Transformable Spaces: Office Design for the Sharing Economy
We’re saying goodbye to the “bigger is better” excesses of traditional American life and ushering in the era of the sharing and experience economies. In this new age of ultimate reusability, there’s no benefit to segregating space by use, and everything to gain by integrating it to the fullest extent possible.
Dedicated office space allotment per worker in 2017 will likely average 151 square feet—a drop from the averages of 175 in 2013 and 236 in 2010.1 Within the next five years, that number is predicted to drop to below 100.2 The drivers for this downsizing trend include the appeal of saving money on real estate, new technology that requires less space and a shift toward agile working practices.3
Outside the office, too, we see the repurposing of space—and the ability of technology to support it—all over the sharing economy: residential occupants transform their extra bedroom into lodging for travelers with Airbnb; car owners turn their workaday wheels into taxis for hire with Uber. The profitability inherent in repurposable spaces can be amplified exponentially with the right technology—and the benefits can far surpass financial gain.
As social technologies become more ingrained in daily life, people become more aware of helpful new products and services. As they become used to the agency and level of control that increasing tech enablement provides, they build increasingly high user experience expectations across the board—from their restaurant-rating app to their office space. Occupants now expect that their workplaces will be flexible, high-performance, customizable and technology-integrated.4
Conover Plinth Sectional, Marble Block Coffee Table, Charlie Stacking Stool
The seeds for another motivator of transformable space were planted almost a decade ago, before much of today’s social media existed. The 2008 recession gave many workers an unintended taste of a variety of working environments: whether they were self-employed, unemployed, or back in school, the number of people working (or job hunting, or doing homework) in cafés, college campuses, public libraries and their own living rooms experienced a spike.
Heyward Curved Sectional, Lily Pad Table, Tuffet Stool, Metal Frame Chair
When these people arrived at or returned to a more traditional work environment, many found themselves under-stimulated and disappointed by its shortcomings. Being able to compare their experience of different places changed users’ expectations of the workplace at large. As a result, many now prize performance over ownership, flexibility over consistency and a sense of professional freedom over an established hierarchy.5
People are okay with relinquishing physical ownership of something if it means they’ll gain efficiency (e.g., renting an Airbnb vs. owning a timeshare). This shift accounts for much of the rise of the sharing economy as whole.
A related movement, the experience economy, was encapsulated this way by Harvard Business Review: “A company intentionally uses services as the stage, and goods as props, to engage individual customers in a way that creates a memorable event.”6
In a prime example of this, real estate strategy consultancy PLASTARC worked with consumer goods giant Unilever to make one of the company’s large conference rooms available to the surrounding community for after-hours events. Unilever made conscious extra investments in the transformability of the room’s design and reaped the benefits of greater visibility and goodwill with its neighbors.
A multipurpose space encourages occupants to see the full utility of the objects within it and to decide how best to use them—it doesn’t dictate (as a traditional space might) what each thing “is” and what it’s “for.”
Transformable spaces dovetail beautifully with organizations’ increasingly cost-conscious and DIY-inspired approach to work and workplace. Organizations like Mozilla7 have been successfully embedding this hackable approach in their workplace design for years. Their methods include allocating ten percent of their workplace budget for post-move adjustments, habituating a “fail fast” design approach that encourages risk-taking, and giving employees the choice to opt in (or not) to certain workplace protocols like hot desking.
In the modern office, personalization is essential in a variety of ways. Open floor plans are now the standard. Assigned personal space continues to shrink. Real estate is too valuable to be allocated to just one function. To avoid employee burnout and create a sense of privacy, choice and control in these new environments, designers must be mindful of how users can interact with the office space at large. When employees can do things like set the temperature of a conference room, choose the types of snacks in the pantry and select a work area appropriate for their given task, they are more satisfied and productive.
The conference room becomes the social hangout becomes the retreat area. Spaces are too valuable to be used for only one thing.
Now, the room that serves as your workplace’s cafeteria during the day is also its event space by night. What used to be a dedicated desk for one employee now hosts a rotating cast of staff members and meetings. A conference room is also a lunch retreat destination as well as an after-work lounge space. Businesses can no longer afford to pay for real estate that serves just one function—particularly the high-performing startup organizations driving innovation across industries.
Working in a transformable space increases the number of choices an employee has during their workday. Having more choices spurs spontaneous collaboration, fosters a greater sense of ownership over work, and ultimately creates a stronger feeling of togetherness in the workplace.
To read more about our research findings in full, visit our white paper "UNOFFICE THE OFFICE: Emerging Opportunities to Advance the Human-centered Workplace."
- hbr.org/1998/07/ welcome-to-the-experience-economy
- plastarc.com/ articles/mozilla-open-source-workplace