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The office isn’t dead, but it is changing rapidly

Posted on November 3, 2016 by Fresh Workspace

There’s nothing new in the sight of technology companies and other vested interests producing research that not so subtly supports a growing need for their technology. Similarly anybody who has worked in the workplace sector for even a short length of time will have read one of these companies predicting nothing less than the death of the office itself. The only thing we can say with any certainty about all this stuff is that the talk is premature and misguided. Rather than wrongly predicting the death of the office, we are facing something far more interesting and research should produce conclusions which reflect what many of us believe; namely that the traditional office, most famously depicted by Ricky Gervais, does not meet all the demands now placed on it by occupiers. As this recent feature in the Financial Times makes clear, the office isn’t dead but it’s changing beyond all recognition in response to these new demands.

The now commonplace talk of the death of the office tends to rely on a number of fallacies and assumptions. The first is that technology does not necessarily make us more productive. As we have entered a new era of technological advancement, the economy hasn’t become more productive, a problem that continues to be a concern for both politicians and economists.

Yet we have been aware of this apparent paradox since the beginning of the Information Age. The idea even has its own Law, the Solow Computer Paradox first  coined by the economist Robert Solow’s in 1987 “You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics”, he said.

VITRA-workThat rings true yet still we have companies arguing that the future lies without physical space. Since we first started to hear about this sort of thing in the mid 1990s, a period of time which saw a great deal of feverish speculation of this sort, an innocent world in which you still had to explain what you meant by ‘hot desking’ and before we all learned to spell Millennium properly, we’ve learned how complex the issue can be. Whatever the business case, whatever the legislation, the demands of employees and whatever the potential of the technology, forecasts of the death of the office have proved unfounded because we are still human and the workplace is valued far too much to be disposed of completely.

The predictions were often based on an outdated model of the office. This is the office at its most basic, a level at which owning an office is largely about the survival of the organisation. You need to have an office because you need somewhere to work. It doesn’t really matter that much what it’s like, so long as it doesn’t cost too much and it provides a basic level of comfort and a rudimentary aesthetic. This is The Office of Ricky Gervais, the type of office that is heading for extinction.

The reason it is dying out is because there is a level of sophistication beyond what it represents. This is the intelligent office, driven by a group of buyers who see it as a complex machine for working in. It is not merely a place to go to work. It is a social hub for staff, the framework that structures their days, the physical manifestation of the business and hence an important conveyor of brand identity for both customers and employees, a place to meet colleagues and clients, a place to share information and ideas and – yes – a place to establish relationships of all sorts.

All of this was evident at last week’s giant furniture exhibition Orgatec in Cologne. The defining theme of the show was this new era and it was encapsulated best by the stand-out display from Vitra. This was the office design based on the needs of people, not machines and not units of production.

In short, offices exist because we are human and they fulfil a range of human needs. We may have developed some pretty cool technology over the last few years, but our nature is rather more ancient and more fixed. There is no doubt the office is changing, but its underlying role will remain.