At first, there seems a discrepancy: we hear incessant talk of low job growth and economic distress, but see people tapping expensive smartphones and buying the latest social-mobile app. Indeed, the technology and design industries seem unaffected by the recession, set to continue on the same course of planned obsolescence they’ve been on for decades. But a second look reveals that advances in these sectors are helping people adjust to life in a pared-down economy, in a world where the environment has become a main concern. Our recession isn’t happening in a vacuum, and advances in design and technology, paired with an economy in flux, are changing the definition of both work and the workplace.
From an architectural perspective, office layout has been changing since before the recession, away from cubicles and toward flexible, open-plan designs. Companies that depend on innovation have designed headquarters that encourage play and serendipitous meetings. Pixar’s office drives foot traffic toward a central area, encouraging impromptu idea sharing. Cisco, inspired by the use of common space in universities, freed its employees from traditional desks with wireless technology and unassigned work stations. The shift encouraged collaboration, increased employee satisfaction, and reduced infrastructure costs.
More recently, office designs have prioritized environmental efficiency. At Skype’s headquarters, independent work spaces line the perimeter of the LEED-certified building, near natural light and away from noise. Like Pixar, meeting spaces and break rooms are centralized, encouraging spontaneous collaboration. At Google’s LEED-certified offices around the world, traditional cubicles and meeting rooms have been replaced with playful spaces, from egg-shaped pods to unassigned space-age seating. Additionally, environmental, community, and employee wellness are supported with bike-to-work incentives and local, sustainably produced food in the cafeterias.
From open-plan and environment-centered office design it’s a short leap to another innovation: coworking. A dearth of steady jobs has created a new league of freelancers, and the desire to reduce carbon footprints has made telecommuting more appealing than ever. Sure, there’s the local coffee shop, but coworking offers a way for freelancers and telecommuters to stay local and tap in to the perks of an office by sharing costs, space, and resources. Aside from the benefits of sharing an eco-friendly printer, coworking offers potential for collaboration and networking, and can lead to serendipitous partnerships. Shareable has compiled a list of resources for tapping in to the movement.
Paul McFedries of IEEE Spectrum reports that sharing is “the driving force behind a new economic model called collaborative consumption, where consumers use online or off-line tools to rent, share, and trade goods and services.” Coworking can also be a manifestation of collaborative production, found in projects like Longshot!, a magazine that encourages contributors to work together in satellite offices. From this angle, it looks like social, mobile, and local have gone way beyond smartphone applications—they could be the way we work in the future.