Leading Designers Weigh in on the Future of Work

What will the office look like in the near future? Four designers 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 design practitioners, in addition to architects and industry veterans

Primo Orpilla: Mapping the Rules

Primo Orpilla

All illustrations by Rebecca Clarke

In the past decade the shape of our offices has gone from the cubicle to “bullpens” to the open plan. This shift was driven by the idea that we can have more freedom, more conversation, more fluidness within the workplace. But now the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction. We see and hear too much and are not able to concentrate on things at hand. We can’t help but be distracted.

It’s now evident that you need moments of privacy. You need moments to reflect and have some quiet time. What is becoming harder and harder is controlling the silence. This is a big thing for me: How do we find moments for ourselves to reflect, to gather our thoughts, to get unstuck if we’re stuck? And how does office design help us grab these moments?

Just like anything, you’ve got to have some hard and fast rules in place. For example, you might call a space a library to cue the behavior you’re looking for, to clue people to use an “inside voice.”

I think we’re all getting the hang of these new spaces. A lot of times you just throw these things at the end user without any instructions. I only use a percentage of my iPhone’s capabilities because I refuse to read the instructions that come with it. But if I did, I know it would do a lot more for me. And it’s the same thing with the workplace. If you knew this was the “library,” and you did this here, and you knew these “think tanks” were really meant to do this, you would probably get a better use of the space.

Companies are beginning to see the drawbacks of the open plan. Lessons are being learned. Suggestion is a powerful tool. I think this is key to bringing people together in the office in ways that are collaborative and effective. It can only help the office be that much more functional.

Primo Orpilla is the cofounder of Studio O+A, which guest-edited a technology special feature for Metropolis.

Pablo Pardo: Travel Lightly

We are, today, more nomadic as workers than we have been in a long time. Whereas in the past our work tools remained in the office after hours, we now travel with our tools—and can work from just about anywhere. When we do come together in a common space, we do so in open-plan environments that encourage a direct dialogue between workers.

But there is a trade-off . An increase in communication between people coincides with a loss of personal space, as open-plan environments naturally gravitate toward packing more people onto a floor. Without our own individual space or tools, we aren’t comfortable at work, and if we aren’t comfortable at work, our productivity suffers.

We know we can’t return to the cubicle solution, so how might we re-introduce personalization into the workplace? This is, in fact, already happening. Go into a WeWork office, and there are few hierarchical divisions and more hybrid spaces where people can sit and work on a temporary basis before moving on to another part of the room. The general feeling is more casual and homelike. Soon, this will be the case for all offices.

This movement toward “warming up the office” has a lot to do with enhancing the flexibility and efficiency of our workspaces while contributing to motivation and wellness. How we feel throughout the day affects our productivity and how we work with others. Workplace design will, in turn, learn to be responsive. All areas of the office, from furniture systems to lighting, will be much more attuned to our needs at any given moment. With regards to light, there will be moves toward capturing the character of natural light through specialized artificial lighting. That means a lighting product will be designed to follow our circadian rhythms and emulate the light outdoors.

All these products and design solutions will need to become increasingly flexible and mobile, as we move between the office and the home and everywhere in between.

Pablo Pardo is an industrial designer and founder of Pablo Designs.

David Granger: The Community Office

David Granger

The workplace has become more and more people-centric. Organizations and workers are cross-pollinating their approach to things, and there is more getting done in teams and groups. And they’re learning how to balance their collaborative and individual work. Changes in workplace design have to support both.

In trying to recalibrate what people need and how they go about their best work, new office and workplace culture has been “socialized,” much in the way that technology has allowed our personal lives to become more networked and collaborative. In parallel, new data analytics allow the workplace the opportunity to be more self-aware. Just as self-awareness adds great value to our own “personal culture,” it also has the potential to revolutionize workplace cultures. (Wouldn’t self-awareness be a great addition to any school curriculum these days?) As our offices adopt a datacentric model, iteration and testing times are dramatically shortened because things can be pinpointed like never before—and not just from management’s point of view. Such data allows workers to know more about themselves and their interactions with coworkers for their own proactive development.

But being self-aware also means being a good neighbor. The office no longer feels like a place of work distinct from our home. In fact, by design our work environments are increasingly developing a sense of place. The hope is that the office will become a kind of neighborhood, a collection of personalized workplaces that come together to form a community. How do we help cultivate a sense of belonging in this new setting? What’s the visual psychology of a community-office? Part of the answer is giving more license to the users, which of course means more flexibility and adaptability. Perhaps there is a plateau on just how flexible you can make a workplace, but we haven’t reached that point yet. Furniture solutions will become much more mobile, and will be increasingly more non-prescriptive. Strict office delineations will become redundant as there appear new kinds of spaces for new kinds of work. Moving between them should be effortless, but community rules would still apply. After all, the office should be a place where people want to belong.

David Granger is an industrial designer and cofounder of Bang Design in Sydney, Australia.

FKA Studio: Tectonic Shifts

FKA Studio

Today, in offices all over the world, the walls are coming down. Conference rooms appear and disappear. Lounges proliferate. Borders are made fuzzy.

There are several reasons for these changes. There is the hope of creating casual but productive collisions among colleagues. A responsive office can help obtain and retain talent. Productivity might even be improved. But what these developments show us is that no element of office design will remain static—not even the floors under your feet or the ceilings over your head. Already, workers move around the office throughout the day. Coworking spaces have cultivated a sharing mind-set that’s really pervasive.

If you take the idea of the shared workplace and dial it up, you can see how this will change the physical architecture of company offices. Instead of tall, narrow buildings with discrete floors and circulation cores, you might have megastructures with shared amenity zones and green courtyards sprinkled throughout. These big lattice structures could house corporations of all sizes, each one plugging into quasipublic spaces such as lounges but also dining lounges and gyms. These would be basic-level amenities for such a complex.

But the real opportunity would be to embed smart features into walls, ceilings, and floors. These could all be wireless and work independently of one another, so in the event of their removal or relocation, the legibility and structure of any given office would be unaffected. We talk about the smart workplace today, but these would be “living” workplaces—virtual organisms capable of even extreme change over time.

Supposing that you had different corporations within a single megastructure, all connected to each other by shared spaces and pedestrian footbridges, imagine how productivity and creativity might be increased—what discoveries might be made.

Stanley Felderman and Nancy Keatinge are designers and cofounders of FKA Studio.

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