By Nancy J. Trefny, associate principal, Cerami & Associates
Ask any industry expert what’s driving the evolution of workplace design, and you’ll likely hear a short answer: “Millennials.”
While it’s true that younger members of the workforce are helping shape many recent trends — fewer private offices, for example, and more open work areas with huddle spaces and hot-desking setups — demographics are only a bit player in the bigger story.
The real driver behind today’s workplace trends? It’s the breakneck pace of a continuing technological revolution.
One reason the preferences of millennials appear to be shaping the evolution of workplace design, it’s really because they’re early adopters of technology and more willing to try new styles of working.
They’ve grown up with today’s widely available and rapidly evolving technology, so their expectations are naturally different from those of previous generations.
According to a recent survey by PwC (formerly PricewaterhouseCoopers), millennial work styles favor mobility and rely more heavily on mobile devices than their counterparts among baby-boomers and the so-called Generation X.
At least 41 percent of millennials responding to the survey indicated they prefer electronic communications to phone calls or face-to-face meetings. And fully three-quarters of those respondents believe that technology makes them more effective at their jobs.
These preferences do not explain recent changes in office design, however, since the decisions behind them are made among upper management and C-suite executives.
Rather, these decision-makers consider the shift toward mobile technology to be a given, with the expectation that other less predictable shifts are inevitable.
Much of the work we’re handling at Cerami & Associates, Inc., is likely the largest trend behind current workplace design: the widespread merging of audiovisual tools with IT systems — two areas of workplace technology that have traditionally and unwisely been siloed from one another.
In the older model, large companies employed a director of audiovisual and a separate director of IT. In recent years, the positions are frequently combined into a single “director of technology” role — in part a reflection that mobile technology, audiovisual systems and workplace IT systems are increasingly merging.
These mutual reinforcing trends portend big changes in workplace design, too, and there’s ample evidence the changes are already underway. For example, far fewer companies today are investing six-figure sums in high-definition video-conferencing rooms.
Since employees can join a conference call with a mobile device from almost any location, many companies will opt instead to invest in a desktop video-conference platform, such as Webex, GoToMeeting, Skype, or the like.
Instead, companies strive for more cost-effective programming models, and integrate better, smarter infrastructure for technology in the small collaboration spaces and “huddle rooms” that have become ubiquitous among trendsetting workplaces.
By “better and smarter,” we mean appropriate, effective technology solutions for keeping an office connected and running smoothly. While the specifics may vary from project to project, there are two components that every company should insist on:
Simple USB connections. For audio and video, everywhere, USB is the plug-and-play standard. (We’ve begun to migrate to USB-C — the next generation of USB — for our projects.)
Short-throw projectors. Cost-effective and easy to install and use in small spaces, this type of projector is ideal for videoconferencing and presentations in small spaces.
Wireless gateways. The hardware and/or software that links wireless networks, gateways provide connectivity for laptops, tablets, phones and other devices.
Whatever the technology, simplicity and ease of use are key. Users should require little training to be able to make use of the equipment — and in the case of those huddle spaces, no training should be required at all.
The USB and wireless connections should allow for fast, easy, plug-and-play connection for instant videoconferencing and presentations.
Specifics aside, the big picture for technology directors and the companies they work for should include specifying and integrating an effective — and cost-effective — technology infrastructure.
As the technology has evolved, the expectations for audiovisual quality have declined, surprisingly. Instead emphasis is placed on collaboration, mobility, and ease of use. Employees often just need web access to be productive: they can video-conference from any location.
Where projects used to budget $100,000 for video-conferencing hardware, now $25,000 might suffice. That represents money saved, or used to better purpose elsewhere. What better place to spend money, than on technology and collaboration tools?
At Cerami, we feel it’s far more valuable for a company to invest in Wi-Fi and in electrical and data infrastructure, with simple-to-use plug-and-play connections.
hen we consult on a project and the programming is still to be determined, we recommend infrastructure investment.
The investment can help a company stay abreast of changes in technology, and help avoid having to rip out walls, floors, and ceilings at some point in the future when adopting new technology becomes impossible without major upgrades.
Further, good infrastructure makes a space flexible, so that it’s easier to change the programming and make different use of the space whenever necessary.
High-quality, high-definition AV and IT continue to lead the path of communication and collaboration of course.
Many companies continue to value their boardrooms for the prestige factor, and they include all the technological “bells and whistles” their budget will accommodate, such as high-definition videoconferencing equipment.
Other highly specialized applications may require state-of-the-art equipment, such as the mural-size video wall installations often seen in high-end lobbies.
But ultimately the corporate workplace is changing dramatically, following the trends in technology outlined above.
The boardroom may stay, but it’s the huddle rooms and small meeting rooms where the work is really getting done — and where project teams for new and renovated offices should focus their efforts, and their investments in AV technology.