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The Evolving Workplace

31 October 2012

The dual forces of technology and changing working practices are revolutionising the workplace – what it needs to do and how it looks. Phil Hutchinson casts his opinions on the trends

Predicting the future of the workplace has become an obsession and rather like trying to find the solution before we understand the problem, we often fail to catch up with our own predictions before they are superseded by the ‘next big thing’. ‘Moore’s Law’ might have its origin in the world of computing but can be applied to the world of work. Gestation periods for new ideas reduce and gather pace so quickly the implementation of a new initiative can be with us faster than we realise it and sometime faster than we are ready for it.

The question is can we keep up with this rate of change? If necessity really is the mother of invention then we must take time to reflect upon what we actually need, taking time to understand how technology can improve our lives and society. This requires a deep understanding of the influencing factor and drivers, and in essence where the change is coming from.

Conversely, some of the predictions for our future workplace from over ten years ago – home working, hot-desking, the regular use of corporate and personal video conferencing, demise of HQs and an increase of satellite offices to name a few - have only just begun to materialise now, and often in a slightly different form from the original prophecy.

One evident example is the ‘paperless office’, which many organisations have been working towards for a very long time. A combination of trust in technology, reducing unnecessary printing from a green perspective, as well as the ease of reading via Kindles and I-pads means that this is finally becoming a reality. Undoubtedly the need to store paper is reducing, yet the requirement for personal storage (includes everything from our laptops to cycling helmets) remains, and arguably the need for that type of storage has increased.

Back to the Future – The speed of the modern office
You only need to watch one episode of Mad Men to appreciate just how fast workplace environments have become. Long gone are the days of contemplative decision making over long lunches, confirmed by a typed letter sent in the post! Fifty or so years ago most business was conducted locally and very rarely on an international level. Fast forward to the 21st century and two key step changes are apparent:

? Immediacy – a decision can be made, communicated and actioned within minutes and we need to have the ability to respond and communicate at all hours. This pace of communicationis appropriate to the speed at which we live. However, as we can’t get faster than instant (not yet anyway), the future will be about how we manage this ability so it does not become detrimental and impact upon quality.

? Internationalism – the ease of international travel has made us more culturally aware and knowledgeable, crossing continents is not an issue and language doesn’t appear to be a barrier, so the potential markets and reach increase. Larger organisation can capitalise on this and provide a 24 hour business to a global audience by shifting information around the globe.

As these factors continue to shape the future working landscape what will it mean for the future office landscape?

Space Efficiency
Greater efficiency of space and demand to cut business infrastructure costs will remain a key issue. Space is one of the most tangible and clearly identified assets/costs of any business and organisations need to be sure they are getting a return on their investment.

Adaptable and cost effective
During a recessional economy, organisations need to work harder to make savings, the luxury of broad sweep refurbishments of a building floor by floor is no longer a realistic proposition.

Businesses refreshing their property portfolio assets are carefully reviewing the benefits to be gained. ‘Re-use’ is an increasingly common term and one that meets a financial agenda as well as the green one.

Organisations do not need to entirely change furniture to effect a more efficient solution, there are opportunities to explore if incumbent systems can be modified. In the future this will be a core part of the product and manufacturers will need to invest more to ‘future proof’ their products.

The great recovery initiative (, sponsored by the RSA and Technology Strategy Board, is planning an assault on the premise of the current linear model of ‘take-make-dispose’. The key premise being that re-use should be inherent to design – the polar opposite of the seemingly cynical in-built obsolescence that we have observed in the consumer boom years.

Forward thinking furniture manufacturers are similarly looking at what can be described as ‘overlay solutions’ to provide this more cost effective approach to adding greater value to the office when change is needed and capital investment required. Bisley, for one, has stepped out of its comfort zone with their new product ‘Be’ recognising that the space (or zone) surrounding a storage cabinet can offer much more and has combined this with a series of carefully considered interchangeable secondary work-settings. This type of solution can be overlaid on top an existing office environment even using the existing worksurfaces for a seamless solution all contributing towards providing a more efficient use of both space and capital investment.

Derwent London’s very welcome ‘new white collar factory’ initiative approaches a similar issue but at a much earlier stage in the office development. It seeks to provide effectively a shell and core approach for tenants, avoiding the costly removals and reorganisation of ceilings, raised floors, etc, Duringa fit out, this can negate the need for these items at all and with this, a more cost effective office. 

Consumers and Workers – Parallel Needs
Twenty years ago major technological breakthroughs were beyond the reach of the vast majority of us, but now, production of the latest innovation takes place at break neck speed and is delivered to the marketplace at an affordable price. We are now in the situation where what is available to us as consumers - coffee, technology, furniture - is often superior to that which is provided for us by our employer. This schism in standards has led to employees placing greater demands upon their employers which has raised the standards. It is not uncommon to have a coffee franchise in the workplace and well furnished break-out areas.

Apple in the office
It seems the long running battle between Microsoft and Apple is siding with the latter, which has to be attributed to the intuitive nature of their product. The link between programming and hardware is so close that it is sometimes difficult to see which comes first. It is this level of usability that has transformed the way we think about technology. The business world, with its red tape and various legacy policies is falling behind to a point where people are regularly using home technology in the office. Why invest in tens or hundreds of thousands of pounds on state of the art video conferencing for example, when your team can Skype their colleagues and even clients from the café?

What does this mean for the office?
The overriding need for social interaction and the ability to knowledge share with our work colleagues means that the office will never disappear. Ironically, this is compounded by the remote technology we now use more freely, as we begin to realise that it is an enabler to flexible working, rather than the dictator of the way we should work.

Perhaps paradoxically, headquarters will play a more vital role in the lives of their employees as they look to the workplace environment to embody the organisations brand values and culture. The role of the designer will be to understand and translate what is unique about an organisation. This is not about applying logos and obediently adhering to corporate colours. It requires a level of understanding that will uncover an organisation’s way of life, beyond what it actually does, and translate the true culture into a tangible solution.

The greatest change will not be in the physical design of the workplace in itself but recognising and understanding the complex and unique requirements of organisations and expressing this through the design solutions. If leveraged by professional designers who understand the impact of such complexities, then, organisations can and will maximise what their workplace can achieve for the business and the individuals that comprise it.

Phil Hutchinson is Joint Managing Director of BDG architecture + design

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