The office of the future | Director


Today’s office, Higham believes, is woefully anachronistic – obsolete, thanks to technological progress, and also incompatible with changing social norms and expectations, especially when it comes to younger workers.

The way in which we do our jobs is changing radically – and it’s time the workplace caught up. We asked experts to highlight what some of the most progressive businesses are doing to revolutionise the traditional office environment, and to reveal what intriguing innovations might be just around the corner

Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant – in their iconic workplace sitcom – portrayed The Office as a cream and grey creativity void, bereft of any inspiring human interaction and soundtracked by humming photocopiers and chirping landlines. Thirteen years after the show first broadcast, how much have office environments really moved on?
The answer is not nearly enough, according to futurist William Higham of trends consultancy Next Big Thing. “If you transported a businessman from the Victorian era to the present day, he wouldn’t understand much of the technology but he’d be able to navigate his way around,” he says. “He’d recognise the cubicle layouts, the workstations, the different departments with different functions set out in similar ways.”

Today’s office therefore Higham believes, is woefully anachronistic – obsolete, thanks to technological progress, and also incompatible with changing social norms and expectations, especially when it comes to younger workers. “When Monday arrives, millennials have to stop being mobile and autonomous, sit at a desk that is designated to them, use a company’s desktop computer and landline and basically fit into this traditional, immobile environment. That’s untenable. They’re asking, ‘Why fixed spaces and hardware? Why departmental hierarchies?'”

With a global economy which, for many businesses, involves interaction with several different time zones, even the phrase ‘office hours’, based on the traditional nine-to-five model, is a relic from the past, according to Higham. “It’s up to smart businesses to reinvent the workplace as suits their needs, their outputs and their strategies,” he says. “A new, fluid approach is imperative.”

In short, the workspace revolution is coming, and it goes without saying that any forward-thinking organisation should embrace rather than resist it. But how?

Higham is by no means the only observer to believe that the basic concept of a single meeting hub, where co-workers congregate at fixed hours on set days in their pre-ordained departments, is a moribund concept. “I hope that in the distant future, offices as we know them today will cease to exist,” says Dave Coplin, chief envisioning officer of Microsoft UK. “Don’t get me wrong – the need for communal working spaces will endure, but the concept of having to be in a physically contained area belonging to my organisation, Monday to Friday, will simply be a historical remnant of our working past. ‘Work’ is an activity now, not a destination.”

Coplin is backed by Mark Strachan, chief executive of The Luxury Mobile Office Company, which offers high-end business travel vehicles featuring executive jet-style facing seats, 4G broadband and high-spec plasma screens. “A quick glance at people’s business cards these days tells an interesting story – instead of the switchboard number, pride of place is now taken by email and mobile details,” he says.

Clearly, it is technology that has facilitated this new culture of autonomy and flexibility. Yet research by the British Council for Offices (BCO) suggests that the central office hub remains key as a social environment in which employees interact and work together productively. “Employers are now designing their office space to encourage this interaction,” says Richard Kaunzte, the BCO’s chief executive. “To take just one example, Three Mobile’s Glasgow call centre has recently introduced bright, flexible workspaces and breakout areas to encourage its staff to interact together.”

Forward-thinking companies are now briefing architects to design new workplaces with this philosophy in mind – Samsung’s HQ in Silicon Valley being a case in point. “The building gives staff a range of spaces in which to meet, and ensures that employees are no further than one floor away from outdoor green space,” explains David Lewis, director in the London office of NBBJ, the company behind the project.

While interactivity might be a relatively new buzzword, it’s long been a truth universally acknowledged, to borrow a phrase, that basic happiness makes workers more productive – 36 per cent more motivated in their work, according to joint research by The Wall Street Journal and performance consultancy the iOpener Institute. After all, bosses with an edgier bent have been putting futsal tables in canteens and M&M bowls in bean-bag-strewn chill-out rooms for a couple of decades now.

But a far more sophisticated approach to employee comfort and contentment is clearly becoming de rigueur. Land Securities’ Zig Zag building in Victoria, London, for example, has intelligent zonal control for lighting, heating and cooling so that it adjusts to employees’ personal requirements. “Forward-thinking organisations are now even consulting their staff on their workplace design, and adopting a tailored approach to their personal office space,” says Kaunzte. “The BCO’s research report, What Workers Want, found that younger staff preferred a creative, casual fit-out. Sixty-nine per cent of respondents believed that a bespoke office interior improved their productivity.”

Companies whose coffers aren’t deep enough for completely personalised working zones, meanwhile, can still draw on some of the basics of human psychology, ranging from the obvious (natural light is more conducive to a happy environment than artificial light) to the slightly more zany: Cheshire Office Interiors believes that yellow walls encourage clearer creative thinking, while red works best for those in sales and orange promotes social activity.

Not surprisingly, Google is also at the cutting edge of the contentment initiative. “From concept through design, construction and operations, we create buildings that function like living and breathing systems by optimising access to nature, clean air and daylight,” says Anthony Ravitz, green team lead for Google’s Real Estate and Workplace Services group. To that end, whenever creating or refurbishing a new space for any of its worldwide teams, Google refuses to buy any new paints, sealants, adhesives, carpets, furniture or building materials without the manufacturer first testifying, in writing, to a lack of volatile organic compounds or other toxic components.

In Google’s HQ in Mountain View, California, meanwhile – a kind of lavishly funded hippie commune, in which straw yurts provide a setting for tête-à-tête meetings or solitary endeavour, ‘huddle rooms’ host bigger meetings and gyms and break rooms are never more than a stroll away – staff are encouraged to take an interest in the company’s green credentials: “We have huge screens that show how much energy we’re using – you can see dashboards for every building,” explains Ravitz.

It’s not just multinational giants that are taking innovative steps to exploit the overlap between ecological practice and cost savings, though. Upmarket shoemaker Santoni has vertical gardens in its HQ in Corridonia, Italy, to improve air quality, a vast tank system under the building that collects and processes rainwater and enough solar panels to produce 250,000 pairs of shoes annually (the factory is on-site).

When it comes to considering how technology has affected the workplace, the granddaddy of developments is there for all to see. “The number of firms offering staff the opportunity to choose their work devices is increasing,” says Damien Weissenburger, head of Sony Europe’s presentation and communication division. “Our own research has found that 90 per cent of people are now using personal devices for work purposes, regardless of company policy.”

A knock-on effect of this, Weissenburger says, will be pressure for both wireless infrastructures and technology to improve even more drastically than they have in the last five years. “Consumers now look for seamless connectivity and exceptional image quality, regardless of whether it’s in the home or the workplace,” he says.

“They want to collaborate with one another and showcase content in the most compelling manner possible.” One company showcasing content in a compelling manner is global asset manager Brookfield, the New York offices of which feature a giant interactive video wall which displays topics within the company portfolio (renewable energy management, for example). The screen can sense, using kinetic motion tracking technology, when a visitor has taken an interest and offers them more information.

Weissenburger’s assertion that stronger visual representation will be key to tomorrow’s offices would seem to be apposite – and he’s not alone. “Mass adoption of video conferencing will quickly replace voice calls as the preferred means of direct communication,” says Monica Parker, workplace director at Morgan Lovell, whose other key prediction concerns data. “Another seismic shift is the use of big data and human analytics to support decision-making in the workplace,” she says.

Microsoft’s Coplin agrees. “Forward-thinking companies see information overload as a gift, not a problem or a threat,” he says. “We have to use technology to navigate through the digital deluge and sort the useful from the useless. Organisations that harness the power of the digital deluge will be the ones that will thrive.”
So personal devices, visual technology and the harnessing of data on a mass scale are here to stay, but what of emerging technologies?

Higham believes we’re on the cusp of an exciting new phase of industrialisation. “We’ve already witnessed technologies disrupting – even bringing down – entire industries,” he says. “In Victorian times it was industrialisation; more recently it was the information revolution. I think we’re approaching the next one – Business Model 3.0, so to speak.”

He is, however, understandably cagey: “A lot of futurists have been talking for many years about robotics and machines that can actually think,” he says. “The problem is, it’s been consigned to the ‘future-innovations-that-never-arrived’ vault along with jetpacks and hoverboards. People were put off believing in it. [But] sentient machines, which can make actual decisions, are becoming a reality. Many jobs – let’s say legal secretaries or admin staff, for example – involve reading briefs, making notes, passing them on. We’re getting to the stage where machines can do that efficiently.”

Higham also believes that the ‘internet of things’ and apps are also going to have a huge effect on efficiency, office management, supply chains and space, along with another more outlandish technology: augmented reality. “ Something like Google Glass is going to have a massive impact because it’s going to do away with the need to be sitting down, gleaning and processing information via monitors,” he says. “Any technology that eliminates the need for a desk is going to thrive.”

Higham is eager to point out that machines have their limits though. “The thing when projecting forward with workspace and technology,” he says, “is not to forget the human element. Let your staff be proactive in the reinvention. This is especially important as an age dawns in which employee individuality, autonomy and flexibility are three of the central pillars of working culture.”

Another of those pillars, of course, is creativity. Google applied a Midas touch to its employees’ collective innovative potential when it told them to start spending 20 per cent of their working hours doing whatever they like. The thinking behind this was that good ideas need time to percolate. No wonder Google – an organisation in which free lunches are part of the package and meditation, film, wine tasting and salsa groups are organised on a regular basis – is a mainstay in the Number One spot of Fortune magazine’s annual report on the 100 Best Companies To Work For.
Creativity can also be enhanced, according to Andrew Mawson, managing director of Advanced Workplace Associates (AWA), by integrating a wider range of people with different backgrounds.

“People born with different attitudes, skills and knowledge accepting and respecting each other for what they are can fuse their strengths to bring wisdom, energy and fresh thinking together in one wrapper,” he says. Growing diversity in the workplace in terms of ethnicity, gender, sexuality and employment of people with disabilities is a big step in this direction. But Mawson believes that companies should go further and consign traditional corporate structures to the bin.

“Hierarchical barriers and silos in the workplace impede the flow of ideas and information, and sap the energy of enthusiastic people,” he says. “Workplaces which separate groups and hide them behind walls reinforce the perception of ‘us and them’ and give rise to the opportunity for prejudice between ‘silo’d groups’.”

Along with the dismantling of the traditional hierarchical pyramid, says Higham, must come an entirely new set of job titles. Might chief creative officers soon be sharing carpet space with ‘cultural transformation managers’ and ‘excitement gurus’? It sounds like frappuccino corporate thinking, but it has to happen, he says. “We have to get rid of the old hierarchies, of the idea of a ladder to be climbed,” he adds, “and therefore the vocabulary in general has to change. Why shouldn’t people be as creative with vocabulary, including job titles, as we are now with branding?”

It would seem that, when it comes to how our workspaces will change in the coming years, business leaders might do well to heed the sage words of John F Kennedy: “Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.”