At a recent seminar on workplace design I sat and listened to a senior interior architect extolling the virtues of a building his firm had designed for a bank. The building was a ground scraper, a 150m long, low rise workplace for thousands of people. The architect had introduced the latest in workplace thinking, large areas devoted to collaboration, a fully WiFi enabled building and roof top garden, a flexible workspace. His pride in this was evident, and justifiably so. However, as the talk progressed there was, it seemed, a realisation amongst the audience and that what we were witnessing was not the future of workplaces but a throwback, a glossy, gift wrapped version of a 1970’s workplace. Thousands of workers clocking on at 9 and clocking off at 5.30. How on earth could this constitute progress? There was the problem I thought. We are still defining work as a place rather than what we do. An architect could only define that as a physical space. We are limited by our existing definitions of workplace as to how we think about the future.
The cultural, demographic and technological changes that we will witness over the next few decades will perhaps alter our notions of work beyond recognition. The paradox is that architects are less able to design the future workplace because the future “workplace” is not a physical space but rather a combination of technology, home, temporary pay per use meeting space, agreements, trust and yes, offices. We have, since the industrial revolution, defined work as a single physical space and therefore the design of workplaces has been by those trained to do so, architects and designers. Moving forward they will play a smaller, but more defined, role. This will be a good thing as this will free them up to work their magic on spaces unencumbered by concerns re technology or process but they will not lead. This will be done by an emerging breed of change enablers and management consultants.
As life expectancy and retirement ages increase we will shortly face the real prospect of four generations in the same workforce becoming the norm. Each with its own set of values and culture. Organisations will need to define more clearly than ever who they are yet be less able to say where they are. A truly mobile, young workforce will operate from home, their neighbourhood café, their head office and temporary meeting and workspaces such as those offered by Liquidspace. Their time in what was once a main place of work may be limited only to training and both formal and informal meetings.
When faced with establishing a new business we are going to focus on agreements, both in terms of space providers and between company and employees. Our need to trust in relationships will grow as we can no longer rely on even junior staff being supervised. The key with our physical environment will be flexibility. The challenge here is marrying the needs of finance i.e. fixed and predictable costs with the needs of a fully flexible work environment i.e. pay per use space, short term leases and fluid fitouts. Corporates will adopt fully flexible attitudes to space utilisation, few fixed partitions, more meeting spaces of all shapes and sizes, quiet spaces and, above all, connectivity.
While technology will come to define much of the future work space the irony is that little will be evident. The spread of highly protected data centres around many cities combined with low cost fibre means there will be little point in hosting our own servers other than for the most paranoid organisations. This will be essential beyond the security issue as so many of the users of this equipment won’t be anywhere near the servers anyway.
The modern workplace strategist must wear many hats, architect being only one of them. We will come to see the centralised place of work as conflicting with what more of us want out of work. Something we do, not where we go.
© Ashley Patterson October 2013