At ULI’s Spring Meeting in Houston, AECOM global practice lead Andrew Laing traced the evolution of white-collar work spaces over more than a century in patterns driven primarily by technology.

“Technology is changing how we think about space,” said Laing. “We need to redesign space for work rather than for offices. We should think of this as a ‘workscape’: a collaborative in which spaces and buildings are increasingly shared, and space is more often provided as a service.”

The office of today can be traced to Frederick Winslow Taylor, whose 1911 monograph, The Principles of Scientific Management, influenced time and motion studies, which were then used by companies to design offices for optimum efficiency and productivity. An example is the 1904 Larkin Building in New York City, which— like a latter-day Amazon—was designed around the efficient processing of catalog orders.

Taylorist office designs led to a consistent typology of building to fulfill productivity goals, Laing stated. Before air-conditioning, these buildings had central atriums or courtyards; by the 1970s, central air systems enabled gigantic floor plates surrounding a central core, like the Sears Tower in Chicago.

“Taylorist office buildings began to reshape the industrial city,” explained Laing. “There was planned functional segregation of work and living in both time and space, later supported by zoning, defining the twentieth-century office and city.”

By the 1960s, some space planners and designers began to depart from Taylorist regimentation. Herman Miller launched a mobile, flexible furniture system. Some European organizations designed their own office space with open landscape plans to facilitate the flow of information and ideas—a forerunner of the “social democratic” model of offices as home-like communities.

But the introduction of desktop computers in the 1980s, while boosting individual worker productivity, tethered workers to their desks. “All those ideas of flexibility disappeared, and we became sub-optimized to the ‘cube farm,’ which was a step backwards,” Laing explained.

Fast-forward to today, however, and technology has severed the desktop umbilical cord, allowing the social democratic model of office design to evolve to the networked workscape. “Technology is redefining the time and space of work, allowing new ways of collaborating,” Laing told attendees. “Today we are mobile, but we have not yet fully designed our work environments to recognize this. Work can now escape from the office and will be happening in a new variety of types of buildings. Working places will be provided in new ways with new kinds of players, changing who is providing the work space, how is it provided, and how is it consumed.”

For example, in one tech firm, a group of app developers facing a tight deadline were allowed to rent a house together during the life of their project. Collaborating closely away from the normal office routine, they successfully completed their project much faster than anyone had anticipated. The organization decided to replicate the success of the “app house” within its evolving office environment.

“The new demands of knowledge workers will reach well beyond the scale of the office building to the much wider setting of the city and suburb,” Laing said. “We used to say that the office is the city, but now are saying that the city is the office.” New urban workscapes are appearing along three different models, according to Laing:

  • Co-working spaces, where individuals come to work and collaborate
  • Open houses, in which organizations open their doors to others in addition to their own employees
  • Cohabitation, in which groups of organizations share an environment.

Six key concepts, in Laing’s view, define the networked workscape:

  • It has density. Physical closeness boosts virtual communication; in one study, engineers working closely together finished assignments 32 percent faster than those working in different places. It’s not about saving space, Laing pointed out, but about accelerating productivity.
  • It allows for serendipity. The best workspaces are designed to maximize the possibilities of chance encounters, which can lead to valuable interactions. Facebook’s new building, noted Laing, is basically a huge space in which people can easily bump into each other.
  • It’s networked. Successful networked workspaces are diverse, permeable, open-ended, 24-hour, interactive, nonlinear, and surprising. To achieve this type of environment, architects are deliberately not designing around efficiency.
  • It’s sentient. Cities, organizations, and individuals now have the technological capacity to sense, record, process, and transmit information in a way that changes how we use space. For example, GPS navigation on every smartphone enables individuals to find their way around what might otherwise be complicated environments.
  • It allows for sharing. The expansion of the “sharing economy” will change the way space is provided and consumed. The same smartphone that allows individuals to obtain Uber rides will allow them to obtain space on demand—as a service—bypassing the traditional roles of landlord and developer.
  • It enhances the workers’ experience. Laing concluded his presentation by asking: “Why are we not planning for the ultimate human level of comfort, which is happiness? The purpose of a workscape is to provide a creative environment in which knowledge workers can thrive, do productive work, and be happy.”