The office of the future

Jesper Bo Jensen, Ph.d., Futurist / 18. dec 2008

Over the past years great glass structures have gone up in the Danish city landscape. Cubes, long slim buildings, tall buildings – all built in the minimalistic style. They are office buildings, where modern companies move in with their employees, PCs, cables etc. – companies that often take pride in the values of the employees and in the ideas of creativity, development and teamwork in businesses that are moving into the future.

However, there is a common feature in all these new buildings. They are basically all organised in the same way. All employees sit in open-plan offices in one large room with room for 30 to 150 people. It saves space and also saves corridor space as each extra wall requires a corridor, while in open-plan offices you can do with small isles between the employees’ work tables.

That is the trend – open-plan offices. Or more correctly, it has been the trend for some years. All employees must come out of their cell offices and by placing them in large rooms it was the idea that it would create team spirit and cooperation across the organisation and result in greater productivity. More employees per square unit and better cooperation – at first it looked as if paradise was within reach.

Open-plan offices result in poor working environment

But open-plan offices have proved not to work that well. Often it is too hot in the glass palaces, there is too much noise and many cannot find the concentration to work. They cannot concentrate and they still do not cooperate with the guy sitting 30 feet away. A study of the working environment in one of the new glass buildings in Copenhagen showed that the working environment of the employees was significantly worse in the new building compared to the old one, and that they thought their productivity had suffered somewhat. A big public organisation that has marketed open-plan offices has in its own lay-out actually locked its organisational structure, because they have chosen that all employees must work in open-plan offices even though most of the employees are academics who cannot work at their best under such circumstances. It is the concept of one-size-fits-all in an office edition applied to a number of highly educated people. But not everybody chooses the open-plan offices. An example is Nokia’s building in the South Harbour of Copenhagen, which is arranged with some departments in open-plan offices and others with ordinary cell offices and group offices. The exiting thing about the building is not the big open rooms, but the solutions applied to make the employees meet each other in the daily flow in the building, i.e. “meeting rooms” that are merely desks and chairs in hallways and stairways.

In an age of individualism it seems like an odd disposition to suggest an office structure where everyone is treated alike. Take away the individualism – especially in the office – and go back to the directive that prescribes one chest of drawers, a portable box, a username and a password as your personal belongings at the workplace. The picture is not a dynamic and creative workplace, but more of what in these years is called a white-collar sweatshop. A sweatshop used to be found in production facilities where employees really worked hard for their poor pay. Transferred to today’s back-offices in i.e. the financial sector’s call-centres, a white-collar sweatshop is a big office – abroad they may be without windows and daylight – in which employees dressed in shirts (white-collar) slave away with customer inquiries over the telephone for hours without interruption with small breaks at a relatively low pay. Here the use of each square feet is essential for the costs. Actually, that was the reason why open-plan offices were rediscovered.

A misconception

The open-plan offices are simply a misconception which has been made trendier. It is much easier for an architect to draw than a traditional office building. But just as there is life after Arne Jakobsen, there is also life after the open-plan offices – and it has already begun.

It has become fashionable in businesses because they have sought standardization – also in other areas. Businesses and organisations are making a great effort of making their internal culture cohere. This is taking place in order to prevent and remedy internal conflicts that break the coherence of the organisation. At the same time it is important to be presented to the world as one entity as a business or organisation. You must have a profile and have the right image in order to get through – among other things in order to be sufficiently attractive as a workplace in the years to come, where there will be a need for manpower – at least the young manpower. There is human resource development, team building, creation of culture, and money and energy is spent on HRM like never before. Organisations try to become monoliths – coherent rocks without any inner fractures. That is the phenomenon that is reflected in the office organisation. Now that we must all have the same values, then we must also sit in the same furnishing.

At the same time we see the youth who think completely differently. In the labour market we see young people who have for many years heard that there is a need for young people in the labour market. It is the generation of great possibilities where they can almost pick and choose on the labour market. But if we furnish our workplaces in accordance with their needs, we may put off the new generation of young people.

The organisation of the future

Instead of a one-unit culture and a monolithic organisation both on the inside and the outside, we must create organisations with different cells with different characteristics. If a development department or marketing department needs to attract young people, you must create an organisation and a culture that will attract young people and give them good working conditions. That could also be done by creating an organisation that has incorporated freelance work in a suitable way in the day-to-day work. Project organisations have some of these characteristics today, but are often subjected to objectives, staff policies and overall policies for the entire organisation. All these overall policies must go in order to establish new creative environments which can utilize the resources of the future young people.

In the long run it will be expedient to think of organisations as a kind of amoeba with a number of connected cells that are constructed differently, but are tied together in a floating organisation. Add to this that the connection to the outside world must be made more flexible. The consequence will be that the boundaries of the organisation to the outside world will be floating in the future. This fact must also be reflected in the interior architecture.

In the future an office building will not necessarily be closed at 5 p.m. As the barrier between work and leisure is being erased, home offices, flexible working hours and customers coming in and out will include more of the hours of the day. That also challenges the future office buildings and its interior in both new buildings and in existing ones.

How can a building/office meet all these requirements? The requirements of the users can in many ways be fit into what has been called the new work concept, which implies that work will become a much bigger part of our lives. You go to work, because you think it is fun. At least for some of the young and younger people. Work has to be fun, challenging and varying. However, it will differ from workplace to workplace whether the new work concept has been implemented or not. Variation and flexibility in work tasks and working hours become a distinctive mark for offices. It is still the employees who must take care of the traditional customer service, which must be done quickly, while other employees solve tasks in cell offices or group offices. To a large extent you arrange your working time and use flex time as it fits with working tasks, family and leisure.

An important point in connection with office architecture in the years to come is that employees with very different views on working life must be able to cooperate side by side. The new working concept may gain footing, but there will still be many who prefer a normal 9 to 5 job and/or the possibility of having their own office.

Important requirements to the furnishing of future offices

Obligingness and openness towards customers – efficient and uncomplicated service. The possibility of privacy when servicing customers and discretion when having meetings with cooperation partners. Room for cooperation and concentration, structure according to function/task rather than person/position. Sending signals that fit the organisation’s/business’ identity. Easy access – central location. Flexibility – possibility of rebuilding.

Innovation and creativity

For creative businesses the future poses some challenges in the form of space that can promote creative development. In the organisation of a modern business the experience of a number of historic examples of creativity – including Leonardo da Vinci’s constantly changing group of people he surrounded himself with – must be that the degree of innovation depends on the degree of diversity as well as the room and the ability to dream and be intuitively creative. Thus it is decisive that there is room for both efficient and creative environments in an innovative business structure. Environments in which employees become inspired, get motivated and become creative, and in this respect indoor climate, atmosphere and state of mind are more essential than outer measurable things such as remuneration systems etc. It is very much about breaking the mental, social and structural barriers and to create desire and courage to be innovative.

In this respect it is essential that there is room for and reliance on the different working methods and ways of thinking of the employees. That requires knowledge of Multiple Intelligences - the 8 different human intelligences that often exist side by side: linguistic, logical-mathematical, bodily-kinaesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal and naturalist. With knowledge of these types of intelligence the business will gain access to unimaginable resources of creativity, inventiveness, activity and energy. Further, the diversity must be cultivated, not only in relation to staff with different backgrounds, but also in relation to the individual employee.

The mental framework depends on the corresponding physical framework, and in relation to the business’ organisation and structure it may be a solution to have alternative and specially furnished environments in the form of room that promote creativity and development and departments that stimulate employees to think higher, wider and further.

Moving around in these environments will create interaction – here they will meet and exchange views – have an opinion and be opinion-forming. There will – between professional and functional centres – be places for passage and breaks, where coincidental or planned meetings take place, and where moving around introduces, inspires and motivates to uncover and acquire new knowledge.

An environment that releases creative energy is thus an environment in which architecture and furnishing creates possibilities instead of limitations. In this respect catalytic art, design and other forms of culture may be incorporated as a natural part of the working environment and thus act as a mirror for putting things in perspective, for reflection and self presentation.

The creative environment will first and foremost be a place of opportunity that stimulates discussions and ideas and in which there is room for both efficient concentration and intuitive play. It is still about creating an efficient workplace only on new terms.

The future – group offices

For the ordinary employees in innovative businesses and for employees in ordinary office environments a new solution is also required. Instead of the open-plan offices there is already a new trend. It is called group offices. Buildings are furnished with offices with room for 3-4 employees in which each employee can build a social space around their work with the opportunity to develop teams of 3-4 and 6-8 people (2 offices in extension) where the employee may create his/her own private space with all the things we surround ourselves with: photos, momentous items, our own office material etc.

In these offices it is possible to help each other and also get the necessary peace and individuality in the working environment in order to obtain high productivity from each employee. It is also possible to create offices that are not characterised by being deadly monotonous. It may signify quality to a CEO who shows his foreign guests around that all offices have the same interior, but what is the signalling effect of this uniformity? It signals that we are in control of the employees. But who would expect innovation and creativity in such environments?

But that is coming. CCI – Europe, a software company that needs to be innovative, but also to be able to deliver according to orders, has a beautiful office building in southern Aarhus with group offices with room for 3-4 people. They also have monk’s cells for thinking and an inspiration room for creative teamwork.

The office of the future is furnished more individually and with less consideration for the uniformity and more consideration for the employees’ needs, their well-being and – maybe also – their taste. It may be a nightmare for the superintendant of the building, but it is a little step towards paradise for the employees.

Published here, 2008

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