The office of the future

Jesper Bo Jensen, Ph.d., Futurist / 21. nov 2017

They were office buildings, where the modern companies often boasted a substantial set of values in their employees and with ideas about creativity, development and teamwork in the new organization.

Now, heading out of the crisis period, the tendencies are looking different. Architecturally there hasn’t yet been a great shift, but in the area of interior design, a shift is happening. Most buildings built after the year 2000 had a more or less identical interior. All employees sat in large open office spaces with 30 to 150 people in a room. It saved space and also meant an efficient use of walking areas, since extra walls means a need for a hallway, while narrow paths between employee tables are enough in open office spaces.

That was the trend for a few years. All the employees moved from their old cell-offices and into large rooms where you could create teamspirit and cooperation across the organization as well as a higher productivity. More employees per square unit and better cooperation – initially it looked like paradise was within reach. Then came the crisis and the efficiency and production in the corporation came into focus. Gone was the need for nice, new buildings – survival was on the itinerary.

Open offices meant a bad working environment
Put to the test, open offices have shown themselves to be pretty bad. It’s often too hot in the glass palaces, there’s too much noise and it isn’t calm enough for a lot of people. They can’t concentrate enough and don’t cooperate with those who sit 30 meters further down from them anyway. A study of the work environment in one of the new glass buildings in Copenhagen showed, that employees had it significantly worse there, than in the old buildings, and they themselves assessed that their productivity had declined by quite a lot.

For the first few years, where many of the office spaces were build, there were only a few scientific analyses showing that they were causing problems. Most of the research in the so-called New-Ways-of-Working was meant to show how good the open office spaces and the new way of organizing work were. Since then, it’s poured in with results showing the negative effects of large office spaces. There’s a nice Danish survey that highlights the downsides of the open office spaces. It shows that there’s 50% higher absenteeism amongst office employees who work in the same office as others. In total, open offices are the reason for 28% of the combined absenteeism amongst employees working at offices. In other words, an enormous loss of productivity. The survey was conducted by Jan H. Pejtersen et al. (2011)

One of the more paradoxical findings in the research about open offices is that the problem often isn’t the level of noise, but the type of noise. The old offices had the sounds of typewriting and noisy ventilation systems. Today’s silent surroundings have made it much easier to hear everything going on around you and have opened the gates for a very bothersome source of noise – other people’s conversations.

Researchers at the Finnish institute for work environment have shown that other people’s conversations affect individuals, by lowering their ability to solve cognitively demanding tasks by between 5 and 10 percent. Typically it’s tasks that require a good short-term memory – reading and writing and other creative modes of work. Noise is quite simply the biggest problem in open offices.

In a time of individualism it’s actually also an odd solution to suggest an office design where everybody is treated the same. Out with the individuality – especially in the interior design – and in with the measured directive mentioning a desk, a transportable box, a username and password as your personal belongings at the work place. It’s an office version of one-size-fits-all. The image isn’t of a dynamic and creative, developing workplace, but more along the lines of a ‘white-collar sweatshop’. A sweatshop used to be a production based company, where the workers toiled to earn their bad pay. Transferred to today’s back-offices in the financial sector’s call-centers, a white-collar sweatshop is an open office layout – abroad, perhaps with no light or windows – where a number of white-collar workers are toiling away at customer calls over the telephone, for hours on end with no distractions and with measured breaks for a relatively low wage. Here the use of square feet is essential for the costs. It’s actually also for this purpose that the open office spaces were rediscovered.

In 2009, a group of Australian researchers decided to collect the results of numerous studies about open office landscapes. They found evidence that the employee’s risk of disease and stress rose. Dr. Vinesh Oommen from Queensland University of Technology described the results as shocking, since 90% of the research showed that open office spaces are negative for the employees. It causes stress, conflicts, high blood pressure and a faster turn-around of employees.

A misunderstanding
The open offices were a misunderstanding. It’s a low-cost office which has been made into a modern trend. They date from a time when standardization, shared values and identical workplaces for everyone were the managerial mantra. Of course, it’s much easier to design for an architect, than more traditional interior design. But much like there was an interior design life after Arne Jakobsen, there will also be a life after the open offices. It’s already begun, but it’ll significantly pick up pace now that the crisis is over.

At the same time, we’re seeing a generation of youths coming, who are thinking radically different. They’re used to working from a bed, sofa, lounge-environment or other places where they have a place to sit, a laptop and wi-fi. They work in groups when they have to and anywhere. In time there’ll be a shortage of young people in the job markets – the prognoses show that this will happen within a few years. That’s why we’ll need a new organization where they’d like working and can be efficient in.

The organization of the future
Rather than a unified culture and a monolithic organization both outward and inward, we need to create some organizations that have different cells with different capabilities. If you’re in need of young people in an R&D or marketing division, then you need to create an organization that has incorporated freelance-work into daily work in a sensible way.

Project organizations today have some of these attributes, but are often restricted by objectives, employee policy and overarching policies for the entire organization. All of this executive policy needs to be surrendered in order to embrace new creative environments that can capitalize on the resources of the young people coming into the workforce. It’s also a consequence of a lot of outsourcing and insourcing. It’s hazy where the company begins and where it ends.

Gradually, we have to start thinking about organizations like a kind of amoeba with a number of connected cells that are different, but still connected in one liquid organization. In the same way that those organization that you work with float into the company, the company will also bond with other organizations. The connection to the world is becoming more flexible. The consequence will be that the organization’s boundaries with the world are more spontaneous in the future. That also needs to be reflected in the design and office building in the future.

An office building doesn’t need to be closed and locked at 5 PM. As the divide between work and leisure time is being erased, working from home, flexible work hours and the coming and going of customers will span more hours of the day. This also means some requirements for the way offices are built and designed in the future and of those already built. Even today we’re seeing many companies relieve their employees of having to cook by offering them healthy, good meals to bring home to their families. This will be expanded to other areas as well. An office building can reflect the new way of working in shared office spaces with flexible coworkers from multiple businesses under one roof.

How can a building/office live up to everybody’s demands at the same time? The user demands can in many areas be fitted into what is known as the new definition of work which means that work in the future will take up significantly more space in our lives. An important point however, in connection with office design in the years to come, is that the employees with very different interpretations of work life need to be able to work side by side. The new definition of work may win more usage, but there will still be many who prefer a typical 8-16 job and/or the option of having a private office.

Innovation and creativity
For creative businesses, the future is also creating a number of challenges in the shape of spaces that can encourage creative development. In the modern company’s organization, the take-away from a number of historic examples of creativity – amongst others, Leonardo Da Vinci’s constant mingling with very different people - might be that the degree of innovation is dependent on the degree of multiplicity as well as the room and ability to dream and be intuitively creative. That’s why it’s essential that there’s room in the innovative company culture for both efficient and creative environments.

Environments need to be created where employees become inspired, motivated and creative and in this context, climate, mood and state of mind are more critical than externally measurable methods such as reward-systems etc. It’s very much about breaking through psychological, social and structural barriers and creating desire and courage to spark renewal. Furthermore, multiplicity has to be encouraged and not just in the composition of teams and their professional capabilities, but also in terms of the individual employee.

The psychological barriers are dependent on similar physical barriers and in terms of a company’s organization and design, it might be a solution to have alternative and specially designed environments in the shape of creativity and development boosting rooms and departments that will stimulate the employees to think higher, beyond and farther.

The creative milieu for development is first and foremost going to be a space for opportuniteies which will stimulate new conversations and ideas, and where there’s room for both efficient immersion and intuitive play. So it is still about creating an efficient workplace, it is just on different terms.

The Future – Group offices
A new solution also needs to be found for the regular worker in innovative companies and for the employees in more ordinary office environments. To replace the open office spaces there’s a new trend on the way called group offices. Buildings are made with offices that fit 3-4 employees, where each employee can build a social space around work, where it’s possible to develop teams of 3-4 and 6-8 people (2 offices lying close together), where the employee can create his own private space in the workplace with all the wreckage from their lives that they want to surround themselves with: photos, meaningful objects, own office articles etc.

In these offices it’s possible to help each other and also to get the necessary peace and individuality that means a good productivity from every employee. It’s also possible to create interior designs that aren’t as horribly drab as is commonly found in office settings today. It may have some qualities for the CEO who is showing foreign guests uniform office after uniform office, but what’s that actually signaling? Doesn’t it just show that we know how to make our employees uniform as well? Who would expect innovation and creativity in these environments?

One of the solutions is a mix of group offices, creative spaces, monastic cells for immersion as well as other types of rooms. Arla has experimented with the big office and auditory and visual separation in their new headquarters in Aarhus and it looks like it’s working.

The new office is designed for more individuality and with fewer regulations controlling uniformity as well as more consideration of employees’ needs, comfort, wellbeing and perhaps even tastes. It’s probably a nightmare for a lot of the building-inspectors, or whatever their current name is, but it’s a small step toward paradise for the employees. The same could apply to our private homes.

Finally we shouldn’t forget the rest of society. We’re increasingly working outside of our homes and offices, while we move around in society. An American company – Coburn Ventures – founded in 2005 has worked without offices or headquarters, since its founding at a Starbucks Café in Manhattan. They work while on the move. Their address just says Manhattan, New York. So for these people the office is a laptop, an Iphone and a bag. Much like today’s youth.

This author knows personally about working while on the move. A couple of years ago I wrote the majority of a book mainly in the backseat of taxis. I shut out noise and commotion in airports where I often work, but still get annoyed and close the door when coworkers talk about the weekend’s events or the latest gossip around the office.

Sources:
Jan H Pejtersen m.fl. Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment and Health 2011;Vol. 37, Side 376-382
Time Magazine: Open-Plan Offices Create Stress, Lower Productivity, Time, 2012.
Helena Jahncke, Cognitive Performance and Restoration in Open-Plan Office Noise, Luleå Tekniske Universitet, 2012.
Valtteri Hongisto m.fl., Task performance and speech intelligibility – a model to promote noise control actions in open offices, Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, 2008
Published here 2017

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