It is essential that modern office designs create a great experience for employees and visitors and also offer people a sense of community. This is not just good for the employee but also the business, as it is essential that people work in proximity to each other at times so they can share information, create ideas and feel part of a shared goal.
So, one of the most important questions the 21st Century organisation must ask itself is; when people can work from anywhere, how do we make the office the best possible choice? And the answer is to create a working environment that meets their needs better than anywhere else.
Consequently, one of the most important characteristics of the best office designs is the way they create a sense of community and the sort of experience that people now demand from their workplaces, including shared spaces and a place to share both ideas and information with colleagues over a drink or some food. In addition, there is also a social aspect to work that must be reflected in the design of spaces.
The best office designs allow people to network, collaborate and engineer serendipitous encounters with each other. Because they are based on an agile working model which encourages people to find the most appropriate space for the task at hand and to meet their individual needs, they encourage movement and improve general wellbeing.
So, it’s no coincidence to find that many of these characteristics are apparent in a growing number of workplaces and not just cafés and co-working spaces. According to a report in the Harvard Business Review, people who work in coworking spaces report levels of thriving of around 6 on a 7-point scale, which is slightly over a point higher than the average for employees who do their jobs in traditional offices.
It’s no wonder that organisations want to replicate this kind of environment in their own offices. This demand is already having an effect on the place we used to refer to as the office and which now often resembles a home, hotel, café or airport lounge. This is manifesting itself not just in changing office design idioms but also in the products on the market. Many of the displays at office furniture shows are now indistinguishable from those in the domestic and hospitality sectors.
The growth of third space and the urbanisation of the office
In 1970, an anthropologist and researcher called William H Whyte decided to carry out a project looking at how people used spaces in cities. His innovation was to carry out the study as if observing tribes of people from other cultures. The focus of the study was how people interacted with social space.
Their findings were ultimately reported in a short book called The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces and a film, fragments of which are available online including one looking at the pleasures of being able to change seating arrangements. Facilities managers will recognise the behaviour from their own meeting and social spaces.
What became apparent to Whyte was that human interactions take place in ritualised and predictable forms and that the best spaces foster those interactions. Whyte writes about our tendency to engage with chance meetings in particular ways, to say goodbye as part of a ritual and our propensity to mirror the gestures of the people with whom we come into contact. He also identifies the characteristics of the best social spaces including the proportion of sitting space to circulation space and the way we like different levels of light in a space. Crucially he also reports that if you want a space to be used, it should be stimulating and enticing.
Similar issues are addressed in the work of the sociologist Ray Oldenburg, who popularised the idea of the Third Space as a way of describing how we interact with people in shared places. The language he used has now been appropriated by office designers to describe the sorts of cafés and breakout spaces now used commonly in progressive workplaces. It’s common to hear people say that the boundaries between the traditional workplace and the outside world have become blurred but it might be closer to the truth to say that in a growing number of cases they have been eradicated and that the evolution of cities and offices is informed by a two way exchange of DNA.
One of the interesting aspects of the work of both Oldenburg and White is how they anticipate our current interest in engineering serendipity in office design. A 2014 piece in the Harvard Business Review called Workspaces That Move People found that in four different companies, across various industries (media, advertising, public sector, legal), unplanned contact was found The growth of third space and the urbanisation of the office to be much more prevalent than planned contact. Only 34 percent of all interaction took place in a planned way, while the vast majority occurred ad-hoc and spontaneously (most often around someone’s desk).
Sorting things out as and when they arise can improve productivity – the quantification of this effect was recently labelled ‘collisionable hours’, i.e. the number of probable interactions per hour, per area. This has important implications for workplace design, not least that there should be a greater focus on offering spaces that allow people to interact in spontaneous and unplanned ways. One way of achieving this is by aping the characteristics of ad-hoc meeting spaces in other realms, including parks, cafés and benches.
This process is already well under way in many organisations. A new book from RIBA Publishing written by Nicola Gillen, may be called Future Office: Next-Generation Workplace Design, but many of the trends the author identifies are already evident in the many types of workplaces we see. The book shows how the office of today can vary from a sweeping open expanse of ergonomic workstations, to something that looks very much like a local, well designed coffee shop.
Work has been subject to a perfect storm of technological, cultural, economic and demographic change in recent years. The result has been a complete reassessment of how and where we work. Fortunately, we have never known more about how to get the best out of people, address their wellbeing and what they need from the workplace. We are also fortunate to have greater knowledge of an array of design models and how they can be applied to meet those needs. So, as the old demarcations between work and the rest of our lives are eroded by new technology and new ways of working, we are able to apply the forms and functions of other realms that have little in common with the traditional office.
As just one aspect of this, the very best modern office design has absorbed the aesthetic and functional principles of café culture to create configurable elements that create adaptable, comfortable spaces. So, just as we choose and then adapt the right kind of space when we enter a café to work on a laptop, read, relax or share time with other people, a range of products exist that create the same dynamic in the workplace.
A work cafe doesn’t have to be quiet but shouldn’t be too noisy either. It can work in small and underutilised spaces, particularly where there are high levels of footfall, but can also work as a bigger space. It should also be available at all times to make the most of both the working day and the building itself. Most importantly it should be aligned to the needs of the people who work in the office.