introduction

The primary driver of workplace flexibility is future-proofing. Anticipating market pressures for adaptability, both now and into the future, real estate professionals seek buildings that can be modified to suit changing modes and new technologies. The pace of change in both puts a fine point on the risk of real estate investment at a time when the future of work is uncertain. 

The typical assumption when addressing flexibility in workplace design is that the architecture itself should be transformable— adjustable walls, reconfigurable floors, adaptable workspaces, and the like. However, these applications can be cumbersome in practice and are only part of the solution. While important, a focus on the physical aspect of flexibility misses the opportunity to address broader workforce expectations of flexibility that transcend one’s immediate workspace to encompass a way of being and moving through work and life. 

Flexibility thus remains a topic of discourse in workplace design and might be reconsidered more wholistically in order to satisfy the demand for it. From program to urban design to the construct of work itself, flexibility can be enacted at different scales to support employee health and wellbeing, productivity, and the bottom line. 

Two of the research topics undertaken by students in the Situated Work and Public Life studio—Workplace Wellbeing and the Multigenerational Workplace—illuminate the different scales of flexibility expected by today’s workforce. The workplace wellbeing projects investigated comfort, fitness, circadian rhythms, and access to the outdoors. The research into multigenerational workplace experiences looked at the impacts of changing demographics (Baby Boomers continuing to work past retirement age side by side with Millennials) on the workplace. The emergent expectations include: 

TIME: Flexibility in schedule
PLACE: Flexibility in workplace
CONSTRUCT: Flexibility in the construct of work

These three often overlapping aspects of flexibility—time, place and construct—beg a new understanding of the workplace as a platform that supports a diverse workforce of healthy and productive people. While some of the students’ projects are intended to provoke (e.g. “Gym as Workplace”), the ideas, taken as a whole, begin to construct a new understanding of work and workplace that situates the human body and mind as central to the whole value proposition. 

Today’s most competitive companies know that their people are their biggest asset— creative ideas and innovation come from their minds, after all—and the most important thing a business can do to be successful is to take care of its people. Future-proofing therefore becomes about offering a new kind of workplace that gives people the flexibility they need and want across generational perspectives.

Provocations

It’s interesting and perhaps telling that in this day and age, shaped in so many ways by the virtual, that we’re experiencing what feels like an awakening to what one might consider fundamentally obvious: that the physical body and mind should be the foundation and driver of all workplace planning and design—productivity, innovation, the bottom line will follow. We’ve come full circle from the labor-intensive economies of the past; the body is back in the workplace equation, but its value has taken on new meaning. The body (and mind) are to be protected, nurtured, and inspired. 

The desire for flexibility in choice, schedule and the construct of work points to a more human-centered understanding of what the workplace can and should be. Future-proofing shifts in focus from how a building’s use might change to what people across generations need to be most inspired and productive in their work. Flexibility thus takes form in program affinities both inside and outside the office that allow for work and life to integrate more seamlessly. 

 

1. Should minimum amounts of outdoor time and physical activity be baked into the workplace design and operational equation? 

2. How critical is the role of sleep to our understanding of workplace wellbeing? 

3. Do physical activity, fitness, and mental health fall within the purview of corporate responsibility? Where’s the line between support and paternalism? 

4. How would a workplace rooted in physicality impact identity politics? 

5. How flexible should the construct of work be? 

6. What does an inclusive workplace look like? 

7. How do differing needs for resources to support schedule flexibility in the multigenerational workplace inform the planning and design of program adjacencies in different workplace settings? Basically, who needs access to what - and when? 

8. How much flexibility is permissible/possible? Does flexibility need to be determined on a workplace by workplace basis?