UB initiative to help workplace industry navigate mega trends

Table tents at the 2018 Innovation Exchange

Photos from the UB Innovation Exchange courtesy of Convene

Published July 23, 2018

by Rachel Teaman

From artificial intelligence to an emerging work-life “blend,” major forces are reshaping the workplace as we know it. These fast-moving mega trends have industries as diverse as design, real estate development and technology delivery scrambling to stay ahead.

A new forum organized by the UB School of Architecture and Planning could help narrow the knowledge gap by bringing the industry’s full range of stakeholders together for highly collaborative problem-solving. The UB Innovation Exchange 2018 – the first in a series of annual events on the emerging workplace – recently convened more than 80 industry leaders at One World Trade Center in New York City in an interactive workshop setting to consider the field’s most disruptive trends.

Sitting across the table from executives were students from UB, who brought their own design ideas based on an architectural studio on the future of work.

Described by its organizers as “part unconference, part hackathon” the forum flips the script on the traditional conference by putting the creative energy in the hands of participants. The podium stood empty after panelists talked about the industry’s three largest forces – people, place and technology – and participants huddled at their tables to diagram adaptive strategies to global trends including the “gig economy,” increased life expectancy, and the rise of mega cities.

Participants represented the workplace industry’s biggest players, including global design firms Gensler, CannonDesign and HOK; WeWork and Convene in the co-working space; The Durst Organization, one of the largest office building owners in New York City; corporate users like BlackRock, Verizon, and TD Bank; DIRTT Environmental Solutions and Steelcase in the design, furnishing and construction sector; and consultants from Realcomm and the International WELL Building Institute.

The School of Architecture and Planning developed the program with a network of professional partners at work in the industry, particularly in the New York City area. The UB Innovation Exchange was conceived as a way to break down silos in an industry of disparate parts, generate innovation through new academic-practice connections, and put students face-to-face with potential employers.

"There is a core group of experts dealing with the evolving workplace among our professional and alumni network in New York City," said Mark Foerster, UB senior fellow in real estate and chief organizer of the initiative. “Our goal is to tap this creative energy and have an on-going forum for innovation.”

Marc Bruffett

Marc Bruffett, a princial of Gensler and graduate of UB, served as chair of the UB Innovation Exchange.

Marc Bruffett (BAED ’92), a Gensler principal and expert on workplace strategies, chaired the event. “Workplace is not simply desks and chairs. It's a complex orchestration of many different elements. Workplace affects all of us. The critical question we all want to know in this time of change is ‘what do we do now?’”  

Indeed, the changing dynamics of work – where, when and how it takes place – affect the way offices are designed and built, the health and wellbeing of workers, and the relationship of work to public space. Consider the rise of collaborative workspaces and the need for mobility in today’s workforce, all of which require different technological, spatial and business process supports.

Joining the panel on “place” was Christopher J. Kelly, co-founder and president of Convene, an event and work space network. He put the state of the industry in stark terms: “The shared economy and technology are on a collision course with real estate, the largest asset class on the planet. There's this big boom that's about to happen and reshape everything as it spins out. We need to think about how the individual experience of a desk or an office is changing. How is the [office] floor changing? How is the design of the asset and the building changing? And how is the entire ecosystem of real estate and the way that it operates changing?”

Phil Kirschner delivers his keynote address

Phil Kirschner of WeWork delivered the event's keynote address.

Kelly says Convene operates work spaces like a “full-service hotel,” where the focus is on experience, hospitality and shared infrastructure and amenities. In this working environment, the location and nature of work is constantly shifting. “My name is on almost one million square feet of space, but I don’t own an office or a desk.”

WeWork, whose director of workplace strategy, Phil Kirschner, delivered the event’s keynote address, is now the world’s largest network of shared workspaces. The company both manages and develops buildings as multi-tenant, collaborative environments. Billing itself at the head of a movement toward “humanizing work,” the company website states: “The nature of work is changing. Recruitment, retention, innovation, and productivity now require not just coffee, but also yoga, not just printers, but also art installations.”

Eric Englehardt speaks to a table of attendees

Of course, driving much of this dynamic is the worker – for whom businesses are fiercely competing. Eric Engelhardt (BPS ’94), senior managing director for The Durst Organization and head of leasing for One World Trade Center, said this yardstick challenges even the most premier spaces. “I see it day in and day out as I pitch this wonderful building. As beautiful as these views are, companies want to understand how will this space help them secure and retain the best talent?”

As employees engage the 24/7 culture of work, expectations for the work experience rise considerably. With companies like Apple and Google raising the bar, the work environment has become a one-stop-shop for recreation, wellness, dining, and even mental health resources.

The public health implications are not lost on industry leaders. Following the lead of countries in Europe, several U.S. states have proposed adopting the WELL Building Standard for government buildings. Insurers are considering lower premiums for corporations that follow similar standards.

The explosive growth of technology presents constant challenges to the traditionally slow-moving real estate industry. As BlackRock Managing Director James Camille (BA ’92) noted, as many as two to three technology life cycles can elapse by the time an office building is completed.

Engelhardt agrees: “The fixed environment takes a long time to procure and is very expensive.”

Andrew Laing

Meanwhile, pervasive computing, artificial intelligence and big data have entered the purview of every organization. Businesses find themselves in the ethical waters of privacy and the social fabric of our communities.

Andrew Laing, professor at Princeton University’s School of Architecture and recently head of workplace strategy for Bridgewater Associates, weighed in on the event’s technology panel. “It’s [technology] bigger than us. It's built into the streets and buildings we occupy. It’s completely changing how we live, how we work, how we use buildings,” he said, adding that new building typologies may emerge as work seeps into the home and public spaces.

UB architecture students addressed this very question through a spring 2018 graduate studio directed by Mark Shepard, UB associate professor of architecture and media study. On view in New York City for the Innovation Exchange, student projects considered the future of work, space and technology through a series of design scenarios for the year 2043.

Student work was displayed at the innovation exchange

“The studio explored the future of the workplace through the creation of a series of design fictions that speculate on the relations between work, space and technology,” said Shepard. “What futures might we imagine for the workplace? Workforces are becoming more fluid, increasingly composed of contract and temporary workers. At the same time, with the rise of the ‘gig economy’ and the ‘side hustle,’ work becomes more something one does than a place to which one commutes. How do these forces influence how we reconceive the design of the workplace?”

Student Kevin Turner (MSRED/MArch ’18), who proposed an artificial intelligence-driven leasing system based on surge pricing strategies common to ride sharing services, said the conversation had him rethinking the boundaries of AI in work and life. “The question was posed, ‘what won't it take over?’ but also ‘what don't we want it to take over?’ "

Participants walked away from the day with their wheels turning. Said Ivor Cummings (MArch/MUP ’86) of Turner & Townsend construction and management consultants: “I'm taking a lot away from today's event - it's learning how to be more adaptable, recognizing that things are changing very fast. People want to have purpose in their workplace and their lives, and are leaning towards not so much compensation but places that will treat them well.”

Laura Patel

Laura Patel, director of global partnerships for DIRTT, said the event was a lesson in the value of self-education. “The reality is attending events like this today, we kind of have a glimpse of how vast this field is and how impossible it is to be an expert in everything. We need to take responsibility to continually educate ourselves.”

Bruffett said he was humbled by the expertise in the room. “I came here today to offer the perspective of a professional practitioner. I leave feeling a little bit like a student once again, because there's so much to know and understand and to master. This topic of workplace and where it's going is vast. It's complex. It's evolving quickly.”

Others walked away with a renewed sense of purpose and urgency in the face of radical and unwieldy change.

Olive Ho (MArch ‘93), vice president of workplace strategy for Cushman & Wakefield’s San Francisco office, saw new roles for the architect. “The current [design and development] process is quite long and complex. There's a big gap between what we deliver and the client’s occupation of the space.”

An architect herself, Ho continued: “I think as design professionals, we need to rethink and reframe the roles we can take on during that project delivery process.”

Dean Robert Shibley

Dean Robert Shibley addresses guests at the UB Innovation Exchange in New York City in May.

Dean Robert Shibley was inspired by the start of a new, powerful conversation on the evolving workplace. “What we're finding out is that we can't know exactly where it's going. But we don't have to be victims of that,” he remarked at the close of the event. “We can actually, in a cultural way, decide where we want it to go, and make sure that the confluence of people, real estate and technology all happen in service of the culture we want to construct.”

Plans are already in development for the UB Innovation Exchange 2019. Contact Mark Foerster to learn more: markfoer@buffalo.edu.

Event Photos