By Kieran Dahl
As part of our ongoing exploration of the future of the office, we spoke with Alan Robles, who’s responsible for new technology initiatives at Gensler — one of the leading design firms in the world. With over 20 years of experience in strategic design implementations at every scale and development phase, it’s safe to say Alan is a veteran of tech and design. He’s currently focused on developing technology-rich experiences for Gensler clients, particularly in hospitality and retail, along with co-leading an effort to explore the opportunities that come with real-time rendered environments — and creating the processes by which these technologies will be leveraged by the firm.
Kieran Dahl: What’s the biggest impact that technological advancements have had on workplace design? Alan Robles: Technology transforms workplace. It’s well documented. You can look back at historical photos of landmark office buildings and see how the change from paper records to electronic records completely transformed those environments over a short period of time. The biggest change we’ve seen in recent years has been the impact of mobility. We’re now seeing communal spaces replacing the basic need for the traditional individual work stations because people like to work where they’re comfortable and can find their productive groove. KD: What does the workplace of the future look like? AR: We foresee a mobility-centered productivity model where the personal device, the mobile phone, is the center of productivity. Mobile devices are increasing in power to the point where they’ll be able to do all of the work we’re getting from desktop and laptop computing. Apple recently announced that they’ll be using the same chips in their laptops as in their phones. Similar with Samsung that has a product that lets you use your phone just like a computer. These technology changes will further the evolution of the way “place” fulfills our needs. Sensor and IoT technologies will allow us to understand our places better and adjust them to our use as the way we use them evolves. Additionally, as Augmented Reality technologies mature, we’ll start to see some of the physical artifacts replaced by virtual ones and their functionality delivered through new devices.
KD: What software or apps keep your workplace running smoothly and efficiently? AR: They’re all the same kinds of apps we’ve been using for years, only they’re being used through more devices and in new, flexible ways due to multi-platform access. Being able to swap from a laptop to a mobile phone to a conference room computer to the cloud. This flexibility allows space to be used more dynamically. KD: What are the most important physical products—gadgets, furniture, etc.—in your workplace? AR: Wi-Fi networks are by far the most impactful technologies in any place where devices are needed to be productive. Without that secure connectivity we’d be back in the dark ages of technology. Those blinking boxes mounted to the open ceiling are by far the kings in this technology, work ecosystem. KD: How has the rise of the Internet of Things affected the way you approach office design? AR: IoT is still in its infancy as far as the general practice of architecture is concerned. The systems to leverage all of the promise of connected places are still being rolled out and matured. We’re looking at a future where the building will have a sort of spatial awareness that will allow us to understand the way they perform and through that understanding allow us to make better use of the space.
KD: What are your thoughts on the trend of activity based work? AR: It’s part of the overall picture. No one thing ever wholly replaces another. We see unassigned workstations as part of the overall mix. It’s really about the kind of work that gets done. Some environments are better suited for more of it and others are just not. Education is a huge part of this. Without proper preparation, education, and buy-in from the ultimate users of unassigned workplaces, change is challenged to take permanent hold and be successful. For existing workplaces looking to evolve into unassigned workstations, a generous ramp-up program that allows those impacted by the change to become stakeholders in the transformation is key to success. At Gensler, we work to incorporate employee feedback into our design at the beginning and impact after completion. KD: What technology trend will define the workplace this year? In five years? AR: Wireless networks are probably the least appreciated but is by far the most important part of the evolving workplace. As 5G matures and gives us more robust transfer rates we might be able to start to leverage very powerful computing in the cloud that lets our small devices be incredibly effective in ways we can’t access right now. In five years, decentralized computing, Augmented Reality, and Artificial Intelligence will transform the way we use information. KD: What element of the current workplace do you think will become obsolete in the near future? AR: Wires. Cables. Cable trays. Monitors. Obsolete is a strong word. Faxes are still around from place to place. We’ve seen the evolution in computer displays from CRTs to LCD. The next computer display may only exist through the use of Augmented Reality. We might see the disappearance of desk phones very soon in some workplaces.
KD: How would you recommend other companies stay up to date on workplace trends and technology? AR: Invest in your network. It will offer you the most future opportunities as new technologies become viable and useful. We become very focused on influencers in some contexts. We have to keep in mind where their influence comes from, and evaluate its true value. Don’t get swayed by trends and make sure every technology proposition is rooted in practical data that validates its promise. Paraphrasing the words of others, without data, you’re just a person with an opinion. KD: What’s another company with a workplace—the physical space, the atmosphere, etc.—you admire? AR: I’m biased. In the 11 years I’ve been at Gensler we’ve done amazing work for our clients in every market sector. I’ve seen gorgeous workplaces, opulent workplaces, dynamic workplaces, innovative workplaces, scrappy ones, conservative ones, frugal ones, too many to recount. Each one a reflection of a specific culture – either aspirational, or an expression of what is actually there. Ultimately it’s the happiness of the workforce that draws my admiration. That’s the true measure of success for any workplace. Personally, I am fond of the work we did for Riot Games in Los Angeles
KD: Is there anything I didn’t ask that you think is important? AR: Technology has always been an influencer in the workplace. From the earliest days of society. The chisel, as an example, is a tool of a workplace. But we have to remember that you will get different results from a chisel in the hands of a journeyman than you will when it is wielded by an artisan. All of these new technologies are still only as good as the professionals who put them into practice. And we have to design with people as the center of our universe.