Offices are changing — again.
While typing pools of the mid 20th century were eventually replaced by cubicles to create more privacy, the open office made a return in the 1990s and onward, being considered more apt to the collaboration needed for creative work environments.
And yet, open offices has left some longing for the days of privacy and peace and quiet. Now, as The New York Times recently noted, the trend is toward a 'palette of spaces' to accommodate the various ways people like to work, whether at a long desk in the open or in a quiet, enclosed space or even at a standing desk next to colleagues.
The Wall Street Journal also points out that shared and communal areas are growing within offices — a move that tries to counter the isolating effects of intensely computer-based work.
That's just the start, says Eivind Karlsen, Head of Design at co-working giant Industrious*. Karlsen sees the future of offices as akin to set design: ever-changing, modular configurations, and immersive environments focused on employee happiness and retention. There may even be a bigger focus on light and sound, a neglected aspect of even the most forward-thinking offices.
Not to mention, coworking spaces are growing exponentially and even big companies are taking advantage of the flexibility and geographic convenience they offer.
I spoke to Karlsen recently about how he sees the future of the workplace in the coming decades.
Can you describe where office design is going and why? Where are we headed?
Office design is changing in a few ways.
Firstly, there is an increased focus on experience, which is tied to metrics around employee satisfaction, retention and productivity. Office design is accommodating this by layering hospitality components - food and beverage, concierge services, and other task-oriented services - to the core offering of traditional office space.
The experience for the tenant, or member as we call them at Industrious, is also changing. Traditionally, if you had a large team you would go to a broker, find a space, hire an architect, build out the space, move in and do the whole thing over again. That is a huge time, money and emotional commitment for a company that has a limited experience in doing this and a different set of core skills and priorities. As a result, a “Workplace-as-a-Service” model has emerged and we are designing and delivering more modular configurations so that a company of any size can come in and find an appropriately sized space.
Beyond these new service layers, perhaps the most interesting development will be in designing immersive environments through a more creative application of innovative lighting and acoustics. It is something akin to set design, where the a thoughtful composition of lighting, sound, furniture and textiles can create diverse and flexible environments that evoke strong emotional responses in people. This will test the degree to which architectural delineations of space will be best method to create our future work environments.
Companies like Meyer Sound Lab has been pushing these boundaries in acoustic engineering - such as being able to simulate the acoustic experience of being in a cathedral when you are actually in a 10'x8' room. This acoustic development is loosely applicable to office space at this time, but will start to become a more relevant tool at our disposal.
Traditional workspace trends seem to be fading fast. What are they being replaced by? And what happened to the cubicle?
There are a couple factors why the cubicle and other traditional workspace trends are no longer viable for companies.
There’s a clear aesthetic that seems to represent the Millennial generation (reclaimed wood, filament bulbs, etc.). Why is that and will that last?
I think this “Millennial design aesthetic” can best be seen in Brooklyn. In part the active regeneration of post-industrial neighborhoods led to a rediscovery of these elements - old industrial fans, parsons work tables, steel window frames and filament bulbs are the staples of that typology. Naturally, as designers were beginning to revitalize these buildings they were motivated and inspired by these details.
What began as a genuine effort to integrate existing features and qualities, has over the course of 20-years become a contrived and played-out fashion.
That said, there are essential aspects of this aesthetic that hold a more permanent value. Firstly that the quality of materials you work with is important, and the grain, texture and quality of the wood is important. The filament bulb, for example, is a passing aesthetic, but it to has some essential qualities - the warm glowing light is easier on the eye, the glow creates an energy, a sense of community, it feels familiar / approachable. The objects through which these qualities are expressed will change over time, but the underlying qualities themselves (human and universal, approachable and genuine) are timeless.
Was the movement to the completely open office just a return to the old typing pools? If so, did we go too far in venerating and spreading that design?
The movement went too far when it was applied indiscriminately. In some cases and in some modes of work the open office can be a formidable model, but in most cases it is not a sustainable way to work. Any model that proposes only one way of working is going to fail. The office needs to accommodate a breadth of spaces.
How important is one’s workplace design? How does it affect workers?
It’s critical. Not just for productivity but also general happiness on the job. According to a recent study, more than 40% of adults in America report feeling lonely, including many in the workplace.
The impact? Vivek H. Murthy, former Surgeon General of the United States, reported that loneliness can cause stress and higher levels of inflammation in the body, Harvard Business Review. At work, loneliness reduces task performance, limits creativity and impairs other aspects of executive function, such as reasoning and decision making.
Why are workers lonely? Exclusively working from home; office spaces that don’t encourage collaboration (rows of cubicles); lack of opportunities for personal connection.
Have increased screen time changed the way our office looks and feels? Do you consider that in your design?
A successful office space needs to offer a respite from the screen. In a way it becomes the antithesis to the screen - soft, calming, analog and transportive. Not to say you can’t embed an office with tech - iBeacons and sensors - but the overall space can’t feel distracting, attention grabbing and loud. Even if the company that works there may be extroverted and loud, the space needs to meet the needs of the employees and support the culture of work alongside the culture of that particular company.
At Industrious, we encourage our team to think of the spaces as a spectrum of introverted and extroverted spaces, and as a landscape of spaces that can accommodate a broad set of workstyles.
Landscapes provide inspiration – they are an aggregation of a variety of spatial conditions, they are a canvas for culture, they are inhabited by a variety of different users with a range of needs and they are tested over time.
*New York-based Industrious currently has 25 coworking locations around the country and plans 50-60 locations by end of 2018.