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The Coordinate: Dissolution of the Traditional Workplace

Figure 1

Figure 1

Research from the Center for Workplace Innovation at Mancini Duffy
by Fran Ferrone and Priyanka Agrawala

Can the office be more inspiring and more nurturing? What do workers want? What do managers want for them? And do executives really require a private office? Research again confirms that spaces designed as dedicated workplaces to support quiet work—often do not have workers.

The Coordinate Survey, conducted by the Center for Workplace Innovation (CWI) at Mancini Duffy, offers insights on a wide range of workplace-related topics to support the design process and help companies make well-informed decisions. The firm, Mancini Duffy, is a 100-year-old architecture and interiors practice based in New York, which provides planning, design and strategy services to clients across multiple industry sectors and geographies.

In 2014, operating from the hypothesis of the dissolution of the traditional 9:00 to 5:00 workweek, CWI focused on non-physical aspects of work, asking respondents what times of the day workers felt most productive, from what sources they derived inspiration, and whether or not they worked while on vacation. (Most do!)

With the increased use of contract workers by employers, the proliferation of technology and the need for speed to stay competitive, the lines between work and personal time have begun to blur. The average US worker spends more time working than any other economically evolved country.(1) While for many that might mean more time working off-hours and remotely, much of that time is still spent in the office. With this in mind, CWI sought evidence to gain support for:

  1. Creating spaces that offer workers more choice while increasing flexibility, and
  2. Making the office a more inspiring and nurturing place to be.

For most of the four generations currently in the workplace (six, if you count early and late Boomers and Gen Y’s separate generations, the office landscape has largely remained the same since the mid-twentieth century. Yet within a short ten years, it is anticipated that the proliferation of Generation Y (who will comprise 75% of the workforce by 2025) followed closely by the pragmatic and entrepreneurial Generation Z, (2) will affect a sea change that will transform the workplace in ways we have not yet imagined. CWI believes that by bending (or breaking) the traditional rules around time and space, we can start preparing the workplace for the future.

For the majority of respondents, 76% of work performed on a typical day is solo work or virtual collaboration. Work that could be done anywhere. Executives responding, however, reported that 46% spent on collaborative activities, 20% transactional tasks such as email and only 12% on focused individual work.

Part One: Choice & Flexibility

Figure 2

Figure 2

Mobility is not going anywhere

Let’s start by looking at mobility as a means of offering both employees and occupancy planners more flexibility. In recent years, mobile work—defined as working from someplace other than one’s main office, such as home, client or other office location—has been perceived as both a solution and a problem. A solution for many portfolio managers seeking to reduce real estate and environmentalists looking to reduce carbon footprint; a problem, when both workers and managers are ill-equipped—organizationally, technically and emotionally—to work in a virtual environment.  Indeed we’ve heard stories of less than satisfactory results from remote work programs, ranging from poor connectivity to an inability to focus; from a lack of direction to downright disengagement. Those who believed remote work had been taken to extremes must have considered Marissa Mayer’s calling everyone at Yahoo back to the office a tipping point for mobility. Still, with business leaders constantly challenged by changing business models to stay agile, and portfolio managers under continuous pressure to reduce operational costs, mobility can still be a solution provided it is not a choice of “either/or” but of “both/and.”

“Both/and” means offering workers some choice about whether or not they work remotely and at the same time, providing them a dedicated space in the office. Double dipping? No. The trade-off would be significantly reducing the percentage of dedicated space allocated per employee in order to reassign that space for more flexible settings that can serve dual or multiple purposes. While the net gain would not necessarily be an even exchange, having less space dedicated to specific uses would create efficiencies to better accommodate future growth without increasing the overall footprint.

Whether a formal program or a tacit agreement; whether motivated by a need for talent outside a geographic area or the priority younger generations place on work/life balance, 30 to 45 percent of workers telecommute. 3 Furthermore, industry research from multiple sources shows that when employees are in the office, they are at their assigned location only—interestingly similar numbers—35-45% of the time. Yet, we are still designing the offices as if everyone was in their assigned seats Monday through Friday, 9:00 am to 5:00 pm. This practice meets neither the needs of the aforementioned business leaders for agility nor that of the portfolio managers for cost containment. For all these reasons, mobility is not the answer, agility is, and mobility is only one part of the agility solution.

Agility defined in different terms

What do we mean by agility? Historically, companies have increased agility through various methods, including telecommuting, hoteling, free address, demountable partitions and moveable furniture. All good solutions, but still ones largely dealing with physical space through traditional programming methods.

Findings from the 2014 Coordinate suggest another way of creating agility. When asked which hours of the day were most productive, respondents reported that peak hours were at the beginning (8:00 am to 10:00 am) and the end (4:00 pm to 6:00 pm) of the day. (See Figure 1)

The activities performed during peak hours are also revealing. Asked to self-define what tasks were being performed during the hours when people felt most productive, solo work (described as email and head’s down, concentrated work) and virtual collaboration (phone calls, phone and video conferencing) were cited most often—all tasks that, with the right technology and an accepting company culture, could be performed anywhere. (See Figure 2)

Additional findings point to patterns in work days as well as work hours, indicating that while activities that could be performed anywhere—like phone calls and emails—are constant throughout the week, heads down, concentrated work and scheduled meetings—are heavily weighted to specific days of the week. In short, Mondays are for planning, Fridays are for cleanup, and most meetings occur mid-week. (See Figure 3)

Figure 3

Figure 3

In short, Mondays are for planning, Fridays are for cleanup, and meetings are mid-week.

Taking a few ideas for a walk

These findings have the potential to significantly impact decisions about space in positive ways. In doing so, they could also influence organizational policies, cultural attributes and employee perks in ways that attract and retain talent. A recent study conducted by Stanford University finds that walking improves creativity. So, without veering too much out of the interior design and workplace-making lane, here are some thought starters to apply these findings to the planning process:

  • Fuzzy Math: Taking the average percentage of time people are actually in their assigned workspaces and the average percentage of telecommuters into account, does everyone in every department need an assigned space? If you don’t think so, try walking the floors during different periods of the day and see what percentage of seats are filled at any given time.
  • Quiet Hours: If telecommuting’s not an option, people can’t concentrate in open plan, and the quiet rooms are always booked, how about trying a combination of Flex Time—allowing employees the option to work from home during times of heads down solo work or virtual collaboration—and Quiet Hours, during a designated time of the day? The combination just might make the open plan less congested while making some of those quiet rooms available.
  • In-Adjacencies: Departmental adjacencies are often the most challenging part of the planning puzzle. Based on The Coordinate findings that the majority of workers (76%) perform heads down or virtual tasks during most of the day, do departments really have to sit together? Or could there be common areas large enough for teams to gather when needed? Consider a café, lounge, or arena-type space that does double duty.

What would that kind of office look like?

What would the office look like if we planned not only for peak times but to support the most commonly performed activities? Likely more open plan (albeit with quiet rooms and even quiet hours) and an increase in multifunctional collaborative spaces such as:

  • Cafés doubling as meeting areas
  • Private offices morphing into quiet rooms
  • Self-configurable conference rooms adapted to serve as team rooms, and
  • Reception areas transform into lounges and town hall spaces.

The biggest difference would be:

a) The increased percentage of square feet allotted to these various space types, and
b) The fact that these spaces would become an integral and essential part of the office landscape—not something to be disposed of in order to increase headcount. Working with a kit of parts, business leads might make their own decisions on how they want to apply the kit, so floors or departments might also look different. A nightmare for facilities managers? Not so if the kit is finite but pliable enough to accommodate multiple applications.

Collaborative spaces would become an integral and essential part of the office landscape – not something to be disposed of in order to increase headcount.

This emphasis on these open, collaborative settings does not preclude the need for private spaces in general and private offices in particular. On the contrary, as collaborative areas increase, so does the need for private spaces. However, The Coordinate findings do support the continuation of the trend toward fewer private offices. In a separate sampling of The Coordinate, conducted in December, 2014 by The McMorrow Reports for Facilities Management, and surveying executives only, the majority reported 10:00 am to 2:00 pm as their most productive hours, with more than 60% reporting being engaged in collaborative activities such as scheduled meetings, phone calls, and impromptu meetings during that time. Additionally, in looking at the overall mix of activities performed during regular working hours, executives responded that almost half of their time (46%) was spent on collaborative activities, 20% on transaction tasks such as emails and only 12% on focused individual work. This begs the question: is the private office the right environment for executives or would a suite of various work settings that enable various kinds of collaboration be more supportive of their activities?

In Part Two: Creating Workplaces that Nurture & Inspire

The goal of The Coordinate 2014 was not to offer solutions but to raise questions about traditional planning methods. This has been only part of the story. We hope you will stay tuned to Part Two, where “The Dissolution of the Traditional Workplace” will focus on the importance creating workplaces that nurture and inspire.

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Fran Ferrone

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Fran Ferrone, Director, Center for Workplace Innovation, Mancini Duffy, leads the research and workplace strategy practices, and writes a monthly column for the National Real Estate Investor on a variety of timely workplace topics.

Phone: 215-208-6790
Email: fferrone@manciniduffy.com
Website: Mancini Duffy

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Priyanka Agrawala

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Priyanka Agrawala, PMP, LEED AP, Associate, Workplace Strategist, Center for Workplace Innovation, Mancini Duffy, balances visioning with micro planning, detailed modeling and data computation to help clients make well-informed decisions.

Phone: 646-495-7217
Email: pagrawala@manciniduffy.com
Website: Mancini Duffy


  1. Jessica Stillman, “Which Country Has the Most Productive Workers?” Inc., July 25, 2014.
  2. Dan Schawbel, “30 of the Most Interesting Facts about Generation Z,” July 17, 2014
    http://danschawbel.com/blog/39-of-the-most-interesting-facts-about-generation-z/ (January 30, 2015)
  3. Meghan M. Biro, “Telecommuting is the Future of Work,” Forbes, January 12, 2014,