Design and technology for collaboration

Professionals across the globe wake up every morning and communicate to potentially 10 people before speaking one word. Between texts, e-mails, blogs and social networking sites, deadlines are met, plans are made and meetings are held.

Mobile technology provides untethered freedom. So why do millions of people still partake in the dreaded rush-hour commute to work?

“The main reason people go to the corporate office is to be with other people,” says James Ware, executive producer of The Work Design Collaborative LLC, based in Prescott, Ariz. “There is a tremendous power in face-to-face meetings. Same-time, same-place can spark a powerful source of collaborative innovation and meaning for people.”

This need for personal connection is at the core of a changing office design, in which workspaces are as chat-friendly as they are tech-friendly. The limited collaborative working areas of today will evolve into flexible office environments of tomorrow. And, in the next five years, voice and videoconferencing technology will revolutionize telecommunication to become true telepresence.

Click above to view an audio slide show by National Office Furniture about conference room trends. (01:05)

“A conference room is no longer thought of as just a meeting space within a building, but as a virtual meeting space in a limitless universe,” says Marvin Hecker, director of audio-visual design at JanCom Technologies, Inc., in Austin, Texas. “The level of technology available today can create a telepresence, where the visual and sound during a teleconference is presented in such a natural way that it is as if all participants are sitting in the same room.”

The technology to create telepresence has yet to replace face-to-face contact, but, like most technological investments, it provides companies with greater expectations of productivity, efficiency and reduced costs. Less time and money spent traveling to in-person meetings can only be effective if the technology can preserve the power found in human interaction.

Companies also are finding increased productivity and cost savings by ending the decades-long era of the private office. Communal office areas accommodate more workers in less space, and often cultivate ideas and produce results at a faster pace than one person could do on his or her own.

“The lone-genius approach to innovation is neither productive enough nor reliable enough to build a corporation around,” says Jeff Hollander, senior associate with Gensler in San Diego. “Corporations rely on groups of people and an inquisitive culture to produce organized research and continuous innovation.”

Closing the door on private offices

Decreasing private workspace can save money for an employer, but also can be very attractive to the employee, says Ware. Ware and his colleagues see the workplace evolving to a more community-based, flexible work environment where employees can and do work everywhere.

The flexible work environment is made up of formal and informal working areas. After holding several meetings, instead of returning to private office space on a different floor or across a building, workers can go to a nearby touchdown space to plug in, check e-mails, make phone calls and print documents.

This office design is ideal for companies with telecommuters and mobile sales forces because it reduces personal office space that sits empty the majority of the week. But because a community-inspired office caters to the use of portable technology, Ware sees this trend emerging across all knowledge-based industries in the next three to five years.

Jennifer Barnes, vice president of RTKO Associates in Baltimore, agrees with reduced square footage of personal space, but says there should be options for different levels of collaboration. Barnes’ experience shows that the largest percentage of time spent collaborating is one-on-one at an individual’s desk.

“People still want their home base — a space that is theirs,” Barnes says. “It goes back to the fallacy of the paperless office. We can comfortably say that it did not happen and that it is not going to happen in our lifetime. The notion led to concepts of more communal storage, which resulted in a hybrid of the paper-filled and the paperless office. We will experience a similar hybrid in the transition from all personal to all shared space.”

All-in-one solution

Some companies are finding that more underutilized space exists in conference rooms. Most workers are familiar with their company’s formal conference room — mainly because it is off-limits, reserved only for entertaining existing clients and the most important prospects.

As the office environment becomes more open and flexible, companies are realizing that the technological investments made in this prime real estate can benefit internal brainstorming and presentations. Companies are finding success in overhauling the formal conference room to be an ideal setting for a variety of meeting types.

The term “multi-purpose room” can take on a whole new meaning when companies consider modular furniture and media storage that is ideal for both a videoconference in the morning and a small group presentation in the afternoon.

While a large rectangular table makes a traditional, formal statement, a matte-finish V- or U-shaped table is more conducive for videoconferencing and telepresence because every attendee can be seen and heard clearly by those on the other side of the camera.

The advent of the flat-panel television in conference rooms is one contributor to the multi-purpose possibilities, says Mary Leah Siegel, product line manager of casegoods for National Office Furniture in Jasper, Ind. Flat-panel televisions are increasingly used in place of a projector for presentations, trainings and webinar meetings, and are an ideal medium for videoconferencing.

With various options for power sources, in-table network access, media storage and cable management, a conference room’s configuration is no longer dependent on how the space was originally designed.

New kids in town

Although technology has drastically changed the way people work compared with the last few decades, members of the new generations in the workforce, who were practically born using the latest gadgets, also have a hand in molding the workplace of the future.

“With technology on the rise and a series of mounting global concerns, there is a huge demand for creative problem-solving individuals. We need to cater to these personalities today,” says Kelly Ferm, owner of Ferm Design Concepts in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. “In their minds, formalities are dated and simplicity is embraced.”

Ware of The Work Design Collaborative says Generation Y and the Millennials expect mobile technology in the workplace and are used to multi-tasking while remaining efficient. This development has caused a more casual look in the workplace and an emphasis on human interaction and collaboration. The result is an office that is comfortable, calming and conducive to both social and intimate workspaces.

“Our clients are looking for unique designs and unusual materials to inspire their teams,” says Hollander of Gensler. “Often, workspace designs take cues from hospitality and residential environments where lighting, colors, textures and forms are more expressive than typical offices.”

The next-generation workforce will be made up of even more creative, problem-solving individuals who seek work environments that stimulate innovation. But companies must keep in mind that the overall image of the workplace should be an extension of the company’s brand and culture and adequate for the function, Ferm says.

“Stimulating a balance of right and left brain, and offering culture and individuality in the workspace will produce a sea of thinkers,” Ferm says. “Promoting an environment of wellness and belonging not only shapes a long-term relationship with staff, but complements a company’s image and its longevity.”