This spring, the U.S. office furniture giant Steelcase Inc. announced it would be strengthening its presence in Japan. With the spread of mobile devices, offices are changing, and there are now more "mobile workers" who have no desks of their own. What will the office space of the future look like?
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Steelcase is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. Our company began life as an office furniture manufacturer in the U.S. state of Michigan. Our first patented product was a steel wastepaper basket. At that time, smoking within offices was very common, and fires were often caused by people dropping cigar butts into litter bins. We then expanded our global presence through mergers and acquisitions.
Today we are the leading company in our field, with annual revenues of approximately $2.4 billion (191.3 billion yen). At the same time, we continue to study how the global work environment is changing.
With the spread of smartphones and mobile terminals such as the iPad, we can now work anywhere, any time. There are more people nowadays who don't commute to the same office every morning. These people may instead choose to work at home, at a customer's office or elsewhere, depending on the day's schedule. Employees who don't need to be chained to the same desk every day are known as "mobile workers."
According to the research company IDC, there will be around 1.3 billion mobile workers by 2015. They will make up 37 percent of the global workforce, though this percentage will differ by country, according to the average age of the workforce and the level of IT development. It is said that mobile workers will account for close to 70 percent of the domestic Japanese workforce in the future.
Many of these mobile workers are "nomad employees" who don't have their own office desk. One of our customers, a North American insurance company, has outsourced most of its back office work to India. The Indian workforce is very young. They commute to work on bikes and carry the equipment they need for work in their backpacks, which act as a kind of "mobile office." We designed desks for them with spaces to store their backpacks and bike helmets, so they can create their own office space no matter which desk they are sitting at.
"CO-WORKING FACILITIES" A GROWING TREND
I am one of these backpack-carrying mobile workers. In our company, most of our executives don't have their own desk. You can fit all you need for work into a backpack. I like the feeling of being able to work anywhere in the world.
However, even if the number of mobile workers increases, there will be no dramatic drop in the amount of office space. Instead, office buildings will need work spaces that are readily available to employees visiting from other offices. In the past, if you hired 100 people, you would need 100 desks, but this is not necessary anymore. Instead, there is more need now for shared spaces that can be used for a short time by any number of people. If an office can provide spaces that can be used by different people every day, then ideally it will be able to maintain 80 percent occupancy rates, like a good hotel does.
In other words, office buildings are not going to go away. So-called "Third Places," such as cafes, schools, hotels or other environments besides the home and office, will also become more important from hereon. However, people are not going to spend the whole day working at Starbucks--the furniture there is not designed for work, so the environment can be quite tiring.
"Co-working facilities" are another big trend. These are office buildings which people can sign in to use, just like a sports gym. We have an experiment going on in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where our headquarters is located. We have converted an old building into a facility that any company or individual can register to use.
Rather than sitting at home alone in front of your computer, you can come here to drink coffee, eat breakfast and meet people from other industries. You can share knowledge, and this might lead to new ideas or innovations. So now, when you leave home in the morning, you can decide whether to go to your company or to a co-working facility nearby.
As well as giving employees a better work/life balance, these facilities also help the environment by cutting down on car trips to the workplace. In India it takes ages to get to work because of traffic jams, while cramped housing conditions make it difficult to work at home, so these kinds of facilities have spread rapidly over there.
The barriers between work life and private life are becoming more blurred in the intellectual industries. A highly paid workforce is not paid for commuting to work every day: they are paid for creative and innovative ideas. Companies are also focusing more on creating a good work/life balance as a way to attract talent.
"WORK CAFES" ALSO ON THE INCREASE
Another innovation is the concept of "work cafes" inside the workplace. You often find that when people meet over a cup of coffee or a snack, they can exchange opinions more frankly.
The work cafe in our company was once just a typical work canteen. Apart from certain fixed times of the day, it was like a ghost town with hardly any visitors. We redesigned it to make it a kind of hybrid between a working space and a cafe. It now functions as a multi-purpose space, with desks for individual work and round tables for group projects, for example.
The cafe is fitted with wireless LAN and IT equipment for making presentations. It is now like a kind of crossroads where people can come and go as they please and stand around chatting with others. A survey found that if people have to walk more than 21 meters to talk with someone, they usually choose to send an e-mail instead. If you can decrease the physical distance between people, this will lead to more face-to-face communication. This is turn will lead to more creativity and a higher output.
We are also working longer and longer. As a result, there is a demand for office furniture that meets the needs of different generations, such as desks and chairs designed for older workers. There also needs to be learning spaces where people can continue learning languages and business administration, even after joining the company.
(This article was compiled from an interview by Eri Goto from Asahi Shimbun's GLOBE)
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Uli Gwinner was born in Munich, Germany, in 1964. He joined Steelcase Werndl in 2000 following the merger between the U.S. firm Steelcase and the German company Werndl Office Furniture. Gwinner played a key role in integrating the two companies and developing new markets. He assumed his current position in 2007. He is a qualified ski instructor, and his hobbies include swimming, cycling and water skiing. Gwinner lives in Hong Kong.
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