Davis Adams 3 Oct 2018 05:32pm

The place to be

David Adams plots the forces driving the evolution of the office, and anticipates what corporate workplaces will look like in the future

Caption: Photography: Unilever HQ

Most people who have worked in an office environment have opinions on what makes a workplace good or bad. One common factor in the latter is a space designed with the clear objective of saving money at all costs. The good news for office workers of the future is that the quality of many workplaces seems likely to improve, because a good working environment now plays such an important role in attracting talented people to an organisation.

Despina Katsikakis, head of occupier business performance at real estate services company Cushman & Wakefield, is an expert on the relationship between workplaces and business performance – she has advised companies including Google, Unilever, BP and Microsoft.

She believes the most important change is seeing workplaces as a means of improving employee engagement rather than as a cost centre: “Organisations are recognising they need to treat employees as customers, and to treat buildings as destinations they want employees to be inspired by.”

The office of the future, the culture of these workplaces, and employee benefit packages will all need to cater for the tastes and requirements of a broader range of individuals than in the past. One important change is that the working week is becoming more fluid. A growing number of employees want or need to work more flexibly for multiple reasons, from making space for extra-curricular activities to meeting childcare and other caring responsibilities.

Hotdesking is a logical response to increased flexibility, but it can breed alienation if not managed well. Kathryn Bishop, senior writer at management consultancy The Future Laboratory, and co-author of a report on the workplace of the future commissioned by architecture firm Morey Smith, believes many employees feel more valued by their employer when they have their own space in the office. Many organisations, including large corporates like the Big Four, are trying to use forms of hotdesking that somehow help to build a sense of belonging for employees, while reducing the huge costs of flagship buildings. Deloitte is attempting to achieve this in its new London building at 1 New Street Square (see case study).

Another great cost saving innovation – or terrible curse upon office workers everywhere, depending on your point of view – is the open-plan layout. One of the arguments made in favour of them over the years is that they encourage better collaboration and communication, but recent research suggests this may not be true.

A 2018 study by two Harvard academics, Ethan Bernstein and Stephen Turban, observed employees in two US offices who were moved into open-plan environments. Analysis of data drawn from wearable electronic devices that measured face-to-face interaction, alongside email and instant messaging server data, revealed that in both offices the volume of face-to-face interactions fell as a result – by around 70%.

Bernstein, associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, says he was not surprised to see the reduction, but was amazed by its scale. “We know, from other studies, that if you put people in open plan offices, behavioural norms develop in which everyone feels they have to be quiet and get on with the job,” says Bernstein. “It’s also the case that some people feel that if everyone can see us we want to look as if we are busy, so we may become less welcoming.”

The study also showed there was very little overlap between the networks of people interacting face-to-face in these offices and the networks of online interactions created by workers as they sat at their desks. “That means that as an organisation shifts to online interaction it also changes who people interact with,” says Bernstein. “That could be a positive: many people work in global enterprises today, and if I’m your manager maybe I don’t want you to reach out to the person sitting next to you with a problem if there’s someone somewhere else in the world who it might be better for you to interact with instead.

“But what this report highlights is the unintended consequences of change. We may design space, but those who use it have agency to decide how they use it.”

One solution, for businesses that can afford to do so, is to use a mix of different workspaces. Caroline Burns, founder and managing director at Singapore-based consultancy Workplace Revolution, suggests this might include areas where there could be use of hotdesking, some open areas kept quiet to allow focused work; and other open areas that allow more noise and encourage more interaction.

In future we may well see further variations on this sort of theme, such as offices based on the Eudaimonia Machine, a concept first imagined by American architect and academic David Dewane: a workplace with a progression of five different, connected spaces, starting with informal public space, but leading through a series of increasingly more formal office environments to very quiet, private areas designed for maximum concentration.

Many employers would never be able to create such a workplace, but some of the other features anticipated for the state of the art office of the future could be used by almost every employer. One of them is planting. Multiple research studies demonstrate the positive effects that greenery in the office can have on productivity and morale, by literally and figuratively changing the atmosphere. Use of planting may be spectacular in large, showpiece buildings such as corporate headquarters, but the same benefits can be achieved in much smaller offices.

Other changes already visible in large office buildings that could be mimicked by smaller organisations include better lighting and heating/cooling systems, controlled in more sophisticated, intelligent ways and capable of automated adjustment as needed, or in accordance with employee preference.

In Turin, Italian architecture firm Carlo Ratti has created a “personalised” heating, cooling and lighting system for the headquarters of the Agnelli Foundation. Individuals move through the building in a shifting “bubble” of their own cooling/heating/lighting preferences. This is made possible by hundreds of sensors built into walls, ceilings and doors that monitor the location of individuals and ambient conditions in the building. Individuals interact with the system via a smartphone app.

Similar sensors – but many more – are used in Deloitte’s Amsterdam building, The Edge, a 40,000 square metre office that was lauded as the most environmentally sustainable office in the world when it opened in 2015. Around 28,000 sensors in the building constantly measure and accumulate data related to the building’s systems, ambient conditions inside and outside, and the actions of people inside the building. In addition to environmental monitoring, hotdesking is also controlled by the Edge’s systems and a smartphone app, allocating workspaces to employees when needed. The app can also be used to control car parking systems, to access lockers and to order food.

Technology is also improving office furniture. US company Herman Miller has developed a range of networked, intelligent office furniture, Live OS, which includes desks that can tell users when they have been sitting down for too long (with a gentle vibration, or a small light), then change from a conventional desk into a standing one. The system can also provide an employer with anonymised data showing how the furniture is being used – providing yet more information that could help optimise employee performance and, hopefully, improve working conditions.

Sceptics suggest that a workplace that aims to meet every conceivable employee need, such as Google’s huge and incredibly well-equipped campus at Mountain View, California, are created with an ulterior motive: to ensure employees spend as much time as possible at work. But the counter-argument runs that if this were the case it would surely be counterproductive.

A good employer wants to find the right balance between work and an employee’s outside life, to keep them happier and healthier. Offering a great package of benefits, educational, medical and sports facilities and cafés and restaurants serving free, healthy food should help improve employee wellbeing and engagement. Although not many companies can create a campus like Mountain View, Katsikakis expects to see growing numbers of smaller organisations building partnerships with other local businesses such as shops, gyms and hairdressers, to broaden the range of benefits and services they can offer employees.

For more than 20 years, use of mobile telecommunications has been enabling people to collaborate with each other from different locations. Burns thinks the use of augmented and virtual reality technologies will become more widespread, enabling more immersive, multi-location collaboration experiences than current video and audio conferencing technologies. Although big, centrally located headquarters may not die out, businesses are more likely to try and deploy more flexible real estate strategies, with shorter leases on buildings that can be used in a range of ways.

Katsikakis expects one of the most important attributes of the office of the future is to be able to reconfigure as the nature of work and the technology used continues to evolve. But she believes that the need to appeal to potential employees may be the single most important influence on the location and form of offices in the future.

Prior to joining Cushman & Wakefield in 2017, she advised the owners of 22 Bishopsgate, a new, 62-storey, 1.3m square foot office building under construction in the City of London. The building, which could be used by up to 12,000 workers, will house 100,000 square feet of “community” space and facilities, for the people who work in the building, creating a “vertical village”. New experiences on offer will include a climbing wall on the (interior) glass wall of the building, with panoramic views over London.

“Instead of being about how to squeeze the most rentable space into the building, the focus is on how it might become a destination for people and a tool for the attraction and retention of talent,” says Katsikakis.

This, she suggests, is the shape of things to come. Of course, underneath all this lovely, touchy-feely stuff, the workplace will still be a machine designed to generate productivity and profit. But at least it will be a more pleasant place for those who have to feed the machine.

Case study

Deloitte’s new offices at 1 New Street Square, London

In September, Deloitte opened its newest London building, 1 New Street Square, completing a “campus” of four buildings there. The 280,000 square foot building will be used by more than 5,500 people. Offices feature 10 workspace formats used across 2,000 work settings, from standard desks to individual booths and other spaces designed to encourage interaction and collaboration.

An open staircase runs through the centre of the building, connecting different parts of the organisation. Two of the upper floors consist of spaces not assigned to a particular team, allowing staff to use them for a variety of work purposes, or to take a break: facilities include a restaurant, an outside terrace, games and a no technology zone.

“We’re supporting everyone in the way that they want to work,” says Devinder Bhogal, senior manager for workplace services and real estate at Deloitte. Although employees do not have a desk that is always theirs, each team that will occupy a particular part of the building has helped to determine the decoration of that area. Bhogal says the aim is to create “an environment where people feel that sense of belonging”.

She says the hotdesk policy, which means every desk is left empty and is then cleaned ready to be used again the following day, is popular with staff. “The fact that when people come in it’s clean makes them feel ready to work, they tell us.”