UK: Designing the office of the future

This article discusses how our offices as we know them are in the throes of evolution.

If a snapshot of a “typical UK office space” was taken 10 years ago, I am sure that most people would be able to describe what they would have expected to have seen there. Open plan spaces, row upon row of desks, some compartmentalisation for private meetings… offices functioning as a physical expression of the individual’s place in the work world.

You came into the office to work. To sit down at a desk for anywhere between six and ten hours on average. Interaction between colleagues was localised and “flexible working” was frowned on. The break-out space was a small kitchenette and canteens were places found on the side of roads offering fried egg sandwiches for the weary traveller. The “Eco Office” was practically unheard of and sustainability was more often than not, a tick-box exercise.

And then, as if a whirlwind entered the building, “TMT”, “Gen Y”, inclusivity, flexible working and the “creative working environment” arrived, transforming the world of work, and workplace design, as we know it forever.

So, what are the key trends that designers and developers need to be aware of over the next five years?

A         Multi-generational workplaces

We are now in the unusual position that the workplace, going forward, will consist of multiple generations, cultures and ethnicities. We are multi-lingual and multi-cultural. The Baby Boomers and “Gen X” population are showing no inclination to head off to retirement pastures and instead, are having to come to terms with the “Gen Y” population. (That is, the first generation that has little, or no inkling of a technology-free world). Such diversity forms a “social interaction” development that will affect workplace environments going forward.

B          Mixed-mode spaces

The office is becoming a more virtual environment. Remote video conferencing, email and internet access are enabling widespread remote-working opportunities. Correspondingly the physical office space needs to develop into more of a place that allows people to meet and greet and less of the “work house” predominant in the current offer. Space Standards per se will no longer be the sole measure of the way we gauge how buildings are used and mixed-mode spaces will need to be designed to enable the flexible life-style of the worker to best be utilised.

C          Wellness and Productivity

Ergonomics will continue to evolve, with more focus on encouraging people to move around a space rather than stay at their PC. Similarly, the environment in which the worker operates from, will need to be designed to allow the employee to feel better connected to the outside. Natural light, water features, landscape inspired colours and patterns, will work with flexible spaces which allow for a more varied social interaction than currently takes place. Layouts will hence look to incorporate acoustic pods, break-out areas, lounges, noise-cancelling zones and brainstorming barns instead of expansive swathes of desk bays. Big IT companies like Google and Microsoft and Retail houses like Nike and Apple are already leading the way.

And what about the future beyond the next five years?

Technology will continue to evolve the fabric of our work environment. Sensory recognition software, programmes that respond to voice, handwriting, fingerprint and optical input can all play a role. Nano-technology and “intelligent” building materials, which notify management when an element is about to fail, could be achievable. In terms of ergonomics, it could be possible that a sensor in a desk chair could detect back tension and signal the chair to give a massage to its occupant…

In conclusion, we as humans interact in many more ways than we did previously. We spend more time in the office and yet our social interaction in these places is currently stifled due to the traditional office layout. If we expect our employees to be retained and to enjoy working with our companies, we need to seriously consider how flexible working, transitory interaction and social media must all play an important and critical role in the design of office environments going forward. 

In short, the office of the future should become a social experience ...
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