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The future of workplace design

An effective workspace environment is no longer a nice-to have, and it’s workers who are driving that change

A lot of guff is spoken about how modern workspaces promote ‘new’ ways of working, but how much is really new and how much marketing myth? Does the modern workspace reflect fundamental changes in working behaviour? How might we plan for how we will need to work in the future, providing spaces for businesses to grow into as they develop?

Communication has long been an important part of the office but how important is it to be available every second of the day? Human beings can only cope with a certain amount of information before they reach saturation point. It isn’t unusual for workers to have thousands of unread emails. The recent French legal ‘right to disconnect’ is an attempt to tackle the scourge of compulsive email checking – because it’s not uncommon for employees to be uneasy about when they are allowed to switch off, while overuse of digital devices has been blamed for everything from burnout to sleeplessness and relationship problems. However, while a balance is necessary, workspace providers need to supply the best possible technology infrastructure to support business activities.

The apparently modern need for a variety of workspaces to facilitate different kinds of working activity has been given its own term – 'open office systems'. These include “team workspaces, shared workspaces, alternative work areas, spaces for large meetings/training, huddle rooms, activity spaces and focused workspaces…[with] the use of benching applications,” according to US-based office planner bauhaus. The ability to network is an important requirement in the modern office.

The main focus, as we face a future in which the pace of technological change means that we cannot be sure what work will look like, has to be to design spaces that allow for variety and flexibility wherever possible. An eclectic and flexible planning policy has a crucial role to play here, by encouraging diversity and enabling seemingly disparate businesses to exist cheek-by-jowl. Only in this way will we encourage the serendipitous encounters that provide a creative spark, avoiding business ghettos that can sterilise an area and stifle creativity.

The decline of the canteen and the increase in technology mean that around two-thirds of office workers eat lunch at their desks. Eating at a desk can be very bad for you – studies cite it as a contributing factor to obesity as a result of distracted overeating, poor food choices, and inactivity – which is bad for productivity... Canteens are also important as the sharing and communal consumption of food is increasingly seen as a tool of social cohesion in the workspace.

A good supply of buildings coming onto the market at the right price is essential. What is required are buildings that have some existing character or quality that can be harnessed to catalyse creative use of space and to lend the businesses that occupy it some identity. The days of the long-term multifloor let are severely diminished. What is needed in their place is building stock with flexible space to enable rapid growth and contraction to suit changing needs.

Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, modern workspaces need to be affordable. The recent furore over business rates has highlighted just what a delicate balance exists, and of course any cost to providers inevitably gets passed onto the user. At an average of £400 per month for a dedicated desk in a shared workspace office space is not exactly cheap, and it wouldn’t take much to price many out of the market altogether. Co-working began with ideals of inclusiveness, support and collaboration. It needs to continue in this vein rather than becoming a profiteer.

So how might we expect to work spatially in the future? I think the jury is out: workplace design is moving at such a pace that it’s impossible to predict.

David Hills is an architect and partner at Purcell, a practice specialising in the conservation and creative adaptation of historic buildings