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Seven key workplace design trends from Orgatec 2016

Posted on November 17, 2016 by Fresh Workspace

Every two years in late October, much of the world’s office design sector decamps to Cologne for a few days. It bases itself by day in the huge Cologne Messe and, by night, in the bars of the old town. It is there to reveal its latest products, talk about the latest trends, ask how business is going and look for work. But why exactly should facilities managers care what happens to the office furniture industry? Old lags from the office furniture industry will always tell you that Orgatec isn’t what it was. Even allowing for their rose tinted hindsight, there is truth in this but primarily only in terms of its scale. Staged every two years in Cologne, Germany, it continues to offer a unique insight into the changing shape and function of the office. It is this that attracted a reported 56,000 people to Orgatec this year, two-thirds from outside Germany.

There are two reasons for this. Firstly we know that whatever furniture designers are talking about reflects what they are being asked for by their customers. Secondly, because Orgatec only comes around every two years, it makes shifts in workplace thinking more evident than would be the case with an annual event. Hence Orgatec’s track record and reputation as the European launchpad for groundbreaking products. The 2016 vintage Orgatec marked a similar leap forward in a number of key areas.

Here are the seven key trends marked by this year’s Orgatec.




The word that is still on nearly everybody’s lips. This cuts to the heart of what offices are for in the 21st Century now that we no longer actually need them to do a sizeable proportion of our work. Instead, offices are increasingly  where we work alongside and communicate with other people. This was reflected not only in the nature of the products on display, but was easily the most common theme on the seminar programme and formed the basis for the displays in the boulevards that linked the main exhibition halls.

Soft seating, meeting booths, ergonomic seating and meeting tables were the most prominent products on display and so desks were largely notable by their absence – with one or two notable exceptions. There were a large number of sit-stand workstations (more of which later) and a number of reminders that how we use worksurfaces now bears more relation to how we have used them throughout time with the exception of the thirty or so years in which they were used as a platform for PCs. From an ergonomic point of view there is little difference between paper and a laptop and paper and a typewriter.

This was the core theme of Orgatec’s most impressive stand from Vitra. Influenced no doubt by the coworking phenomenon and the way office design now draws its inspiration from other types of environments (again – more later), Vitra’s display emphasised that what we now go into an office to  do is be around other people. We can do a lot of the work anywhere, but that doesn’t allow us to collaborate.





More of an aesthetic than a functional theme, many of the products on show were heavily industrialised. This too is influenced by the coworking movement which mean we had chipboard desk pods, screens that are lowered by a factory hoist, modular shelving and mesh panels, all on the Vitra stand.

On a related note, coworking is also about shared, playful design. Buzzispace for example combined an industrial aesthetic and a collaborative working environment with playfulness with a bright yellow modular climbing frame with inbuilt seats and benches, called BuzziJungle by Belgian designer Jonas Van Put.



cascando 2


Acoustic and visual privacy has been one of the show’s leitmotifs for some time and this year was no exception. What had changed this time around was the focus and nature of the products. Over recent years the issue of workplace acoustics has been dominated by the challenge of cutting down background and distracting noise in open plan offices. This remains an important consideration and office furniture makers have tended to address it with rectangular screens and partitions.

This year’s show also showed an alternative slant on not only how to meet this challenge but also to provide privacy for individuals and small groups of people in the heart of a collaborative space. So, as well as the acoustic booths and meeting spaces, there were a large number of chairs with acoustic baffles to envelope the individual away from the din and distraction of their surroundings.



Walter KNoll

Walter Knoll

The collaborative nature of the modern workplace coupled with a greater understanding of the benefits of moving have led to a greater focus on motion in workplace design. Orgatec reflected this both in the large number of sit-stand workstations on show and the way office seating makers were talking about their products.

Sit-stand workstations are becoming increasingly popular in the UK as they are across Northern Europe and North America. Their health benefits are now very well understood but so too are their functional benefits as they adapt to the different tasks that people do during each day.

Movement is also the watchword for the latest generation of ergonomic seating. Amongst the products on show were those of Humanscale, Viasit and SBS. What is interesting about such products is how their function is now described, in terms of both their ability to encourage movement but also as a ‘work tool’. The language is the same as it would be for equipment such as technology rather than furniture, emphasising its changing role as something people use rather than merely own.


Cross pollination



Considering this is an office exhibition, many of the products on show would have been equally at home in a hotel, cafe or other public space and many even had an unmistakeably domestic feel. This is not merely an aesthetic issue, there just as a way of creating a more relaxed feel in an office. It is indicative of a world in which people are used to working anywhere and in which the functional distinctions between categories of place are blurring, eroding and vanishing altogether.

It is this shift that lies at the heart of the emerging workplace – we no longer distinguish as we once did between the office, our homes and public spaces. They each serve a different purpose for us at times, but they no longer exist in their own bubbles.





This was not a major theme of the show but it soon will be. The most obvious nod to the coming world of automation was in the driverless car prototype presented by Mercedes. Apart from when we use it to make phone calls, the car is one of the last domains yet to be conquered by work, but the model on show emphasised that this won’t be the case for very much longer. It features four rotating seats that mean it can be used as both a work and meeting space, while the car itself takes on the onerous task of the actual driving. Don’t assume that this is some distant dream.



The environment



Ironically, this is an important issue precisely because of its current absence. Where once firms would lead on their environmental credentials, these days they are hardly mentioned at all, except perhaps by the flooring manufacturers at Orgatec. Perhaps this is because the major manufacturers have each reached largely the same general standard of environmental performance, or perhaps buyers no longer put such a great emphasis on green credentials as buying criteria because they expect it as a matter of course.