Leading Architects Weigh in on the Future of Work

What will the office look like in the near future? Five architects offer their speculations.

It’s self-evident that the workplace is changing, but we might ask how dramatic these changes actually are. Looking for an answer to this question, Metropolis solicited the expert opinions from the following practitioners, in addition to designers and industry veterans

Tomas Rossant: Becoming Human

Tomas Rossant

All illustrations by Rebecca Clarke

I work mostly for nonprofit institutions. These clients tend to have smaller capital margins, pay their people less than the for-profit sector, and practice consensus driven governance. So they tend to densely pack their spaces, fear experimental new space programming, and staff (always involved in the decision making process) tend to cling to old school spaces (like private offices) as perks. They are genuinely intrigued by the cutting-edge advanced digital tools that for-profit companies are quickly embracing—but really can’t afford the investment. There just isn’t the budget to build out a custom smartphone app that would enable a company to use its office in different, more fluid ways, and optimize productivity.

So how do we take the emphasis on mobility and collaboration that we see in contemporary office design and translate it to the mission-driven nonprofit? To do this, we need to encourage exchange of protocols and ideas between the two worlds. For instance, workers in nonprofits need to be willing to give up some of their personal space for collaborative space. Traditional companies can in turn learn from the democratic atmosphere cultivated in nonprofits. The workplace improves not just through technological innovation, but also through participation.

One important thing about participation—it’s not just individual but collective. You’ll see that in any office there exist microclimates of culture and attitude. These, I think, should be supported for maximum happiness and productivity. Each cohort group should be allowed to modify their environment to curate what it is they are doing and reflect it back to the office community.

The medium through which this is done can vary. Obviously, digital tools can most seamlessly make these connections, but at the same time, we shouldn’t be afraid of still using architecture to define “thresholds and portals,” where pin-up boards and whiteboards, for example, can be curated and allow all to understand how individual work nurtures the collective. By taking both into account, the workplace becomes not just smart, but sentient. That is to say, it becomes human.

Tomas Rossant is an architect and a design partner at Ennead.

Eva Maddox: Meeting Your Happiness Quota

Eva Maddox

There’s no getting around it—the future is unpredictability. That’s not to say that it’s unpredictable or somehow unknowable (which, of course, it is that as well). By unpredictability I mean the concept that things are changing exponentially in every direction. You need a guide to making some sense of it all.

The answer is design logistics. The introduction of innovative, data-collecting technologies into the workplace has the potential to really improve our worklife. But we need to learn how to manage and use them so that they connect all the dots for us. In other words, we have to design the ways we sustain the delivery of services, information, and feedback.

This requires a certain creativity on the part of the designer. It almost becomes an artistic response—and it’s something we’re already seeing. For example, Gen-Z’ers are totally dedicated to well-being and to making a difference in the world. That dedication will lead them to think differently about what role work plays in their lives and in society.

It might be overly optimistic of me, but I think that future changes in the workplace will be motivated by people’s happiness—by the “happiness quota.” People are going to be more connected to their jobs. They’re going to see them as being more meaningful because their work is meaningful. And the office will have to follow suit. Your workplace will be tailored to you.

This is where Big Data comes in. To be optimistic once more, this data could be used in productive ways, not just for customizing your work area, or for cultivating the conditions for creativity, but also to foster connections between what will surely be a more demographically varied workforce. There will be an intergenerational aspect to work that doesn’t really exist now. You will have people in their 70s sharing the same workspace with 20-year-olds. Just think of the creative potential!

Eva Maddox is a branded environment designer and was a design principal at Perkins+Will until her retirement from the firm in 2016. Currently, she is the consulting principal at Eva Maddox Design Strategies, LLC.

Christine Barber: Go With the Flow

Christine Barber

You could look at the workplace and all you’d see is a collection of desks and conference tables, with people stationed at various places in between. What’s missing in this simple picture? Several things but primary among them is just how much people’s work has changed.

Work is becoming increasingly fluid in ways that need to be supported by “open design,” which shouldn’t be confused with the open-plan office. Yes, the latter is prevalent but also prevalent are different types of amenities, both in-office (cafés, lounges, outdoor spaces) and neighborhood ones (proximity to transit and entertainment). Tying these together is the Internet of Things, another kind of amenity that will soon become ubiquitous. Already there are wireless, batteryless sensors that can be placed under tables—the result is that real estate and design teams can capture in real time how space is being used and how to modify it to be more adaptable and reconfigurable. That’s open design.

You can think about open design as a conduit for fluidity but also as a means to personalize people’s experiences. In the workplace, there is fluidity on all sides of the equation—in the work itself, in the data generated by work activity, in the workforce. Data has a big part to play not just in terms of response or even prediction, but in offering choice.

This is a big change for workplace design, which typically sees boosting productivity as its primary goal. That isn’t going away but many of our clients are now focused on creating a great experience for their workforce. Today, work and life are blurred and this will only deepen in the future. Companies will increasingly focus on experience, and they will ask workers how that experience can be improved. This is a kind of socialization that breeds collaboration and, ultimately, productivity. The task for workplace designers, then, will be to embed instances of autonomy and choice in the office.

Christine Barber is a principal at Gensler and director of the Gensler Research Institute.

LoriAnn Maas: All the Essentials

LoriAnn MaasA client recently told us that he didn’t want to make the line in the building café shorter, because that line is where the junior staff can interact with senior leadership. It’s a place for democratic, productive exchange. It’s not just about the coffee!

I love that anecdote because it really illustrates where we are today and where the office is going. We’ve seen this with several of our clients; they want to create opportunities for people from all levels of the organization to meet and share thinking. They increasingly understand that great ideas come from the collective genius of the group. There’s no hope for innovation when the organization of your office prevents staff from having informal, spur-of-the-moment meetings.

Spatially, the office is moving away from a sea of workstations toward a working lab or incubator. Of course, a key facet of the incubator is the ability to display and showcase a group’s work to other teams in a company, so that everyone can be part of the conversation. Transparency and activity become the predominant conditions. The “thinking” begins to happen out in the open. And it should not be constrained to screens—whiteboards are allowed, even encouraged! It’s important to preserve tactility.

We file all these ephemeral qualities under the category “essential”—a term we are beginning to use in the same way others might use “amenity.” We think it’s an important step because it allows us to better integrate life and work. It’s not about a balance, but about deepening the connection between the two. What do you value in your workplace? What provisions and related interactions are essential to your team’s performance and the growth of the company?

Collaboration and belonging to a community is an “essential” part of the future of work. Fresh air, daylight, movement, transparency, tactility and conversation—these are all necessary elements of a successful office. And don’t forget the coffee.

LoriAnn Maas is an interior designer and an associate director at SOM.

Nuno Moreira: Keys to Work

Nuno Moreira

More than ever, companies are seeing that every seat in an office counts—and costs. The result is the gradual replacement of permanent workspaces by open, shared, and varied spaces. If you walk into an office today, you’ll find workers lounging while working, clustered together or spread out. The configuration of the workplace can change from hour to hour, from task to task.

But this arrangement has its drawbacks, too. How do you program open-endedness into these spaces without making them muddled? How do you clarify the aims of a company while not closing it off to outside influence?

The answer is curation. It’s been said that everyone is their own curator, and there’s no reason why that shouldn’t also be the case at work. It’s the designer’s goal, then, to empower people to bring their own creativity to every part of the office.

This translates to having the right tools in place. As a designer, you have to strike that balance of flexibility (what every workplace is looking for now) and integration with technology (data-collecting sensors, for example). You need to bake these dual requirements into the architectural elements themselves. All the common components of the floor plan—walls, ceilings, and floors—have to be made mobile, flexible, and smart.

It’s a tricky thing to do, but if you get it right, you’re giving people the keys to unlocking and “remixing” the space around them. They will be able to modify their work environment, and their experience of that environment, in just a few steps. This can have a big impact on company culture, and we’re already seeing how important a factor this is becoming. A brand is strengthened when it makes it easy for people to tie into it.

Nuno Moreira is a Portuguese architect and a design director at IA Interior Architects.

Categories: Haworth