The most popular working spot in Eindhoven, the newest flexible workspace in De Witte Dame, a former industrial Philips building, Out of Office appeared to be the embodiment of freedom, suiting the work ethic of the 21st century. 

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Out of Office - Eindhoven, Netherlands - 2014 - Knol 

Beyond The Office: Workplace As A Service

There is a wonderful parallelism in the adoption of cloud-based computing – such as collaborative work technologies – and the growing availability of unbundled workspace offerings. Companies don’t have to sign up for five year leases, buy office furniture, or even arrange for Internet, electricity, or other services. Today, companies are presented with a broad range of workplace-as-a-service offerings.

These offerings scale from an enterprise of one to large consulting firms that want to place a team in a city center near a client site for the duration of a project, and many other variants. 

Motivations are also varied. Some companies are trying to save vital capital while remaining agile. Others are intentionally moving the workforce out of the traditional headquarters to get them closer to clients, or to minimize commuting and increase quality of life. The drivers are productivity, creativity, flexibility, and increased customer and employee satisfaction, weighted by the specifics of each company’s goals.

Let’s look at some of the ways that WAAS takes shape, and how businesses of all sizes can take advantage of it.

Andrew Laing, in a recent issue of Work&Place, has a great topography of the shape of the emerging workplace:

Coworking – Coworking has grown very quickly, and is perhaps the leading example of WAAS. These are shared work environments, where individuals, small teams, or small companies have paid memberships, which are paid for in short term time periods: daily or monthly. The coworking operators provide amenities like conference rooms and café areas, which are either part of the baseline membership or paid for a la carte. Larger organizations may take advantage of the collaborative and distributed nature of coworking spaces for individuals or teams.

Open House – Just as in the case of a larger organization placing a small team in a coworking space to mix and mingle with a specific community – perhaps embedding some designers in a coworking space with many designers – a company can choose to do the mirror image: turn some part of the company’s offices into an open house, where those outside designers might be working within the company’s workplace, and cross pollinating the company’s culture in a productive way.

Working Commons – These are generally a municipal initiative, where a city might provide a semi-public working space, with places to work collaborative, mix and mingle, and network. This might build on the more traditional notions of libraries and cafés, and fuse together aspects of both.

Cohabiting – This takes the ideas of open house and working commons, and extends them. In cohabiting, a group of companies – possibly including coworking facilities – creating a large environment shared by the collective of companies and individuals. This has more the feel of a city than an office, since the different organizations might have somewhat distinct approaches about using their regions within the greater cohabitation, but relatively free egress is the norm – aside from secure areas or other special concerns. 

We know from the research of Geoffrey West and his collaborators that cities have a superlinear quality: as they double in size, innovation more than doubles. For example, a city of 10 million people will have more than double the number of patents being filed each year than a city of 5 million, for example. Roughly the same superlinear scaling occurs in salaries, and other economic proxies of productivity.

But this emergent value of cities is not just a function of size. Indeed, most companies show the opposite effect of growth: as they add more people, innovation and creativity decrease. 

Therefore, companies would be wise to organize themselves in a way that emulates the nature of cities, and less like companies. Of course, cities are more unstructured and less centrally controlled than traditional businesses are willing to take on, at least historically. 

But the rise of workplace as a service may provide a safety valve, or a jumping off point for businesses to relax the strictures of the corporate workplace, and to inject a bit more of the wild and wonderful that we see in cities. 

As Geoffrey West once observed, 

Cities tolerate crazy people. Companies don’t.

So, maybe workplace as a service is really a way to open up and get a few steps closer to the chaotic edge, along with providing a practical way to remain fluid and flexible in office management.

This post was written as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet. I’ve been compensated to contribute to this program, but the opinions expressed in this post are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.


One of Cambodia’s coworking centers. Smallworld.