Five Ironies in Workplace Design

As quickly as we solve one workplace design challenge, new challenges emerge. Like a game of "Whac-A-Mole" it seems by the time we hit one mole, two more pop up. Lucky for us, no one is keeping score, but it's interesting to look at the ironies in these challenges. As we 'solve' one problem, the effects manifest completely new challenges and in new ways. Here are five ironies in workplace design that are evolving our workplaces.

1. Collaboration vs. Focus Work. Collaboration is probably the most frequently used buzz word over the past few years. As an industry, we have focused intensely on helping everyone collaborate with lower panels, smaller individual workspaces, and more square footage allotted to group space. Ironically, now we are getting whiplash from the backswing about focus work. It should come as no surprise that according to the Gensler 2013 workplace study, "Our survey findings demonstrate that focus and collaboration are complementary work modes. One cannot be sacrificed in the workplace without directly impacting the other," says Diane Hoskins, co-Chief Executive Officer at Gensler.

2. Extroverts vs. Introverts. The collaborative vs. focus work discussion has been further fueled by Susan Cain's recent book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. Design professionals and furniture companies are actively seeking ways to find that magical balance for not only types of work, but also the types of people who work in these spaces. According to a recent article in Fast Company, Cain and the CEO of Steelcase are teaming up to create spaces in open offices specifically tailored to introverts. As we push collaboration, we have accidentally stifled what introverts do best; focus work.

3. High Tech vs. Low Tech. As technology has advanced over the years, furniture manufacturers and architects & designers alike have been focused on technology integration. The irony of this intense shift can be found in this humorous Samsung commercial. Clearly, the technology is only as good as the operators are.

4. Multitasking vs. Effectiveness. We have more information coming at us than ever before. In any given hour of a day, you're likely to hear the ping of a text message, the ring of a phone, the notification of an e mail in your inbox, not to mention copious other physical distractions. Ironically, the more productive we try to be by multi-tasking, the fewer things we actually get done and the less effective we are. According to Julie Morgenstern, a productivity expert, "It has been scientifically demonstrated that the brain cannot effectively or efficiently switch between tasks, so you lose time. It takes four times longer to recognize new things so you're not saving time; multitasking actually costs time."

5. Virtual Meetings vs. Physical Engagement. As technology has progressed, it has become feasible to conduct almost all types of meetings virtually. Consider tools like, Skype, and even Apple's FaceTime. Furniture companies like Haworth have introduced even higher tech products like Bluescape, which allow anyone to create, communicate, visualize, organize, and strategize most anything, anywhere, anytime. However, ironically, the more we are able to "meet" via these tools, the more we are reminded of the need of physical presence with other people. Virtual tools simply cannot replace face-to-face connections, or at least not with the same speed at which we build trust and camaraderie in person.

While the game of "Whac-A-Mole" is likely far from over, something deep in these challenges inspires many to continue the quest for inspired workspaces. Since -- on average -- half of the waking hours of most days are spent at work, it's a noble cause to try to create environments where people can feel productive, inspired and fulfilled by what they do for a living. As always, it's a matter of finding the right balance, while we watch the pendulum swing. Do you have ideas on additional ironies in workplace design? If so, please reach out!