The workplace of the future needs to provide flexibility and wellness in order to drive innovation, said a design expert giving a keynote at the 2018 ULI Japan Fall Conference in Tokyo.
Keynote speaker Robert Mankin, partner in charge of workplace design at architects NBBJ,said the prime aim for office space in the past was that it should enhance productivity. Now, however, “productivity is no longer the only benchmark. In fact, innovation is now the main benchmark.” All companies, not just those in the technology sector, need innovation to thrive in a time of rapid change, he argued.
Mankin noted that no single iteration of the office had been entirely successful. “In the late 1990s and in the first decade of this century, we got rid of all the cubicles and we went to an open-plan office environment. The thinking was that we’ll be able to see each other, so we’ll talk more, and we’ll collaborate more. Not necessarily; it ends up being too disruptive for many people, and so productivity suffers.”
The key single element that today’s office needs to offer is choice, he said. Attracting and retaining the best staff is crucial, especially in a market such as Japan, where there is an undersupply of labor. A lot of people talk about the merits of open office, or the merits of a closed office, but the reality is you can’t have one or the other exclusively, because it won’t satisfy how everyone in your organization wants to work.
Also, individuals want to work in different places depending on the task they’re doing, and also depending on the day. So, one day they may need heads-down private space, the next day they may need a space where they can collaborate with two or three colleagues, another day they have to have a meeting, so they need a conference room.
Office space also increasingly needs to cater to millennial or generation Z workers, who represent only 9 percent of the workforce now, but who are set to represent 30 percent of it by 2030. “This is the first generation that has grown up with a cellphone, and the way they interact with each other, the way they interact with employers, the way that they work in a group setting is completely different than previous generations,” said Mankin.
“They are looking for an environment that is about evolution. How can we continuously learn? How can we actually be more connected in a more meaningful way to the places where we work?”
Millennial workers also prefer urban workplaces, rather than suburban office campuses, Mankin said, which was why firms such as Amazon are now building offices in city centers. Lack of space in those centers means that occupiers need to think differently about their workspace. “When one thinks about a corporate campus, or a university campus, one thinks about something that’s spread out of a large area. However, space is limited in this city and across Asia. We have to start thinking about our campuses as vertical campuses.”
Mankin used the example of Tencent’s new headquarters in Shenzhen as an example of a vertical campus. The 288,000-square-meter (3.1 million sq ft) building consists of two glass-and-aluminum towers, of 55 and 39 stories, which are linked in three places by multifloor bridges, which house shared amenities such as a gym and running track, a cultural center, and a library. Around 40 percent of the space is shared amenities and Mankin said that Tencent had originally wanted this all to be at podium level, but NBBJ persuaded the firm to spread it out in the towers so that employees would move through more of the space.
“We wanted to provide people different routes and different ways to get to their workplace; or to use the links in different ways. The idea here is that you will take a different route to work one day, you might see a different group of employees, and you might have a different chance encounter, and a different interaction.”
NBBJ has drawn on neuroscience to discover what types of office environments will generate creativity and make for happier, more productive staff, Mankin said. “Physical space, our exposure to light, our exposure to sound, our movement through space, exercise, different stimulations—they can actually impact our sense of well-being, our sense of calmness, our stress level. They can also impact our cognitive ability, our ability to remember things, our ability to think more broadly. There is actually confirmed research to support all of this.
“For example, research shows taller ceilings enable people to think in a calmer way, and to actually think more freely, rather than if they are in a more enclosed space. Exposure to vistas—either outside or a dramatic view within the building—can also provide a very calming, reassuring effect.”
He added: “Most importantly, through our research, we’ve discovered that space can reduce stress. So, as life has become more stressful and people have to deal with a rapid flow of information, 60 percent of lost workdays each year can be attributed to stress. A lot of illness is stress related. So, if our buildings can reduce stress, there are significant savings and the ability to better leverage our real estate assets.”
Mankin concluded by declaring that the workplace cannot be thought of in isolation, but must be thought of in the context of the city, which also needs to provide beauty, places of inspiration, and places of respite.