Space make not space plan: how the office is being radicalized

Radical changes in the layout and feel of the general office, and the reasons behind them, is leading to the design of workspaces to being more about place-making than space planning.


Words by Barry Jenkins

I am frequently advised that the office today is less about repetitive manual tasks and more about creative collaboration. This is widely accepted as the way that smart, attractive companies work, and that the spaces they occupy express creativity, their core values and their success.

The impact of information technology and mobile communications has enabled considerable change in the workplace. In addition socio-economic changes have altered workers' expectation of what an ideal workplace is. Practices such as agile and remote working has led to a recognition that a diverse range of settings works best, thereby challenging the traditional approach of standardisation. Today there are options, so that rows of identical desks are not always necessary, viable or productive.

One high-profile example of this trend is Google that, as a relatively new breed of company, represents a break with conventional ideas and as a result creates 'cool' workplaces. Clearly its offices with beach huts and telephone kiosks must contribute to its brand identity, and in turn may also resonate with potential employees and customers alike. But while employing theatrics in the design of a workspace creates a variety of distinctive 'settings', is it becoming as emblematic of tech companies as the walnut-panelled boardroom is of more traditional organisations? That said, thinking beyond conventional space planning, which is more like a functional head-count, does reflect a desire to nurture unique cultural values - no matter how formulaic the physical realisation may be.

Until about 20 years ago the aim of creating workplaces was about housing a task-specific workforce in a space-efficient way. The office was organised like a factory: in departments, with furniture designed to support process and hierarchal organisation. Corporate culture was reflected through exclusive corporate statements rather than inclusive social cultures. But thanks to recessions, social change and, of course, the advance of information technology and mobile communications, the office of today has the potential to be a very different place for those organisations that understand the value of culture.

To that end, I think it is entirely correct that the design of a workplace should be about how the workforce will use it and connect to it. It is also about how the environment will enable the workforce to work effectively and contribute to the inherent culture by merging environment and activity with purpose or meaning.

But this shift from the earlier one-size-fits-all approach has left some aspects of the office furniture industry displaced, evident at the most recent Orgatec in Cologne last October. Until recently desk systems used to be the dominant component in the workplace and would have been the star of any office trade fair.

The desk system used to drive the design of the office, the dynamics between co-workers, and integrate the IT of the day. But in the early Nineties an economic downturn saw the price of the typical workstation fall dramatically, leading to simplification that gave rise to the bench. This shift was aided by the emergence of the PC, and as workforces shrank part of the budget once spent on desks went towards IT. This increased productivity, while reducing labour costs, ushered in a new era of workplace development. This forms the basis of much of what we see now, leaving the desk system looking for a new direction and conspicuous by its absence at Orgatec 2014.

The financial collapse of 2008 triggered another period of change and was the wake-up-call corporations needed. It led to a reduction of waste by questioning the need to provide a workstation for each worker - that might in reality only be occupied for a fraction of the day. What has developed, amid the growth of 'agile working' and 'free address', is a new office landscape in which pods and high-back sofas have replaced or supplemented rows of fixed desks. So does this suggest desk-based office systems are dead?

And if they are, is it entirely appropriate to expect workers to be comfortable, content and productive without access to a safe and stable workstation?

While we may accept that workspaces today need to offer a diverse range of settings and that workers may be more nomadic, we must also acknowledge that at some point in the working week they will need to sit or increasingly stand and undertake process work. They will also require privacy in addition to using those convivial 'creative' spaces we see as emblems of new ways of working.

But I expect that behind the hammocks and pinball tables seen in 'cool' offices seeking to promote a unique sense of place, there are places where people work more conventionally.

But due to how, when and where we now work, I think the workspace is free to define an individual sense of place, which in urban design parlance brings together location or physical character, activity and meaning in a process known as 'place making'. This approach is entirely about expressing and nurturing culture. Apply this to the workplace and reflect the shift away from 'space planning', and the activity today for shaping a workplace based on change (that also reflects inherent and shared values) is no longer about space planning, but more about 'place making'.

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