How the tech world’s new generation of women leaders are helping to transform work and workplaces

Why the Tech World’s Influence on Office Design is Bigger than just Technology 

All trends in office design are invariably influenced by a number of different forces. This is what can make office design so informative about the world in which we live. If you look beyond the just the immediate aesthetics of a workplace, you'll find a space that has undoubtedly been shaped by a combination of social, economic, technological, commercial and demographic changes.

Some of these influencers are more evident than others, and most would agree that at the forefront is technology. In an obvious way, technology a driver of workplace change for very practical reasons, for example the use of laptops and tablets has invoked a shift away from the traditional need for a desk for every employee. But less remarked upon is how the technology sector itself is shifting thinking on the design of physical workspace.

What the leaders in the tech industry in Silicon Valley do with their offices today, the rest of the world puts into practice tomorrow and we can already see the influence of the tech sector across a range of office types.

A female Influence

Once upon a time, being an important player in tech was associated with something coldly corporate. In the days when IBM was referred to as ‘Big Blue’ and the firm imposed a strict dress code on its executives, the tech world was as male-dominated and rigidly hierarchical as any other sector; and it had offices to match.

The world has moved on in a number of ways. For a start, IBM now has a female CEO, and women lead or hold senior positions in many tech companies including Hewlett Packard, Intel, Yahoo, Facebook, YouTube, IBM, Xerox, Oracle and Baidu. The industry perhaps remains male-dominated in many respects but its culture and approach to management is increasingly diverse and inclusive.

Inclusive Design

This inclusivity is driving change in the way offices are designed. We always must be wary of stereotypes, especially when there are other forces for change at play, including the proliferation of more people-focussed working environments in response to new and more agile ways of working. In simple terms, EQ is catching up with IQ as the dominant characteristic of the new generation of working cultures at tech firms. The women who lead these organisations may be instrumental in this change but so too are many of the men, as anybody who has seen Mark Zuckerberg talking so passionately about his new offices would know.

The defining characteristic of offices that work equally well for everybody is that they should do so effortlessly. In 2005, the British Standards Institute (2005) defined inclusive design as "The design of mainstream products and/or services that are accessible to, and usable by, as many people as reasonably possible ... without the need for special adaptation or specialised design."

CABE once went into more detail and offered up a range of features that form the blueprint of an inclusive design:

  • Inclusive – so everyone can use it safely, easily and with dignit
  • Responsive – taking account of what people say they need and want
  • Flexible – so different people can use it in different ways
  • Convenient – so everyone can use it without too much effort or separation
  • Accommodating for all people, regardless of their age, gender, mobility, ethnicity or circumstances
  • Welcoming – with no disabling barriers that might exclude some people
  • Realistic – more than one solution to balance everyone’s needs, one solution may not work for all

These characteristics are particularly important for those industries that need to develop a more diverse and inclusive workforce, and so especially for organisations working in STEM fields. It's no surprise to see that so many of the world's tech firms are not only looking for cultural change at the top but also throughout the organisation.

Influencing others 

The end result for an increasing number of organisations across all sectors is a greater focus on the humane elements of workplace design and offering people far greater choice of how and where to work. For some this might mean a traditional office, for others a cafe or soft seating. Technology is, as ever, the main enabler of this development but it is often the tech firms themselves who are the pioneers of an approach that embraces everybody.

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