To respond creatively to the knowledge economy, some workplace designers have started creating a sense of permeability and unpredictability in their schemes reminiscent of the Internet itself. In this scenario, social networking online is replicated in architectural space, as all areas of the workplace are geared towards a constant whirl of collaboration, connection and social interaction.
The open-plan office thus becomes as open to possibility and distraction as the web itself. But not everyone is a fan of workspace as social network. The author and management thinker Susan Cain points out in her bestselling book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (2012) that ‘peer pressure’ and ‘groupthink’ in open plan spaces can actually inhibit creativity and productivity when they are intended to do the opposite: ‘We came to value transparency and knock down walls,’ she explains, ‘not only online but also in person. We failed to realize that what makes sense for the asynchronous, relatively anonymous interactions of the Internet might not work as well inside the face-to-face, politically charged, acoustically noisy confines of the open plan office.’
Some of the most striking areas of digital influence on new workspace can be found outside the corporate open plan office.
For example, the rise of tech-enabled learning labs is changing how we generate, capture and share ideas. These are spaces that accelerate the development of new concepts by putting people together in specialised learning environments for innovation, with experts contributing remotely from anywhere in the world. Many of these learning labs have been piloted in academic institutions such as Stanford University, but corporate organisations have begun to follow suit.
Parallel with moves to remodel corporate office space along the lines of thinness, the social network or learning lab is another consequence of the shift from bricks to bytes – the rise of co-working. This is seeing new work communities develop, in which digital-enabled people are working free of the traditional corporation and clustering with others in more radical social space that brings like-minded people together and mentors entrepreneurship.
Originally coined by Bernie DeKoven in 1999, the co-working term now covers a variety of approaches. In London alone, which is a world centre for co-working, there are several different types of co-work venture from public spaces such as the British Library and members’ clubs to independent social enterprises, serviced office clubs and even corporate-sponsored initiative such as Google Campus in East London. The popularity of co-working space with certain types of young, well-educated knowledge workers acts as a reminder of how much the corporate workplace needs to do to win them back over.
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