The Workplace of the Future

We need great imagination to envisage the future, but, conversely, one of the greatest problems with most forms of future-forecasting is our tendency to be too imaginative.It’s only too easy to exaggerate our appetite for change, whereas in fact our human instincts simultaneously embrace the new, whilst clinging resolutely to the known.

With a more realistic appraisal of life’s yin and yang, we see that each new advance may also have a hidden downside.  Major shifts do, of course, occur at regular intervals in the way we live and work, often birthed from new technologies. But we rarely change everything at once, nor should we.

It would be great to strike a pose and say that there will be no offices in the future—that instead, we will all be working at home or in our gardens or at the beach, via our virtual offices and technologies-on-the-move.  But it would simply not be true.  However much people complain about the fact that they have to go to work, they actually like going to the office – and they likely always will.  The office forms a necessary break from home life and remains the best route to productivity, thanks to interactive possibilities for brainstorming and team-working and the superior communication that results from face to face contact.  Workers also need an environment for social interaction, even if it’s only to moan or gossip over a cup of coffee in the kitchen.  For younger members of staff, the office is often a particularly important social space in which to make new friends—or even to meet a future partner!

So, if the physical office is to survive, what will it look like, and what factors are acting on its changing shape?  There have been a few notable office projects in the media recently, which are multi-colored, all-singing all-dancing 24-hour environments, including lots of play and chill-out spaces.  Great for a press story, but perfect examples to my mind of our tendency to ‘over-imagine’.  We cannot get away from the fact that people come to offices to work and they leave the office to play.  The answer to the increasingly flexible ways of working is NOT to make the office the answer to all of life’s needs!  This doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be some elements of entertainment incorporated into office design. But ask any employees or bosses and the answer will be the same – you come to the office primarily to work and everything should be geared to facilitating this; given the choice, most people would vote overwhelmingly for shorter working hours, rather than reinventing the office as a home / hotel / bar / night-club environment.  For an effective breakout space, nature remains the greatest inspiration, with fresh air, outdoor gardens or, even better, a roof garden, acting as a wonderful antidote to stress.

The most reliable route for predicting the future is to look at the changes already taking place and consider which of these form major trends?  Transport is a major area of change right now, for example.  More and more of us are looking for greener and healthier ways to travel to work and we have seen a huge increase in the use of bicycles over recent years.  One or two of us have even purchased electric bikes.  As a result, we will soon need to design a dedicated docking stations to accommodate all these bikes safely.  A knock-on consequence of this change is that staff need to change out of their biking clothes into smarter work clothes. Therefore more showers and changing areas will need to be added to the office space.

Like our office, every office has a very specific culture, determined by what is done within it and the types of people employed there.  It seems obvious beyond belief, but it’s amazing how few companies ever ask their own staff how they would like their future office to look and operate. Although the home office will never replace the physical office, more and more people across all types of industries will nonetheless be working partly from home or more flexible hours.  The result will be increasingly ‘intelligent’ office spaces with an ever greater numbers of tasks automated.  The liberating mobility brought about by convergence devices will be added to by new devices such as Apple’s iPod.  Hot-desking is also a trend that will not go away, with shared workspaces on the increase. More work needs to be done here to allow for personalization, though  no one wants to sit in a bland space.  This can be done by having personal storage or document drawers that wheel around to any desk in the office, for example, along with personalized digital settings not only for screens, but for desk surface lighting and for the creation of a digital wall for personalized memorabilia.

It also follows that if more time is spent out of the office or on flexible hours, the ritualistic importance of gathering all staff together at regular intervals will increase.  A good way to deal with this would be by having communal office lunches a couple of times a week.  A chef could be brought in and hearty and healthy food could be provided for free to encourage attendance. The era of the single open-plan office is surely coming to an end.  Clients realize more and more that they need zoned areas – some private and some completely public, with meeting rooms offering differing degrees of formality. For their Manchester Square office project (winner of the International Interior Design Prize at the International Property Awards, amongst others), for example, SHH created dramatically-different spaces for different types of client or internal meetings.

The design of sound will be of increasing importance to encourage people to do their best work: sound muting, ambience perfecting and the removal of reverberations and white noise can hugely increase a sense of calm at work.  There is also no excuse for poor lighting, which should always be clean and of high quality. Art is another great humanizer in the office environment and can be a very eloquent embodiment of client values and attitude to staff.  For the Manchester Square project SHH commissioned artist Hugo Dalton to create easily-updateable wall projections to animate the different circulation areas (sketches of ballet dancers morphed with floral motifs, laser-cut onto stainless steel disks and fitted into ceiling-mounted projectors), with highly striking results. The most important aspect of materials and furniture is always that they are of a human scale, good to the touch, warm and vibrant.  Whatever else may change, the human animal and his or her needs will remain constant.


Published in the hard-copy of Work Style Magazine, Spring 2010