Conceived in an era of command and control, the traditional fixed and stratified office is evolving to embrace more fluid and intuitive ways of working
The typology of the modern office owes its origins to the white collar factory and the efficiencies of production through division of labour that theorists such as Frederick Taylor and practitioners such as Ford celebrated.
Efficiency was the guiding principle and ‘time and motion’ were the measures of success. Offices were a celebration of the class divide, manifestations of the roles and relationships between managers and ‘workers’ that defined the corporation. Indeed the very definition of ‘white collar’ represented a move off the shop floor into an environment in which one’s clothes and collar remained clean.
Early office buildings such as Johnson Wax in Racine, Wisconsin, reflected the management mantra of the era, where people were supervised and work was measured by inputs: clocking in and out was the demarcation of the working day.
Buildings celebrated the post-industrialised economy and shaped our towns and cities as transport and communications technologies allowed the separation of administration functions from the locations of factories and extraction industries.
For most of the 20th century the office remained true to its roots. A few innovators pushed the boundaries, with Eberhard and Wolfgang Schnelle’s Quickborner team in the 1950s pioneering the concept of Bürolandschaft as a reaction against Taylorism which recognised that office work was diverse and that people could sit together in non-hierarchical workspace.
The Schnelle brothers shaped much of the modern office (AR February 1964), but their concepts developed into the 1970s as Tayloresque open office factories when Robert Propst and others evolved the office ‘cubicle’ and with it the cube farms and ‘systems furniture’ that were to dominate workplaces for the next few decades.
In the 1980s, Big Bang and the spread of networked technology coupled with the space requirements of an expanding financial services sector fuelled the demand for ‘deep plan’ office buildings and with the Orbit Report came the prescribed wisdom of raised floor and an ‘intelligent’ building to accommodate the ever increasing spread of connected personal computers and servers. And with the explosion of networking and hardware came the challenges of cooling and accommodating the cable, leading to ever more engineered, expensive and inflexible buildings.
There were some landmark buildings that shaped thinking and defined the era, from Niels Torp’s Scandinavian Air Services (SAS) building in Stockholm that brought the outside in and created the idea of a street within the office, to interior experiments in new ways of working such as Digital Equipment in Helsinki where space and technology were developed to create new patterns of behaviour in the workplace.
These typologies began to change thinking, but they were born in an era before the invention of many technological ingredients such as email, mobile phones, laptops and wireless data networks that were to shape work/life and enable the mobility and agility to use new space effectively.
In 1985, Philip Stone and Robert Luchetti wrote the seminal article in Harvard Business Review, ‘Your Office Is Where You Are’, and triggered thinking about the nature of work and the workplaces designed to accommodate it. By the 1990s, with emerging technology firmly in place, pioneering offices such as Interpolis in The Netherlands began to provide an alternative view of workplace based on ‘activity based working’ where no one had a fixed position in an office where all phones were mobile − people connected to people and not to desks or rooms.
Work is now changing at an accelerated pace. Six forces are at play, from transport and the city, to sustainability and technology, demography and culture. All are challenging the demand for and typology of traditional office buildings inside a Central Business District (CBD). Instead of a single cluster, a vision of a polycentric city is slowly emerging, where people can work from a number of locations. Indeed the rise of ‘third space’, a new typology in-between the ‘office’ and the home, shows that future workspace will be more diverse and varied in both location and function.
Charles Handy was right when he predicted the changing nature of corporate life and with it the rise of a core and periphery workforce in his vision of a shamrock organisation, forecasting the rise of outsourcing and flexibility that has shaped the move to a more agile corporate organism. Forecasters such as Daniel Pink now predict an ever increasing cohort of ‘contingent workers’, the freelancers and independents that are vocal about the ‘new world of work’.
But it is technology that is really enabling change. For 120 years after industrialisation the office housed sedentary, tethered technology that anchored people to desks. Bell’s telephone and Remington’s typewriter gave way to the mainframes, word processors and then the networked PC. Now we are witnessing another inflexion point as technology leaves buildings altogether and heads to the cloud. The rise of portable devices, ubiquitous wireless connectivity and cloud-based storage and software mean that the office will no longer house infrastructure. It will become increasingly ‘thin’.
The future typology of the office will represent a more fluid and dynamic organisation, accommodating a business as it constantly changes through inherent flexibility and the ability to load-balance space. This approach to ‘real time real estate’ is about scaling a building to respond to average occupancy (just like an airline lounge) and not the ‘what if’ approach of today where everyone gets a desk or ‘cell’; more just-in-time than just-in-case. Tomorrow, the organisation will want a critical mass in a building that is transparent and flexible and that represents the real organisation and the work that is being done rather than the out-of–date organisational chart or corporate hierarchy.
Work is no longer about repetitive process but increasingly about connection, interaction and collaboration. New behaviours are needed in a workplace originally designed to keep people apart, where social interaction was banned. Now collaboration is encouraged but in many buildings it is designed out of the equation. Research finds that people ‘know their neighbour’ within about 8 to 10m inside a workplace. Communities are small and constrained. In the traditional office people move around in sealed lifts, often only between the building entrance and their floor. Food and drink is restricted to vending or ‘tea points’ and a solitary central restaurant or cafeteria and circulation spaces are seen as inefficient and kept to a minimum.
Tomorrow, these collaborations will be the very essence of being in an office. And so opening up the floor plate, investing in vertical circulation between floors on staircases (that are not ‘means of escape’) and encouraging movement around the floor plate through ‘disadjacencies’ are attributes for tomorrow’s innovation-centric, knowledge-based organisations. The office must become a place for serendipitous meetings and so needs to create or orchestrate the unplanned encounters that will be crucially important for continued success.
Topologies such as exoskeletons and side-core buildings go some way to providing a more flexible footprint within which future organisations can flourish. But these buildings are few and far between. Most have a path of least resistance driven by flexibility of letting or leasing and so provide optimum options but limited visions. Central cores block sight lines and deep plan space deprives people of daylight and a human scale to the clusters that people feel comfortable with.
Perhaps we will head back to where work started, before the industrial revolution and Frederick Taylor organised work into containers, when trades and professions based themselves in Guild buildings − the original workplace for the craftsman and artisan. Guild buildings and their continental cousins such as the Scuole of Venice were the original building typologies created for a working population; groups or confraternities that were the historic precursors of today’s modern corporation. And the Scuola Grandi (unlike Guilds) allowed people from different occupations to become members. Scuole buildings had many of the attributes that workplaces are creating today, including meeting halls and rooms such as the salone and albergo. As Terry Farrell reflects, space positive environments such as the quads of Oxbridge bring people from different disciplines together. And these principles of connection or collaboration seem to have been lost along the way as the office building morphed into the modern machine that is the container for the organisation.
The ‘dot com’ boom showed that the most sought-after space was often older building stock, the warehouses or industrial buildings that had different volumes and topologies to the standard spec office block. Their generosity and quirkiness demonstrated the desire for an office to be a place for people and not a container for infrastructure, leading to a change in the approach to workplace design. The working day no longer starts with a bell or the stamp of a time card for most office workers, but the blurring of the boundaries and the spheres, driven by technology and globalisation, have changed the nature of where, when and how work will take place now and in the future. The sedentary, dumb building no longer contains work − it has become a player in a continuum where space has to become real-time. We are in a world where work is firmly a verb: something we do and not a place that we go to.
Interpolis Building by Abe Bonnema in Tilburg, The Netherlands
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British Airways Building by Niels Torp in Heathrow, UK
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Macquarie Building by Fitzpatrick + Partners in Sydney, Australia
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Microsoft Building by Sevil Peach in Schiphol, The Netherlands
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PwC Building by Foster + Partners in London, UK
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