We don’t work in the same way as we did 150 years ago—and, as the way we work as changed, so too has office design. The last twenty years in particular have brought about a sea change: Rather than simply typing at a computer all day, the workaday ideal involves meetings and brainstorming sessions. A lounge might be every bit as productive as a cubicle, and that lesson has been embraced by dotcoms and ad agencies.

But there’s another vision primed for mainstream offices: The “mobile Office,” where no one gets an assigned seat, and anyone can choose a different work environment every day. L.A.-based Clive Wilkinson Architects recently completed a 3,000-person Mobile Office project in Sydney, Australia, for the financial giant Macquarie Group. Wilkinson spoke with Fast Company about why mobile offices work—and why they fail.

As a project architect for Frank Gehry, Wilkinson worked on one of the earliest versions of the mobile office, for Chiat/Day, in the early 1990s. (Pictured) Each day, employees checked out a phone and a Powerbook at a concierge—and then scrambled to find one of the few available seats. Despite Jay Chiat’s bold vision, it was a fiasco: Employees reliant on paper used their car trunks as filing cabinets. Executives commandeered conference rooms as offices. And if you didn’t get to work early enough, you didn’t get a seat. Jay Chiat finally gave up on the experiment after four years.
“We didn’t understand everything it took to make it work,” Wilkinson says. “And the state of technology was fairly unevolved.” The Macquarie office is a far different story: Since opening last October, the new arrangement has yielded over 90% employee satisfaction.
So what’s different? “When you give up a permanent seat, you give up a nest,” says Wilkinson. “A mobile office design has to give something back in return. That’s the key.” Wilkinson worked closely with Veldhoen & Co, a Dutch office-design consulting firm that advocates “activity based working.”
They created over ten different sorts of working environments—from high-walled cubbies for writing reports, to one-on-one meeting rooms for intense collaboration, to big comfortable lounges for group projects.
Mobile offices are up in several places in the world—firms that use them include Interpolis, the Dutch insurance giant, Nokia, and Accenture, the tech-consulting firm. The primary draw is economic: On any given day, only 40-50% of a typical office is filled, due to sickness or travel or vacation. That translates to wasted money on real estate. “Macquarie realized they could scale back the office size, but build a better office,” says Wilkinson.

The key though is that you have to built in lots of cushion, in case more people happen show up on day, and, more importantly, to give people lots of freedom of choice. At Macquarie, 50% attendance translates to 85% occupancy in the new office.

But the office isn’t simply a jumble of dotcom-style playrooms. “Everything is designed to be ergonomic,” says Wilkinson. “Something might look like a sofa, but the measurements are made for sitting up and working.” You can see that in here...

...and here...
...and here.
The office itself has numerous “neighborhoods” housing about 100 workers each. Meanwhile, each floor has plazas modeled on classic common spaces--ranging from Playroom to Coffee House to Library to...
...Garden.
The building is, of course, exceptionally green: It uses about 50% of the energy of a similar building.
Architecturally, Wilkinson says he’s most proud of the transparency that makes every part of the office. Twenty-six meeting pods float in midair around the 10-story atrium...
...
...From any part of the building, a visitor can see the actual work of banking being done. “Transparency is contrary to the archetype of a bank. They’re supposed to be fortified and immovable,” says Wilkinson. “That’s finally being turned on its head. Here, radical transparency is a breakthrough. Clients can come in and actually experience the business.” He adds: “With all these factors, this is the most important project we’ve ever done.”