the kind of revenue increase that came from a product’s successful launch – this new, “as-needed” model reverses that relationship. Referring to the General Services Administration (GSA), which is responsible for housing all federal agencies, as another example, Marsh explained that each organization demands a unique distribution of “fixed, fluid, and flex spaces.” To confidently determine what that distribution should be, companies must carefully design and deploy pilot programs that use a scientific process to test certain assumptions. Such pilot programs can give way to new approaches to space, policy, programming, and technology.
Speaking on a conference wrap-up panel, Kelly Bacon, whose work at AECOM focuses on cognitive ergonomics for neurodiverse workforces, emphasized that these changes were accelerated and accentuated by Covid, but they didn’t originate with the epidemic. She highlighted this point at the conference’s wrap-up panel: “Long before Covid, people were prioritizing flexibility in their work schedule and location at least as high as salary,” she said. And this was one of the central theses of the entire Conference – as with workplace hybridization, a renewed commitment to the needs of individual workers is not a temporary or contextual solution to problems that only exist today. After all, each organization is its own community, and for any community to thrive, the needs of its constituents must first be identified and met. At Space Strategies 2022, the modern workplace was re-framed to acknowledge this essential human truth, and to find ways to put it into action.