What’s the state of the mobile workplace?

We are living in a country where 71 percent of adult consumers are sleeping with their cellphones and nearly half say they couldn't go a day without them. We are increasingly connected to the world, and our work, through our mobile devices.

No surprise then to learn that people spend only half their time at the traditional corporate headquarters. Knoll and Unwired recently surveyed those charged with facilities and real estate of 46 multinational companies and found that workers spend only 49 percent of their time in the office, while the rest of their work time takes place at home, peripheral offices, client sites, or public spaces, like coffee shops or hotel lobbies.

The average desk is in use only 47 percent of the working day, so many companies have given up on dedicated desks, or even the idea that there should be enough desks for all workers. This has led to reductions of up to 30 percent in office space, but more importantly, a rethinking of how to use that space. More space is dedicated now to conference rooms and co-working areas, as workers treat the office more as a place for interaction than for solo desk time.

As the report’s authors state, “Companies are also making an increased commitment to “soft” collaboration areas like “all hands” spaces for gatherings and town halls and new hospitality approaches such as inviting work cafés. Research shows these investments are both successful and popular. Firms report that providing great workspaces is recognized by the workforce and generates a cultural shift causing people to want to be in the office. And our survey results concur: 54 percent of respondents report a tighter alignment between workplace culture and corporate vision.”

“As offices are becoming more of a place to meet and to interact with others, they have to become more flexible.”

Corporate vision has shifted to include an increasingly mobile workforce, where mobility is now a given, not a perk, although there is still resistance in some regions — like Asia — where the cultural norms still dictate that employees should start and end the day at the office. If the trends elsewhere are an indicator, that will soon change.

As companies make the transition to cloud computing, and shut down in-house server farms, buildings lose another occupant. Computer rooms — and sometimes entire floors of office buildings — are freed up, and along with them the infrastructure to house them, too. Cooling and power systems, fire systems and electrical and wiring systems are all scaled down dramatically.

And workers are increasingly making personal decisions about mobile devices, to the point that having a desktop computer becomes optional, or irrelevant. The mobile modern sales rep is much more likely to want apps that run on a mobile device that is always nearby — and the first thing picked up in the morning — than some old-time app on a desktop in the office. Even if she still had a desk, which she doesn't.

The workplace holy grail

As offices are becoming more of a place to meet and to interact with others, they have to become more flexible. There is a growing need for more collaboration space: meeting rooms, café-style work areas, alcoves suited to two or three people co-working, and so on. And given the reality that people are carrying one or more mobile devices at all times, these work spaces need charging stations. Kind of like airports, with a large number of power-hungry transients passing through all the time.

And the biggest issue of these crowded and interactive spaces is noise. Companies are moving past the “headphones are the new wall” approach, and now are communicating rules about where noise is encouraged or discouraged. As the researchers wrote, “Businesses may also set some ground rules, to segregate noisy and quieter work tasks, for example, or to balance public and private space.”

The holy grail is creating an environment where a higher degree of innovation is sparked by chance encounters, perhaps on a stairway. “Creating more interesting footfall can engineer chance encounters, designing hubs for people to meet and work together. In the U.K., for example, the BBC uses internal staircases to encourage intra- and interdepartmental collaboration. “It’s no more complicated than that,” says Chris Kane, head of corporate real estate, BBC, “and technology makes it even better as the need to be tethered has gone away for most people.”

The untethered worker has led to a new workplace — one that’s more crowded and noisier — but one that may lead in the end to greater innovation and flexibility.

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