Evolution of the workplace

An article by Lara Stancich, Workplace Strategy and Design Specialist

The pace of change has been rapid but thankfully, the one-size-fits-all, cookie-cutter approach to designing workplaces has gone. From remote working to shared co-working spaces to activity-based working (ABW), there’s a whole heap of new and improved ways to achieve both increased productivity and innovation. Whether it’s driving change, fostering more collaboration or enhancing staff wellbeing, it’s all about creating unique spaces that align with company goals and values.

Only a few short years ago, the workplace was considered to be a bit like a car. When you set budget and aesthetics aside, the main components of the automobile remain pretty similar whatever model takes your fancy – be it a Tesla, Land Cruiser, Ford Mustang or Honda Civic. The basic premise is that all have four wheels, somewhere to sit and an engine and its only purpose is to get you from A to B. Sure, it’s sufficient in taking you to where you want to go, but does it enhance your life?

Thankfully, the design of an office is no longer addressed like that of the car. Gone is the notion that offices are there for staff to simply carry out a process - with the only nod to aesthetics or comfort largely coming down to budget. No longer does anyone have to sit in the kind of cube farms that were popular in the early 1980s.



Instead, the nature of work has undergone a fundamental shift because five key factors have come into play:
1. The shift in focus from process work to knowledge work, with increasing emphasis on greater innovation and creative thinking
2. The ever-increasing pace of change in business, with no industry immune to disruption
3. The shift from independent, desk-bound work to collaborative teamwork - both physical and virtual
4. The search for meaning and purpose and the need for work to align with personal values and vision, and finally…
5. The impacts of technology. The transformational use of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), or simply freeing people from being bound to a place by storage and filing needs.

Not so long ago people were decreeing it was time for “the death of the office environment”. The rationale being that with the right technology and connectivity, there was no need to have everyone housed under one roof in expensive real-estate. Instead, employees could work at home or from cafes. No more need to sit in traffic congestion - telecommunicating was the answer. It seemed better for efficiency and better for the environment.

Funnily enough, it’s transpired that while some degree of working remotely is good (studies have found productivity gains of 35-40% by introducing flexible working conditions), in order for creative collaborations to shine, people really do need to come together and spend time interacting face to face. 

In fact, human experience has proved that the office now plays a far bigger role in the modern world than just being four walls and a collection of desks. It is a form of tribal identity and a chance for people to create the social contacts they need. Most importantly, the office is a focus for innovation – an increasingly crucial tool to a company’s survival in this disrupted, fragmented, technologically advanced world.

While Amazon and Apple have embraced the idea that a fair chunk of their workforce can operate remotely and several companies - such as HR company Flexjobs or legal firm The Geller Law Group - are staffed almost exclusively by remote workers, there are just as many high-profile employers bringing people back under one roof. This is because of the power of collaboration to drive innovation.

Once a long-time champion of remote working, IBM recently announced it was requiring a large portion of its organisation to come back to the office. Tech giant Yahoo has made a similar announcement.

John Sullivan, professor of management at San Francisco State University, says that the importance of innovation far outweighs productivity gains from remote working. And for innovation to really work, people need to be together, working side by side. 

Facebook and Google are further examples of fostering innovation and collaboration through community. They have an ever-expanding campus based on huge open floor plans - all in an effort to ensure staff feel connected to each other and can innovate and develop ideas together easily.

When it comes to determining the purpose of the office and what it might look like, all of these factors contribute to a much more philosophical approach to workplace design. Rather than just following trends, companies are now far more strategic about what style of working they need to achieve their business goals and what (if any) type of workspace is relevant to them and their future needs.

Here at STACK, we see an increasing demand for workplace strategy and help with educating clients about - and navigating - the different options when it comes to ways of working. Support with change management is often required to successfully embed these new ways of working. We are currently working with one of New Zealand’s leading pharmaceutical companies to do just that. We are helping them shift from a very traditional office design approach that combines cubicles and individual offices to developing a work environment that’s completely unique to them. The point of this is to help foster improved collaboration and innovation, support their growth strategy and attract and retain talent.


It’s Cool to Co-Work

One of the biggest disruptors right now to the traditional model of the office is the co-working space. The co-working model is a very organic response to the challenges of today’s business world, with communities of interest and a networked approach taking precedence over more traditional ways of organizing work. Recognising that people need social contact irrespective of the size of their business, co-working spaces foster innovation and creativity through unexpected links and networks, provide stimulating environments that include, but are not limited to, the provision of desks and meeting rooms, all without the lengthy leases and restrictive terms usually associated with having an office.

 (Photo: We Work, Wehai Lu, Shanghai)



(Photo: BeanBuro, Hong Kong)


For larger companies, Activity Based Working (ABW) is a more in-house solution to changing employee needs. Rather than assigning people to a desk to do their ever-more diverse types of work, ABW organises people by neighbourhood, with a palette of different work settings to choose from, depending on the nature of the work and the needs and preferences of the employee. Those who are seeking peace and quiet to do their work can locate themselves in a focus zone. To collaborate, they can gather their co-workers into a space kitted out with writeable surfaces and technology to share their work. Meanwhile, people who prefer a buzz around them can choose to do their work in a more open setting or café-style setting. The only catch is that you no longer have your own desk to personalise with pictures of the kids or the cat. A growing number of our clients - including a leading healthcare provider - are implementing forms of ABW relevant to their business and staff engagement needs.

Lessons learned from the office design of ASB in New Zealand indicate that ABW environments really come into their own when firms have staff of 100+. Below that, it was felt, the benefits of neighbourhoods for prompting unexpected collisions and collaboration are less and providing a choice of workplace settings perhaps more costly.  Nevertheless, for smaller businesses, a range of settings which reflect and support a diversity of work styles, as well as business objectives, can be highly beneficial to productivity and wellbeing.

Furthermore, new working models such as the B:Hive or co-working spaces, such as Generator, offer the potential advantages of a more networked community and providing great networking and collaboration opportunities along with attractive office, meeting and events space, while still having the flexibility to change and grow as needed.


 (Photo: ASB North Wharf)


From a design perspective, these are exciting times. Where clients have always had diverse needs, that is now coupled with a growing recognition of the importance of workplace strategy in aligning the workplace with long term business strategy and vision. 

Creating a workspace today is as much about envisaging the destination and describing the journey as it is about choosing a mode of transport to get there.

If you have qestions about your workplace design and how to foster innovation through collaboration, please get in touch.






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