Collaboration. Connection. Choice. Those have been the operative words in office design over the last few years, particularly as the open-plan concept has taken hold. How are those ideas changing the workplace, and where are we headed next? We spoke with three workplace design experts to get their take on the workplace then, now and in the future. This is the full transcript of the interview; an excerpted version is in the Summer 2019 issue of STO Insights.
Open-plan offices are arguably the most prevalent workplace trend in recent years. Why do you think it’s been so popular?
Treacy: A trend is something that is short lived, but the open office has been around for a century, maybe even longer. It’s here to stay. Open plan is not the answer to everything, but the solution that we go back to private offices is totally ridiculous. That would destroy the whole idea of a collaborative corporate culture.
The tech sector was the trailblazer for redefining the workplace into this more open model, but what we’re seeing now is industries are more sharing ideas than borrowing ideas. Everyone is going through a digital transformation—everyone has moved from a process-driven, data-entry-type of environment to one that’s much more creative and collaborative, in any sector. The type of people they’re employing and the type of work they’re doing is really no different. It’s fascinating to see how it’s changed over 30 years, and even in the last 10 years. The change is incredible in how traditional organizations are now working. They’ve created their own “new.”
Phillips: Open-plan actually has a long history and legacy. The concept was formalized in Germany in the 1950s as the “Bürolandschaft,” or office landscape. That spawned Herman Miller’s open-office concept in the 1960s. That idea hasn’t changed; there is no one right way or wrong way of planning offices, including today. Every organization is different and has to future-proof its space. There’s also the idea of the “universal office,” which makes everything the same and, therefore, is completely flexible and interchangeable. And that could be enclosed or open. What we do know is people need highly differentiated spaces with many typologies to support their work activity.
This trend is partly driven by real estate efficiency. That’s not the principal driver though because real estate is cheap, but people are expensive. The true drivers are demographics, innovation, productivity, technology, space economy and globalization. Those things are really what shape the work environment. Connection, culture, community and collaboration are also important drivers to enable the workforce and making people productive.
There’s clearly a trend that places less emphasis on personal territory and more on communal and collaborative areas. An open environment presumes people have places to meet, make a private call, host a conference call, etc. That’s much more than just an open work station environment. Without the support space required to complete the work picture, a simple open environment will fail.
Houston: I believe the popularity of the open office plan is a reflection of society’s relationship with technology today. We are constantly interacting with others via our devices and, as a result, I believe many of us are looking to make in-person connections. By breaking down walls, we are able to facilitate collaboration which shapes positive corporate culture.
What do you think about some of the recent backlash against the open-plan concept?
Treacy: A badly designed open plan is bad. It’s about designing the space properly. Understanding a client’s corporate culture is vital to creating a working environment that supports the attributes of great places to work. You don’t just move people in and say “get on with it.” The office is a tool the same way anything else is to help your organization, but people need time to learn how to use that tool. When we’re workshopping with client user groups at the beginning of the process, we have to make that message clear right from the beginning to they become advocates for the new way of working.
Houston: Many clients embrace the open-plan concept once they understand how to properly use the space. Each client is unique. It’s our job as designers to listen to our clients, understand how they work and translate that to their space. Open plan means different things for different clients; you have to find the balance and provide the resources people need in order for it to be successful.
Phillips: I can only speak to our own experiences, but by and large, projects we’ve been associated with are perceived as successful when it comes to satisfying a workforce. The idea of transparency can be different from openness. Transparency in business is an important concept that can be embodied in the way you design and plan. Having choices is a big consideration. There have to be a number of different settings to foster different kinds of meetings and places to work in isolation.
TPG and NELSON recently redesigned your own offices. Are they open plan?
Phillips: We treated ourselves like a client, with committees, online surveys, communicating the plan, etc. We wanted to talk the talk, walk the walk and create a work environment that enabled and energized our workforce and attracted and retained talent. With that input, we put a lot of emphasis on communal space. In the end, this space has changed our culture. It’s transparent and fosters a really good energy. It’s had an enormously positive effect on our business, our partnership and our quality of work.
Houston: Yes, we are designed to be free-address and each employee has a sit-to-stand benching workstation. After three months of visioning and data gathering we developed a “habitat” concept. Each habitat includes a kit of parts: project team room, huddle/phone room, personal touchdown room, recycling center, open meeting area, personal storage and workstations. The enclosed rooms and benching workstations intentionally have the same footprint so we can adapt as we change and grow.
How is technology changing workplace design?
Treacy: Over the last 10 years, nothing has had a bigger impact on the landscape of the office. Technology is allowing us to drive the thinking to much smarter buildings that help actually manage the building and how users can curate their experience in it. We haven’t quite got to that level in our projects, but it’s just a few steps away. Workplace, like everything else, has to become an experience.
We’re right now working with a large bank on a whole virtual campus strategy—a virtual campus connected by technology and infrastructure. They have gone from being a very traditional bank into a massive digital organization. We went through a lot of strategy workshops and really communicated the concept of what they were trying to do. The effect has been a complete change in the culture and how they work together—the positivity and inspirational, extraordinary change in the demeanor of people.
Houston: We are seeing a trend of “smart” technology emerging in the workplace. I believe this will continue to become more of a standard in our industry but will take time for clients to learn the benefits. It’s much like LEED and WELL—look where those were years ago and look how far they have come now.
Phillips: There is a lot of talk about smart buildings but very little has been delivered so far. That said, technology is ubiquitous. Sharing with remote team members is incredibly important as globalization is a true consideration. We’ve invested a lot in our own technology at TPG. With a virtual reality platform, we can present our ideas and thoughts in 3D, do photorealistic fly-throughs. The migration to BIM platforms has continued to evolve as well and has more and more momentum.
We’re also in a moment in time where there’s a high bar expectation and premium placed on the design experience. It’s a very exciting time to be involved in design and to guide a client through the decision-making process given there are so many options.
What’s next for workplace design?
Treacy: The traditional, hierarchical corporate culture was still very prevalent even 15 years ago. Now everyone is in a space together, and it’s a very flat structure. As things have changed, people have become more aware and companies have become increasingly global, people’s acceptance of the status quo and things happening behind closed doors has changed. People don’t see themselves in that hierarchy anymore. It’s all changing at almost warp speed. Keeping on top of it on the design side is really exciting. Every project is different and keeps moving us forward, whether that’s technology or sustainability or wellness.
One of the growing areas of the wellness agenda that I find particularly fascinating is the movement towards designing space for users with cognitive and learning challenges. So not only are we designing spaces to be physically inclusive, but we are also going to design to be cognitively diverse and inclusive. How does that manifest itself in architecture? Doing all the research into that is fascinating, but now how do we design something that works for all?
Sustainability is now a given. Everyone is on board with sustainability certification but now we are starting to think about the embedded carbon in the products that arrive on site. How do we take that out of the equation? That’s all coming—or already here—as well.
Phillips: No one can see the future, so you have to plan for every future, which means adaptability and flexibility. We are designing adaptable solutions that can accommodate all kinds of technologies since we know they will evolve. Enlightened businesses recognize that people are the primary asset, not specific solutions.
Twenty years ago, before he was the mayor, Michael Bloomberg was on a workplace symposium panel with Jay Chiat, an advertising guy. He was very forward-thinking. He said people don’t have to come to work every day as long as we can connect with them during working hours. He fostered a paperless office even then. Bloomberg got up next and said the opposite—that he was first in and last out each day and talked to the first partner who came in and the last who left. His office also served three meals a day, which is an enormous benefit to an entry-level employee who might be there 16 hours a day. As I think back, they’re both right. There’s enormous value in face-to-face communication, but you also have to be able to work from anywhere.
Houston: One of the first questions we asked ourselves for our office design was, “Why do we need to have an office at all?”
We did three months of research within our own office, having people write down in each conference room how they use that room: how many people are with them, how many people are joining by phone, what was going on during the meeting. From that information, we quantified how many private areas we would have vs open, benching workstations. We found the only way to be successful is if we provided those places for people to go as a destination in addition to their sit/stand bench workstations. Finding the balance is critical—always finding the balance.
In all of this, we found that it circles back to people wanting to create human connections with others. We spend most of our time at work. The key is designing a space that speaks to employees as individuals and as team.