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The future of workplace design and management will be shaped by complex forces and sophisticated solutions

Posted on August 18, 2016 by Fresh Workspace

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wework-nyc-office-design-4The modern workplace is regularly subjected to protracted periods of existential angst about its role, particularly in times of change. A great many organisations have to constantly ask themselves questions about how and where they work and from the point of view of those who work in the fields of workplace design and management, the answers go to the root of what we actually want from the places we work. I know that ‘The Death of the Office’ has been a theme that people have pursued for a quarter of a century and it is now a more feasible idea than ever before, but it wasn’t the answer to anything back in the 1990s and it isn’t now. It’s theoretically possible. But not many people want it. What we have instead is a constantly evolving idea of what the office is for and how we meet the challenge of developing the right workplace model that satisfies the needs of the organisation and the people who work for it.

We are fortunate to be blessed with a wide choice of office design models and the technology that drives and underpins them. Then there is the eternal challenge of developing a solution that is adaptable enough to resolve the tensions that exist between the different elements of the building, each of which operates on its own timescale; from the building which has a lifespan measured in decades, through to the fit-out which is measured in years and down to the people and their technology which have needs that can change from moment to moment.

The principles behind this complex situation have been know to us for a long time, at least since the 1970s when the architect and writer Frank Duffy first introduced the world to his ideas about the physical and temporal layers of the building – in his terminology the ‘shell, services, scenery and sets’. The balance between these layers may have shifted significantly in recent years, but the tensions between them continue to determine how well we design and manage our workplaces.

The solution to this conundrum now lies in part with discarding the increasingly tired and unhelpful idea of space standards. Creating buildings using linear equations about the number of people that work in them is increasingly irrelevant.

The commercial interiors industry has its own set of related challenges. The most prominent current shift in thinking is unquestionably the more social role of the office and the advent of a new type of working with new technology which is not reliant on somebody sitting at a desk. The emphasis is increasingly on other forms of seating, meeting tables, finishes, flooring and screens in addition to desks and ergonomic seating. I don’t believe for one moment that we are about to discard desks and task chairs. Indeed our own sales of these products remain remarkably consistent.  But we must accept such settings are now only part of the way people work.

In this regard, official guidance on key issues such as ergonomics has struggled to keep up with the pace of change. The most up to date guidance on ergonomics on the HSE website is the Display Screen Equipment regulations of 1992. Even though these were updated in 2002, the principles on which these regulations are based mean that they are only appropriate for specific forms of work. They somehow managed to completely overlook the ubiquity of the laptop, and anybody working on an iPad in a soft seat with a coffee on the chair’s arm will need to seek guidance on ergonomics elsewhere.

Finally, the inevitable word on the environment. There is still too much emphasis placed on mitigating our impact on the environment when what is also needed is an entirely new approach to more serious questions about supply chains, energy use and so on. I think this is not only one of the most pressing issues we can all address, but also offers a great opportunity for everybody involved in the workplace sector to drive an agenda that improves the environmental performance of their organisations and cuts their costs. Many are doing it already and it would be great to see many more join them in the future.

Image: WeWork coworking space in New York