Jennifer Magnolfi is a trained architect and a design consultant in corporate real estate, and her applied research explores high-tech workspaces and startup environments. She is an expert on technology’s impact on how we work, and she is the co-author of Always Building: the Programmable Environment. Previously she worked for Herman Miller R&D and was a Fulbright scholar at the Interactive Institute in Sweden, where she led research on the effects of digital programmability in physical space and networked environments. Italian by birth, Magnolfi now lives in New York City.
Jennifer Magnolfi and I have a common interest: We both obsessively think about the future of work. I have a network-centric view of it: I believe that networks allow us more latitude in how we work, where we work and how much we work. I first had this idea in the early 2000s. One of my earliest attempts to understand this was the WebWorkerDaily blog, which focused on “digital nomads.” Now, almost sixteen years later, the network has upended the idea of work.
Jennifer thinks about the future of work from her own unique perspective — that of an architect. Born and raised in Italy, she has also spent a lot of time in North America exploring workspaces and what they mean in the context of society. She has worked with large web corporations and new workspace networks. She has also spent time working for Herman Miller, the iconic furniture company.
A few months back, the two of us sat down over coffee and discussed workspaces in this information-dense, postindustrial world. Our conversation is especially timely because even the old world is moving toward the WeWork model: The Wall Street Journal reports that boring old Citibank is redesigning its workspaces and saying sayonara to the cubicle. That’s why I would like to conclude 2015 with this conversation about the future of the workspace.
Architecture as Art
Om: Tell me a little bit about yourself. Have you always been fascinated by buildings?
Jennifer: I don’t know where that started, but I know it’s been there for most of my life. I was fortunate enough to spend many years in Europe, specifically in Italy, when I was a kid. It was difficult not to be enamored with these incredible structures, most of which, in Italy, are churches or historical structures which have in many ways withstood the test of time. Some of these structures are feats of engineering in their own right: incredible cathedrals, truly massive domes. Others are ordinary places where you would imagine people spent their lives. They lived in these places, they potentially worked there or they had their own business, or in some cases we’re even talking about humble places where people worshiped.
I was one of these curious kids who used to take things apart: My dad’s television or any gadget in the house was fair game. I saw buildings as interesting engineering systems, without knowing the word for “engineering.” What always fascinated me is that these buildings — it’s a lot more than the engineering systems. The ones that are awe-inspiring, the ones that withstand the test of time, are able to capture a collective expression of a time.
Buildings are different than other forms of cultural production. They’re different than art. Two-dimensional art, for example, or sculpture or music, even. The reason they are different is we live our lives in them. We live in these environments.
My interest has led me to understand this expression in the 21st century, where, for most of our lives, we live in digital space. The world is changing to create the basic building blocks of a digital society, which means that many of the things that shape our lives — our memories, our pasts, the way we connect with others, the way we create new ideas, the way we are inspired and sometimes the way we learn new things — doesn’t only happen by walking through the physical world. It also often happens by interacting with the digital world.
We are in the middle of the second decade of the 21st century, and we are at the beginning of understanding this physical digital convergence as it impacts buildings and design.
Om: We had an agricultural-based economy for a long time, and then industrialization happened and we had an industrial economy. Between those two big movements, what have you observed in various buildings and how they reflect those eras?
Jennifer: You have a macroeconomic driver that brings a new technology into the world. Society organizes itself to introduce that technology and that capability into other aspects of daily life, whether it’s by building infrastructure or by developing services or products that leverage that infrastructure. And after that, something happens that begins to organize the way people work in that context. Often the spaces are direct reflections of the way people need to work.
To make an easy example, take the United States after the war [World War II]. You had an emergence of white-collar workers and the need for people to develop knowledge. That effectively also produced quite a lot of paper: Paper was how people communicated, decisions were made, things were recorded. At the same time you had a development where the technical structure of the building itself would allow for large, open plans.
The convergence of these two contexts, where workers were shifting from the plants and the factories into the office and buildings were able to now open up large floor plans for space allocation — the technology emerged to serve that context. That is what we call the cubicle, or systems furniture. It was a tool to allow people to literally move through space in an organized way by creating hallways, corridors and clusters of people. Also to allow individual workers to organize their work, which at that time had to do with typing machines and eventually telephones.
I’m always asking, What are those key technologies that change, that cater to this new emergent need that then is addressed by a design solution or an architectural solution? This is only one of the more recent cycles in history.
Sweatshops to Startups
Om: In the Garment District, garment factories, essentially sweatshops, are now being converted into startup labs. It’s ironic that those places are now being retrofitted for a whole new generation of companies and workspaces. Sometimes everything comes full circle, doesn’t it?
Jennifer: Yeah, it’s interesting. There is an aesthetic sensibility that the startup community connects with when it comes to those spaces. I don’t necessarily think that there is a connection to the activities that happen in those spaces, but there is something that’s appealing. You can see that also in Detroit and Chicago, an attraction toward these older buildings that create loft-type environments as they’re marketed but are effectively large buildings with high spatial volumes with a lot of light. Because the buildings were industrial by nature, they’re also designed in a way that’s honest in terms of most of their systems — for example, the electrical and fire protections systems are exposed.
That type of transparency is well aligned with the values of our generation, which aspires to have systems that are designed for transparency, openness, sharing, co-creation. I don’t think there is ever a conscious connection to those expressions. It’s more subconscious. Spaces and buildings have the ability to communicate certain qualities, which we then experience when we inhabit them.
Om: Do you believe we are at the end of the cubicle era? Can you elaborate on that and how it relates to this emerging digital economy?
Jennifer: The technical name for the cubicle is “systems furniture.” It was developed in 1968 as a modular tool that would allow a worker to have, ergonomically, a sound way of organizing their work as well as their day. As I mentioned, it was the tool that allowed organizations to organize their workforce as well as their spaces, their real estate assets.
I don’t prophesy the end of the cubicle in itself. That will play itself out based on larger commercial forces. But the last decade suggests we work in a different way, because we interact with each other in a different way. We do that in a digital space, the very way in which we construct new knowledge. We create new ideas. We learn about new things. We connect with each other for professional or personal reasons or for simply gaining new information or data, and it happens in the digital space. Those types of interactions and that type of user experience bear a certain design DNA. As users, we choose physical environments that support our digital work.
In my work, I don’t focus that much on the end of the recording itself but on the effects of programmability. By definition, a digital environment is programmable. That effect demands a different set of performance requirements in the physical space.
Om: What do you mean by “programmable”? I have a different idea of programmable, which is network-centric and software-centric. Are you saying “programmable” as in there is no permanent desk space for workers or the office adapts to the needs of the moment?
Jennifer: This notion of programmability is derived from computer science language. Originally, the notion of programmability was from an R&D perspective. In R&D at Herman Miller, we worked on this notion, What is it about the way in which digital space is constructed that is applicable to the physical environment? The spaces that we are working with need to be designed for a different set of performance attributes.
The change in workspaces is driven by networks — wireless, wired and social networks, which have transformed society in the last decade. There is now a lot more complexity in how we design workspaces. We need to find ways to integrate information and data systems with people to create sophisticated interactions between humans and machines. These requirements were not present even 10 years ago, but they are now normal.
Om: Are there best practices for this new world? What should a young startup be thinking about in terms of an office?
New Office Space
Jennifer: The best practices are emerging from the world of coworking spaces, hacker spaces, maker spaces — environments that are designed around core principles of openness, sharing and co-creation.
Those types of environments create a wide variety of rooms for group interaction. They have building blocks of space that are specific to either one-on-one interaction or small-group interaction or large interaction, and all of them have the ability to connect to your data in a way that’s more social and more public. The environments themselves are informal in terms of the culture of the space. Most young startup environments are simply focused on the activity itself, the bandwidth and the ability to connect to the network.
Another layer that is new is the role of community manager. It came from online communities, but it didn’t exist in the world of office spaces. There wasn’t a job description. To some degree, for larger corporations, there still isn’t. But there is a new role that emerges in these contexts. The person becomes the linchpin of an environment, and their role is to curate physical interactions as well as the digital conversations of the community with the purpose of accelerating productivity, learning, engagement, the things that are important for that startup at that time.
Om: Are there any new office furniture companies that cater to this environment? There is an opportunity to create new furniture and new accessories, don’t you think?
Jennifer: Yes, for sure. There are companies or even products that have been designed for this new type of worker, the startup mobile worker of the 21st century, who is constantly connected and mobile.
We used to define “work” by crossing the threshold of a physical building that we called “the office.” Once we did that, we entered into this mindset that we were at work, and we were doing work. Today that same passage happens when we connect to our work-related data on our smartphones or other tools.
Our cities can be seen as a workplace, especially in urban cores, where you have a workforce that’s a lot more mobile and a higher concentration of startup and technology workers. But I don’t think it’s only a city phenomenon. It’s more of a structural shift in the world of work. People are beginning to look at environments that would not be traditionally considered workspaces, like hotel lobbies. The Ace Hotel in New York, for example.
Or even real estate developers are beginning to reinvent, in their residential buildings, entire floors dedicated to shared workspaces. Older buildings are being readapted as startup clusters of incubators. Workers choose where to work based on their specific needs at a much higher rate than they could before. Now, that doesn’t mean people do that every day of the week, but it certainly is more of an option.
The products are very much emerging that are addressing this new world of work, and they are different expressions of space that all of a sudden we can transform into a workspace, in real space and real time, as long as we’re connected to our digital workspace.
Om: What do you think of the development of a concept like WeWork from a wider cultural perspective?
Jennifer: WeWork and coworking in general point to a deep structural shift in work culture, characterized mainly by two elements: a consumerization of the workplace and the emergence of a new set of values around work and the office that are more aligned with the 21st century worker. Workspaces that can deliver on both of these elements resonate greatly with today’s work culture.
Historically, workspaces were designed to communicate hierarchy, confidentiality and organizational structure. The design DNA of spaces like WeWork and others resonates instead with net culture and is built on values like openness, sharing and cocreation. The work experience is organized to communicate and reinforce these shared values and, in successful cases, this is achieved at scale, operating almost as a “work platform” that supports a wide range of companies of different sizes and across multiple industries.
Om: Do you think we will see some of WeWork’s design concepts translate into the wider workplace?
Jennifer: Yes, in some ways it’s already happening. The innovation in the real estate business model (e.g., shorter lease terms, new contracts and insurance terms) and the corollary innovations in the way spaces like WeWork have to be designed and managed (e.g., formalized community manager roles in the office, distributed amenity spaces for all) are an appropriate response to a culture of work that is changing.
In the last few years, design professionals and manufacturers within the commercial-office-interiors industry have been exploring how to integrate elements of coworking into more-conventional corporate workspaces. This has taken many forms, including new furniture and product lines and different approaches to planning, as well as some new services inspired by the way early coworking communities used apps to optimize their work experience. Considering the relatively small total square footage of coworking spaces versus more-traditional workspaces globally, or even the relatively small number of coworkers, this level of interest is significant.
From an interior design perspective, WeWork in particular has a distinctive feel. One of its signature design elements is the use of demountable clear glass walls with black frames to divide members’ offices. This simple functional move allows WeWork to easily reconfigure the office layouts as the customer’s needs for space or location change. Most importantly, however, it allows light to pass through most interior spaces, giving occupants auditory privacy inside their own offices while creating the shared visual effect of sitting in a large, open — and busy! — community workspace. Another consistent design element is the informal but high-end styling of the workspaces through a broad mix of design pieces, be they furniture, wallpaper styles or decorative elements, all curated with great attention to detail to create a lively yet professional setting.
These elements of the design concept are easy to replicate or reproduce. More difficult to replicate, however, and in my opinion more unique to the WeWork experience, is its speed and focus on experimentation. In practical terms, WeWork’s ability to interpret and quickly package through space or services what startup culture or small businesses need from a workspace or a work community (i.e., product and membership offerings) has been key to its appeal and growth.
Examples are combinations of access to different types of environments and fellow community members and services that support a range of needs for different stages of growth, from simply designed phone booths to elegantly furnished community spaces to talent or skill search and recruitment to client-facing event spaces to honesty markets to purchasing healthy snacks through the app to discounts to HR and group health benefits. All of these are possible and relevant once a certain scale is reached, and they should be seen less as features of a new kind of office concept (although they are) and more as live experiments into a rapidly evolving workspace model that reflects what users need most: constant learning and flexibility to manage constant change.
Workspace Is Social
Om: Is the economic reality of smaller businesses that can be scaled with technology going to have an impact on how we view the office?
Jennifer: Physical space plays a significant role in staging the conditions for learning, collaboration and building a shared culture. This is unlikely to change in the near future, but it’s easy to see how the design requirements for offices are evolving.
If we look at images of offices in the 1950s and 1960s, what they reveal about the office is quite interesting. Echoing the layout of factory floors and the management principles of the time, the production of information in the office, a task achieved largely through paper, was structured in a linear fashion. All of these factors contributed to a model of the office that effectively lasted for decades.
Much is different now. Most workers are mobile, they organize themselves as networks, and the production of information along with most companies’ shared knowledge is digital. However, one similarity remains: The office is changing, because the nature of the problems that are solved in it is changing.
From a design perspective, a workspace is a social and technical system that can serve several needs for a company. One of its most important functions is to stage how people collaborate to create value. In my work, I see two specific and generalizable needs for which physical space is crucial: One relates to speed and scaling, the other to how teams approach complex problem-solving. Both variables are key to how we perceive and therefore design the office.
The first space variable relates to the scenario you mention. For example, in a startup or small business context, knowledge-sharing and acceleration are important team dynamics for scaling. Spaces are designed to emphasize socialization, fostering “collisions” between people and creating interactions that increase learning and convey energy and, ideally, optimism. This happens through a specific design approach as well as the operations and management of the space. (Background music in shared areas, office tours with prospective members, meetups and social events after hours are not uncommon occurrences.)
Until recently, this kind of energy was seen in few work contexts, notably in Silicon Valley offices circa 15 years ago. In most other contexts, an office constituted a necessary operational expense, often a long-term sunk cost. Today many workers and companies can choose a “workspace product or package” based on what kind of value it will provide them. Once all the practical aspects linked with managing an office facility are removed — like scheduling cleaning services, restocking printers, upgrading Wi-Fi — the choice of workspace becomes a more nuanced decision, and, thanks to monthly membership terms, arguably a lower risk.
Many recent graduates, particularly those working in technology ventures, perceive the workspace as something that can change fast or is changed as a team grows, with relatively little investment by a company. For many of them, scaling the business is decoupled from increasing the size of the workspace. Once a company reaches a certain scale in terms of physically colocated employees, they may “graduate” to a dedicated office, sometimes a different address altogether. This way of perceiving the office would not have been possible a few years ago. Now it is simply a reality.
Om: What are the social implications of working wherever we are? Not at the technology level, but at a more human level. How does this impact the whole society? It’s like, if you’re working everywhere, when are we social? When are we enjoying our families or relationships?
Jennifer: It’s a time of profound transformation, and I agree with you: Those are the important questions.
We create our own structures and our own social norms. For example, we know how this will work with technology, how it’s acceptable in the social media space to be connected to people that are your colleagues at work as well as your family and friends. They’re convergent. They’re all in the same space, and it’s all the same experience. Similar types of adaptations are going to happen, even how we organize our time, as well as how we organize our workspaces in our cities.
There is an opportunity to redefine many things as well as to recapture certain values and certain things that are potentially important for people. I don’t see that the future is going to be a place where we are constantly working and we’re constantly connected and we are losing our sense of self or our sense of our family values or our connections. But I believe we are redefining the richness of those, and the place that they have in our lives.
Related and Recommended Links:
- 1. Fuseproject’s Herman Miller public page, where you can check out the new collaboration-centric office furniture and design
- 2. “Away from My Desk” by Jill Lepore, The New Yorker
- 3. “Innovating in the Workspace” by Jennifer Magnolfi, Fast Company
- 4. “Is This the Office of the Future or a $5 Billion Waste of Space” by Andrew Rice, Bloomberg BusinessWeek
- 5. “Living in the DisneyLand Version of Startup Life” by Nitasha Tiku, BuzzFeed News