White Space

( December 19th, 2007 )

Google’s offices

“White space” is a term describing areas within flexible work environments that represent the diversity of work styles and the supporting environments sought by people who demand alternative ways to work. White space is the focus of an in the New York Times, and follows an employee at an advertising firm as he spends his time being productive everywhere but at his desk. I think that is a terrific name for a flexible work environments, one that is more about our work and less about place. At its core, white space challenges the traditional notions and expectations of how we work, and the environments that we work in, and represents the growing movement in office design to provide employees with flexible space that can adapt to their tasks and their work styles.

Realize that this is not a generational thing. Most people, regardless of age, would prefer flexibility in their work environment and the freedom to tailor that environment to what is optimal for them. That might mean working at a stand-up desk, or while sitting in a common area. Also, the tasks that we need to perform, the work that we need to do, over the course of a day can change dramatically and are better supported by environments that can flex with these changing needs. What do I mean? Think about the productivity savings if meetings did not have to be in conference rooms and always scheduled for an hour. What if, in lieu of a fixed desk, an office was actually made up of a diverse series of work areas with each supporting specific types of work… from intense concentration and focus that might require quiet privacy, to a raucous and energetic brainstorm, to an open and ongoing collaborative environment that fosters easy communication and connectedness. The net result is a radically different approach to the way we work, and one that defies the 1950’s notion of an open plan work environment. Finally. Beyond this, though, it yields very different space demands for companies that ultimately result in smaller, more efficient office environments which changes the real estate equations and potentially saves tremendous investment in space.

A good example of an office environment that successfully blends white space is pictured above and is one of the environments in Google’s headquarters. Much thought and research went into their environment with the ultimate goal being real support of their people in their work. Google realized that tying people to desks is limiting, and in a fast moving and innovative company the people that make it up need to be fast moving and innovative. The environment of their offices is a manifestation of this need. People are rarely at their desks as they are busy engaging in work that is collaborative, impromptu, and occurring over a large campus. A desk would take them out of the flow.

While Google might be an extreme version of this, suffice it to say that more and more companies are seeing the value of white space in their environments. We know that the office as we know it has been under siege for over a decade. Our work has intensified to a point that the traditional office environment can no longer keep up. The value is in adaptive, flexible and customizable environment that empower and support people and allow them to tailor the environment to the immediate task at hand.

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