Where are you right now? In the office, at a desk, in front of a computer? Probably at one of several banks of desks, with a couple of neighbours, if it’s anything like ours. This, the open-plan office, has dominated since the 1950s, when “dissatisfaction with the cubicle model gave way to spaces geared towards open exchanges”, says Peter Firth from trend forecasting agency Future Laboratory. But now the open-plan space is almost as unpopular – air-con wars and debatable musical tastes can make many of us miserable. Technology and a new generation are changing that now, believes Firth. Think of your own desk again – there’s probably a smartphone on it, maybe a tablet in your bag. All of which means you’re constantly connected. To work, yes, but also to your personal life while at work – Facebook, Twitter, personal email. That’s behaviour which will be key in shaping the new office, says Angela Sasso, speaker on the theme of the future office at the London Festival of Architecture and interiors principal at architecture firm Aukett Swanke. “We’re going to be less reliant on desks; people will still be at screens or using devices, but there’ll be more collaborative spaces to use them in.”
However, mobile technology doesn’t mean we’ll all forgo the office for our bed or the local coffee shop. Sure, “you can set up a start-up from the Barbican”, says Sean Cassidy, designer at Cassidy + Wilson, “but there’s also a certain professionalism about being in an office.” He points to Yahoo, a high-profile example of where working from home was scrapped in favour of office work. “Offices are becoming more experiential,” says design director Nicola Osborn of Morey Smith. “But building face-to-face relationships is important, no matter how good technology gets. Things like Skype still don’t feel natural – there’s no eye contact, handshakes, body language.” And even as more exciting technology arrives – holographic meetings and 3D imaging – it will still need a physical space, believes Sasso. The meeting room will still be around, even more so, and space will become flexible. “We’re going to see things flip,” says Osborn. “There will need to be more spaces for different things – breakout areas and tactile environments.” Firth agrees, seeing more call for rooms to escape the open-plan: quiet space for writing reports as well as louder spaces for coming up with ideas.
Perhaps surprisingly, the leaders of office design aren’t just your Googles with sleep pods and instrument-filled jam rooms. Sasso points to the City, to large accountancy firms such as KPMG for “buzzy, office spaces with a sense of energy” and Osborn mentions older, established firms such as British Land – both of which look to hire people from the growing tech-savvy population. Cassidy agrees that the new generation is looking for more flexibility and doesn’t expect to be tied to a job. “Companies have to rethink about how to make the office appeal, especially as everyone spends more time working.”
The flexibility is what matters, of space and environment, says Sasso: “As well as design features like double-height spaces and mezzanines, I’d like offices to find ways of providing fresh air and natural light. We have the capability to dim and change every light in a space, and we need to give people control over their immediate work environment, whether temperature or lighting.” Osborn adds: “We’re taking influences from domestic design and there’s a focus on wellbeing. But that doesn’t mean people should live at the office – downtime is important, too.” Even if the office isn’t dead, that’s something we’re happy to hear.