A “Natural” Environment
Exposure to nature has been shown to lift spirits and reduce stress in a variety of settings. The office is no exception: workers who regularly get a glimpse of greenery have been found to have better attention spans and higher job satisfaction. Alas, few offices are situated in a peaceful woodland. Many of us, in fact, toil beneath fluorescent lights and air vents that crank out arctic breezes.
Some companies are trying to make the office at least feel more natural. Amazon’s new headquarters in Seattle will have three biospheres—greenhouse-like domes filled with plants and five stories of flexible work spaces—and earlier this year Google proposed a headquarters expansion that would have included indoor bike paths, plentiful flora, and a translucent roof. (The Mountain View, California, city council nixed the plan, awarding most of the land to LinkedIn instead.) Companies with more-modest budgets are opting to install wallpaper and carpeting that mimic patterns found in nature or build “green walls”—essentially vertical gardens.
Offices may begin to sound like the natural world, too. Many open-plan offices already pump in white noise to provide privacy and minimize distractions, but researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in Troy, New York, found that people prefer the sound of flowing water to white noise, and that the more natural sound is just as good for concentration.
Uncomfortable office temperatures are another known productivity killer. Chu Foxlin, a senior interior architect with Tsoi/Kobus & Associates, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, told me that companies are installing systems that give employees more control over the temperature in their work spaces.
The Automatic Office
Researchers at the MIT Media Lab are developing office furniture that could, with the help of sensors, wheels, and motors, transform as the needs of workers shift throughout the day. A desk could expand to become a conference table, and walls could descend from the ceiling to create a meeting space. Furniture could sync with a calendar or with a wearable device that could tell, for instance, that an employee has been sitting for too long.
“Maybe our two desks should get together and create a room for us,” Hasier Larrea, an engineer at the lab, told me. “And as soon as that meeting is over, why do we need to have a room? Could we open that room and create a socializing space?” Perhaps most appealing for budget-conscious businesses, mutable furnishings could be crammed into a much smaller area than traditional office configurations require.
Office workers may also have to get used to having robots in their midst. Knightscope, a start-up in Mountain View, has created a robot called K5 to serve as a “front-line guardian”—a nonhuman security guard. Using sensors and cameras, it can detect anomalous human behavior and beam a warning back to a command center. Meanwhile, a Canadian company called Avidbots is building robots that clean commercial spaces using laser mapping and coordinate their efforts with swarm-like communications.