Offices must be designed for the virtual world

Troldtekt, Future office

Digital collaboration tools and mobile technology are changing the way the modern workplace needs to be organised.
 
Philip Tidd is an office interior design expert at Gensler – leading consultants in the area of collaborative design. He spoke about future office interior design at the Nohr-Con conference in Copenhagen on 14 April. See his insights into the new trends for office environments.

 

What are the key office interior design challenges today?

"Our research and global workplace studies confirm that one of the greatest challenges is to create an environment that meets the need of employees to reflect and concentrate. 

In the surveys, several respondents say they choose to work at home on certain days because they can get more work done. This says a lot about modern office environments – that you actually cannot work efficiently in them.

There is a lot of research highlighting the importance of employees feeling physically comfortable in the workplace – in terms of everything from height-adjustable desks to a good indoor climate. The next step is to improve employees' mental well-being.

We have to create good acoustics and visual privacy. Headphones have become the new office partition, and people use them to shield against the noise around them. There is a need for areas where they can concentrate, but these should ideally be close to the normal work area.

What will be the most important development during the next few years?

Integration between the physical and digital workplace. Everyone carries a mobile device around in their pocket which functions like a supercomputer these days. Compared to only five years ago, it is amazing what we can do with current technology.

We are seeing that a lot of people spend much of their working day communicating and being in contact with their organisation, using virtual collaboration tools such as Skype, WebEx and GoToMeeting.

That is the digital workplace. Then there is the physical workplace, and employees typically move between the digital and physical workplace several times during a working day. It is these movements that create new and interesting challenges for the workplace.

At Gensler we often highlight a statistic from our research which shows that at least 75 per cent of the meetings we have observed had one more participants who were not present in the meeting room. The physical workplace has to be more flexible, and various spaces have to be created to accommodate the digital needs.

How will mobile technology and constant connectivity specifically impact on interior design?

We need various work settings and multi-function rooms that make it easier for employees to collaborate with people in other locations. These people might be in a different country, a different city or another area of the building.

Half of my last working week was spent answering Skype calls or using other virtual collaboration tools. There must be places in the office where people can and answer calls and have these conversations – the desk workspace is not enough.

We need more small rooms where people can sit alone, and larger rooms for team meetings. It is also necessary for people to learn that you work and behave differently in the various rooms.

How can office environments support the balance between concentration and collaboration?

Some might think that the greatest failure in office interior design is that we have created open office environments, where people sit at their desks wearing headphones and having conversations without noticing that they might be disturbing their colleagues around them.

The answer is not to put people back in closed offices or behind partitions. There is a good reason we have abolished them – as they made people feel isolated and out of touch with their colleagues. But we may have gone too far in relation to the open environments. We should work instead to create a more balanced interior design. There should be an appropriate mix of rooms and places where we can concentrate, collaborate and learn.

Our research shows that if you succeed in finding this balance, and give people the opportunity to choose where and how they work, they choose the place best suited to the task at hand. And this has a positive effect on their well-being, commitment and job satisfaction.

What are the implications for professionals who plan and design office buildings?

Many architects design buildings which look fantastic, but if you remove the visual embellishments, they are not essentially different from the buildings built over the last 100 years – especially in terms of high-rise buildings. And this is probably not ideal in the twenty-first century.

We have to revolutionise office landscapes and think outside the box. We have to work out how modern office buildings ought to look today, and we can learn a lot from looking at how urban areas are organised into streets, squares and courtyards. We see a mixture of public and private spaces. The office of the future is not a large open room in which everyone is seated at a desk. Well over 50 per cent of all Internet data is delivered to mobile devices today, so the signs suggest that desktop PCs are fast becoming relics.

Gensler is a global consultancy firm which works with architecture, design and planning. The company has 46 offices and over 5000 employees in Asia, Europe, Australia, the Middle East and North, South and Central America.

Gensler was founded in 1965 and has over 3500 active customers from within virtually all industries.