Workplace of the future

In the company of some of the leading workplace designers, Jamie Mitchell travels into the future to examine how we will be working, where we will be working from, and what will be the impact on office furniture manufacturers

Evoking a typical American office of the Fifties in his novel Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates described ‘a big open room, ablaze with fluorescent ceiling lights, that had been divided into a maze of aisles and cubicles by shoulder-high partitions.’

Flick through the pages of FX and you’ll get the impression that things have changed a great deal since then. Now, you might think, everyone works in fun offices with slides to play on; nowadays there are offices designed to look like the seaside or a village green, and futuristic offices that someone transported from the Fifties might mistake for the inside of a spaceship.

These days companies such as Google, Microsoft and Facebook are serious about making their offices places of fun: ‘loose’, ‘collaborative’ spaces where fun and games are almost as important as ‘productivity’.

Many workplace designers, including ID:SR, which designed the BBC’s new northern headquarters at MediaCity in Salford, now favours an approach known as activity-driven design, in which the office is designed to fit around the activities of its workers. This style of working does away with the cellular offices that help underpin traditional workplace hierarchies in favour of flexible work settings that promote communication between teams and give employees the freedom to choose how, where and when they work. But for the great majority of office workers, the experience of going to work is not a million miles removed from the maze of desks and partitions Yates describes.

‘We haven’t truly innovated in the workplace for a long time,’ says Philip Ross, CEO of UnWork, an organisation that conducts research into the way we work. ‘If you look right back to the Twenties and the first big offices in New York and other places, the idea was to base the office on the factory production line, and many organisations still haven’t swayed from that. It’s still about grouping people by department, and making sure the office reflects the corporate hierarchy.’

Ross points out that office design has traditionally been led by technology. Rows of desks, which once supported typewriters, now support personal computers, while ergonomic chairs – big business in the world of office design – support workers who sit for long periods of time as they type or click away. There’s an obvious problem with this approach: the infrastructure of office technology takes up a great deal of valuable space. ‘For a start there’s the server that’s the infrastructure of most large companies,’ says Ross. ‘In the future that won’t be necessary because all that will be housed in the Cloud, [a shared virtual data centre]. Some 20 years ago we were dominated by technology and I would say that heavy infrastructure has really limited what can be done in terms of design. Most offices are just seas of desks, and that’s been dictated by the technology that has anchored people to those desks.’

But Ross believes we’re at the cusp of the greatest shift in working practices since the invention of the office. We are living in a period of accelerating change in which new technology and rapid shifts in culture seem poised to change the workplace beyond recognition. ‘If you imagine the workplace of the future you could say that in 20 to 30 years none of the technology we have in the office now will be there,’ he says.

Ian Pearson, an ex-engineer, ‘futureologist’ and author, agrees: ‘I think that in 20 or 30 years’ time, many of us won’t actually go to the office in the conventional sense. Technology will take over a lot of office drudgery.’

But hold on – doesn’t this sound a bit like the unfulfilled promise of a paperless office? Pearson concedes that, while we won’t need to go to the office every day, workers will still want a place where they can come together. ‘I think human and interpersonal skills will dominate the workplace in 20 to 30 years time, rather than intellectual skills, which may well be automated,’ he says. ‘If you have an economy dominated by interpersonal skills then you’re going to have to have a lot of face-to-face meetings with your clients. So the office, rather than being a place with rows of desks and computer screens, will be oriented around meeting spaces. It will be a place to go where there are coffee rooms and meeting rooms. I think the office as we know it today will probably all but disappear in most industries.’

Last year, the British Council for Offices (BCO) and Property Week ran a competition challenging architects and designers to come up with designs for a hypothetical ‘workplace of the future’. The time was 2018, the location a fictional island called Riduna (the ancient name for Alderney). The brief was to design a working environment for 5,000 employees of a fictitious media company.

Responses to the brief were hugely varied, but all of them suggested a more flexible, adaptable form of working. The winning design by architecture practice tp bennett proposed, among other ideas, rooms which grow and shrink depending on how many people are using them and a workstation on a ledge of a cliff face which could be reached only by abseiling – taking ‘anywhere working’ to the extreme. The project was a bit of fun, of course, but it also raised some pertinent questions about the way we work and the way we might work in the future.

‘I think it’s absolutely vital to think about how the workplace might change in the future,’ says Rob Beacock of tp bennett, ‘particularly in terms of architecture. Buildings are incredibly expensive objects to erect and unless you properly consider how that building is likely to perform, not only in five or 10 years but in the next 20 or 30 years, you’re potentially building in redundancy.’

Beacock continues: ‘What we’ve learned in the past five to 10 years is that technology has freed-up the workplace. We now have the technology that enables people to work in a cafe, on a park bench, from home, or at their open-plan meeting space, so you don’t have to build so much space. But technology also has this funny way of distancing people from each other, and we have to be careful that in allowing things like video-conferencing to replace physical meetings we don’t lose that post-meeting banter and shaking one another’s hands.

What Beacock asked first was whether a building would be necessary at all. ‘While that might sound far-fetched, some very interesting things came out of that thought process. So, as well as allowing people to work remotely, we as designers also have to provide a multitude of different flexible spaces where people can come together and collaborate.’

For the BCO competition Beacock and his fellow designers decided to deconstruct the components of a traditional office building into four elements: ‘Workspace, which we’d recognise as being an open-plan area with desks; primary circulation, which includes corridors and cores and toilets; central support facilities, which could be auditoria and large meeting rooms; and then auxiliary support, which are breakout and meeting areas.’

They decided to do away with the workspace, reasoning that mobile technology with data stored in a ‘cloud’ system would mean staff could work anywhere. The central support spaces then became social spaces, a bit like cinemas.

‘We said, if we don’t have a building for this we’ll consider the workforce as a community of people rather than employees in a building. Doing that enabled us to say that the workspace, can be anywhere,’ says Beacock.

‘That enabled us to throw away that piece of redundant building. It then allowed us to take things like central support facilities and consider them as being like cinemas or town halls. For things like ancillary support and meeting spaces we envision these like remote collaboration pods – flexible, adaptable, mini buildings that would exist all over the island and enable anyone, no matter where they were on the island, to book a meeting room using the cloud network, which would locate the nearest meeting pod for them.’

Another of the practices that entered the completion, Gensler, decided not to design a workplace at all. Instead the practice focused on the theoretical aspects of the project, considering the factors that could affect workplace design in the future. Gensler conceived the idea of ‘a formless, deskless, timeless workplace’, which could be shared by inventors, scientists, academics and entrepreneurs.

When the project ended, Gensler decided to take things further. The team behind the submission partnered with the BCO to open up a debate among ‘likeminded, forward-thinking industry professionals’. This time, though, the hypothetical dial was set a decade further on – in the year 2028.

In March last year, Gensler’s head of consulting Philip Tidd organised an event called Rethinking the Office. He invited a diverse group of people including interior designer Ken Giannini of Scott Brownrigg Interior Design, workplace specialist and RCA professor Jeremy Myerson, and Richard Wheal of engineering firm Arup. The idea was to bring together people from different backgrounds and with different skills and interests to explore the issues that will come to define the way the workplace of the future looks and functions.

Working together, Giannini and Myerson echoed Philip Ross’s view that ‘the next decade will see more profound change in the world of work than the previous two, and that this will have a lasting impact on the way we perceive and design our “office” space’.

Giannini and Myerson predicted a move away from ‘efficiency’, with employers embracing ‘effectiveness’ instead. Where efficiency was all about getting the most out of a workplace – fitting the maximum number of desks in, for example – effectiveness means asking how the design of offices might increase positivity, satisfaction and wellbeing.

Another idea was ‘the death of the office’, or at least the corporate office, as we know it. Giannini and Myerson suggested that, as communication technology improves, workers will be more likely to collaborate virtually than physically. Those who still go to the office might use one local to their home, or one shared by like-minded people, rather than workers from the same company.

Kevin Chapman, of property group Lend Lease, and Duncan Trench, of property developer Development Securities, took this idea further, imagining a return to a system resembling medieval guilds in which workers doing similar jobs come together to share knowledge and experience. Indeed, we are already beginning to see this taking shape in areas such as Shoreditch in London, which has become a centre for technology and new-media companies.

Matt Kitson, of Hilson Moran, and Richard Wheal, of Arup, discussed the meaning of sustainability in the workplace. They predicted the rise of so-called ‘Nett Zero Carbon Communities’ replacing the idea of carbon-neutral buildings. Buildings, it was suggested, will begin to interact with their environments and produce, rather than consume, energy. They rejected the idea that carbon-neutral buildings will be too expensive by 2028, as ‘technology will save the day’, with smaller devices taking up less space and using less energy.

Also considering developments in technology, Nigel Miller, of technology consultancy Cordless, and Nigel Clark, of engineering consultancy Hilson Moran, suggested that as technology gets small and light enough for us to carry, the ‘mobile worker’ will spell the end of fixed hardware such as desktop PCs and phones. If they’re right, then perhaps the writing’s on the wall for desks and expensive ergonomic task chairs, too.

‘I think the desk as an idea is really under threat,’ agrees Tom Lloyd of design studio PearsonLloyd. And he also predicts that the task chair will lose its place as the main ‘status’ item of furniture. ‘I think the task chair has always been a brand extension of the furniture company, rather than something that gives the user what they actually need,’ he says.

Offices have typically comprised large areas dominated by desks, but Lloyd says the office of tomorrow will have collaborative space at its heart. He points out that modern offices, with their open-plan work areas, are largely unsuitable for tasks that require privacy. ‘Offices generally have a mix of open-plan work areas, meeting rooms and breakout spaces, so if you want to work alone you either have to put your headphones on or go to a meeting room and take up the entire space. ‘So the traditional typologies of furniture are skewed towards formal and group settings. The two things that we at PearsonLloyd have been trying to work towards are: how do you support an individual experience, and how do you support an informal experience?’

In 2011 PeasonLloyd designed a range of furniture for Bene called Parcs, which supports collaborative working. More recently it supplemented Parcs with a complementary range called Docklands, semi-enclosed touch-down workstations which give workers the privacy that is so often lacking from today’s open-plan offices.

But Lloyd says that furniture designers and manufacturers have been slow to grasp the opportunities offered by new technology and new ways of working. ‘There have only been about six to eight core pieces of office furniture for the past 50 years that have been designed by anyone,’ he says. ‘So you have the side chair, the conference chair, the task chair, the desk, the meeting room table... Even the best designers creating the best furniture are still working within a very narrow set of objects that are considered appropriate for the system.’

With the desk and the task chair potentially under threat then, many furniture designers and manufacturers may need to change tack quickly, but Lloyd suggests that the workplace of the future presents a golden opportunity for those creative enough to grasp it. ‘I think there are huge opportunities for change and the potential to create completely different ways of working. But I think one of the big battles will be breaking the cycle of procurement and design.’

Gensler’s Phillip Tidd agrees that this is a time of opportunity. ‘What’s happened is that all of the promises of technology that we’ve been talking about for 10 to 15 years are here now and we can work in very different ways. Technology has effectively liberated work from being a place that you go to. As we often say, “work has left the building”. You don’t have to be in the office anymore to work, you can work anywhere, so the office needs to become something different.

‘What we’re talking a lot about at Gensler is trying to predict or speculate what that means. My view is that while we have technologies at our fingertips that allow us to work anywhere, and we have fantastic virtual and collaborative tools at our disposal, you could ask, what is the point of the office?’

Only time will tell whether the next 20 years will see a revolution in the way we work and, if so, what that could mean for those who make their living from designing offices and office furniture. But one thing seems certain: the future workplace will be a far more diverse and fluid concept. And for designers willing to grasp the nettle, these are exciting times indeed.

This article was first published in fx Magazine.

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