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The Workplace of the Future

By Michelle Bowles

To make the best design decisions today, corporate interior designers must understand what the workplace and workforce will look like tomorrow. What factors will weigh heavily on the minds of corporate executives and facilities managers in the year 2015? What emerging technologies stand to alter the way office work is conducted 10 years from now? “‘Those who do not study the future are destined to be its victims.’ I wrote that for Roger Herman [founder of business consultancy The Herman Group], and it was the opening of his book Turbulence!
Challenges and Opportunities in the World of Work that he published in 1995. And it still holds true today,” says Joyce Gioia, Strategic Business Futurist, President and CEO of The Herman Group in Greensboro, N.C. “Either you look ahead, or you are at the mercy of whatever happens.”


Central to understanding what the future workplace will look like is knowing who will inhabit the spaces. Experts say one thing is certain: The workforce will be more diverse than ever, with multiple generations, cultures and ethnicities working side by side. Gioia predicts the variety won’t stop there. “The workforce will be increasingly diverse in terms of not only old and young, but heavy/slim, sighted/not sighted and more people with disabilities,” she says.

A Shrinking Population
Across the globe, the working-age population (ages 20 to 64) will continue to diminish in numbers up through 2050, according to Workforce Crisis: How to Beat the Coming Shortage of Skills and Talent.

The Generational Pool
In the United States, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows the 55–64 age group stands to grow most significantly through 2010, followed by those 65+ and 45–54.


Think back just 15 years and picture a workplace with bulky computers — few of which were connected to the Internet — cumbersome wires, and oversized fax machines and copiers. Today, outdated equipment has been replaced with flat screens, wireless devices and high-tech conferencing systems. Ten years from now, modern devices will give way to more advanced technologies such as multilingual and sensory-recognition software that allows work to be conducted more efficiently — potentially meaning less people required to do a job. “More employers are embracing technology as a way to not hire as many people,” Gioia says. “In the future, interior designers will need to think about how these expanded technologies must be incorporated into the spaces they are designing.”

Top Emerging Technologies in the Workplace
In its Office of the Future: 2020 Survey and Report, staffing agency OfficeTeam identified several technologies that stand to alter the workplace and the way work is conducted in the coming years, including:

  • Sensory-recognition software. Computers in the future will increasingly be able to respond to voice, handwriting, fingerprint and optical input.
  • “Knowbots.” These future programs scan databases to filter and retrieve information for users. For example, the program could summarize key points of a report, and deliver an e-mail and voicemail to the device a user is working on.
  • Smart devices. Computers will use algorithm-based programs to learn the relationships between words and phrases, creating a smoother interface and enabling users to conduct more effective information searches.
  • Miniature wireless communication tools. These future devices will combine, for example, a personal computer, phone, fax, scanner, electronic organizer and camera all in one.
  • Wireless everywhere. Users can connect to the office in taxis, in buses, on planes, in parks, in building lobbies or even on beaches.
  • Interactive office spaces. By 2020, offices will be embedded with sensors that monitor and maintain the environment, including temperature, humidity and lighting. For example, a sensor in a desk chair could detect back tension and signal the chair to give a massage.
  • Virtual conferencing technology. Offices may be equipped with walk-in facilities outfitted with wall-sized screens that project 360-degree views of videoconference participants.
  • Automated business process management. Collaborative software will streamline the process by which teams work together on documents, eliminating the need for email as the means of document transmission and sharing.

Corporate Real Estate

For interior designers, it’s important to recognize where, physically, jobs will and won’t be in the future. How will corporate real-estate budgets be tightened? “Employers will be looking for greater value, that’s for sure, because they’re always looking for greater value,” Gioia says. The good news? “They are going to recognize that, all things being equal, the workplace of the future can be an additional way to set themselves apart from the competition — win that candidate’s heart and mind as opposed to losing that person to the competitive organization.”

Where The Jobs Are
According to Hewitt Associates’ Next-Generation Talent Management, jobs in the future will continue to move overseas. By 2010, the number of U.S. jobs moved offshore will grow 30 to 40 percent. The jobs being sent offshore will become increasingly sophisticated and will more frequently shift to nations in Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia.


Experts predict collaboration to be a top business objective in the workplace of the future. In fact, according to OfficeTeam, a new type of business organization will emerge: the hybrid organization, interdisciplinary in nature and drawing talent from academia, science, business and government. It’s a business objective interior designers are poised to help meet.

Let’s Get Together
In its Predicts 2008: Disruptive Shifts in the High Performance Workplace, the Gartner Group says the demand for collaboration in the workplace is on the rise:

  • By 2010, the average salaried worker will actively participate in at least five different ad hoc teams simultaneously.
  • Thirty percent of these people will participate in teams with external participants.
  • By 2011, social networking and social interaction will be more popular than team collaboration among enterprise users.

A Collaborative Case Study
In 2004, Pittsburgh-based communications design firm Agnew Moyer Smith Inc. debuted its new workplace designed to promote free exchange of ideas, frequent brainstorming and work sessions, and peer critiques. Since then, using Steelcase’s workplace effectiveness measurement tools, the firm has tracked the effectiveness of these collaborative design measures:

  • Networks that encourage collaboration are now 14 percent healthier.
  • Innovation measures are up 15 percent.
  • The effectiveness of work processes is up 37 percent.


The global demand for energy-efficient, sustainable buildings will continue full speed ahead in the future, fueled by high energy costs and government mandates. Eighty-four percent of corporate users and 77 percent of developers surveyed in National Real Estate Investor’s 2007 survey expect to own, manage or lease at least some green properties five years from now. Also fueling the demand will be end-users, especially younger generations. Says Gioia, “Sustainability is very, very important, particularly for young people. Companies get major points for being green among the younger generations.”

It’s All About Transit
Corporate office locations in the future may depend to a great extent on transit. Already, high fuel and energy costs are boosting demand for transit-oriented developments (mixed-use facilities with maximum access to public transportation) and sustainable buildings. According to Coldwell Banker Commercial and National Real Estate Investor’s 2008 Corporate Real Estate Survey: The Outlook for Expansion, 40 percent of corporate users and 27 percent of developers own or lease space in transit-oriented developments. Fifty-six percent of respondents said a transit-oriented location is important in site selection, and 39 percent consider it to be important in attracting employees. Looking ahead, industry observers expect corporations to expand cautiously in 2008 and beyond, as questions about the economy settle.

Government Action
A 2007 study by the American Institute of Architects (AIA), Local Leaders in Sustainability: A Study of Green Building Programs in Our Nation’s Communities, examined the current state of green building laws across the United States. It found 92 U.S. cities have green building programs, or 14 percent of all cities with populations greater than 50,000. An additional 36 cities say they are in more advanced stages of developing green building programs.

Perspective Sponsored CEUs. The Workplace of the Future

Read this article, complete the following questions and receive .1 CEU.

  1. Describe three ways in which you would use the emerging technologies discussed in this article to support a client’s need to hire fewer employees.
  2. Explain how you would design office space to accommodate an increased number of older workers, female employees and people with disabilities.
  3. Do you think the hybrid business organization will be the model for how work is conducted in the future? Why?
  4. What are some of the challenges involved in designing a workspace for a hybrid organization?
  5. In your experience, how is the corporate real-estate market responding to rising energy costs? How do you think energy costs will affect the future of workspace design?

Return completed answers to:

IIDA Education Department

If you have any questions, contact us at 312.467.1950 or toll-free at 888.799.IIDA.