Matthew Sexton, Perkins+Will, on future of office design

Design is something that influences our everyday lives, even if the average person doesn’t necessarily realise it. It has an impact on everything from the clothes that we wear, to the cars that we drive, and the environments within which we dwell.

Great design has the power to transform lives. Take the Apple iPhone, for example; it has completely transformed the way in which we interact with one another, and with the world around us.

So how did Steve Jobs and Apple manage to change the world? Through a commitment to quality and an unwavering pursuit of progress. They threw away the rulebook and asked one simple question: how can design improve our lives?

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Within corporate interiors, there are many parallels to this ideology. At Perkins+Will, we aim to design spaces that shape the way in which people experience the workplace, fostering productivity, creativity and connectivity.

This notion goes beyond the final aesthetics of a project; it speaks to the fundamentals of how we perceive and subconsciously respond to space. Human behavioural patterns can be directly linked to the environment. In other words, a well-designed space can actually influence our behaviour.

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Typical turn of the century office layout

Corporate offices have been a cornerstone of society since the turn of the 20th century, with Frank Lloyd Wright’s Larkin Administration Building in New York being revered as the origin of the modern office concept. The typical workplace may have evolved over the years, but does it actually work for the needs of today’s workforce? The short answer is probably not.

Offices have followed a formulaic approach for decades with little change. Of course, there are options: a cellular design versus open plan, for example, but this is nothing new. The fundamental purpose of bringing people together, and the desired outcome of doing so, seem to have been overshadowed by trends and the latest products, which claim to serve a greater purpose.

In the 1950s, the concept dubbed Bürolandschaft (literal translation: “office landscape,”) used organic groupings of desks in patterns designed to encourage conversation and create a more collaborative workforce. It was at this point the emphasis shifted away from hierarchy and more towards social interaction.

Conceptual Burolandschaft Office Layout

Conceptual Bürolandschaft Office Layout

While it cannot be argued that Bürolandschaft was a significant advancement in the history of the modern office, it did not come without its issues. By the 1970’s, cubicles were invented as a way to introduce some privacy back into the workplace. Within a decade, we saw the birth of the “Cubical Farm”.

The turn of the 21st century saw the influx of the millennials and with them came the introduction of the coffee shop culture. With modern technology supporting a “work anywhere, anytime” ideology, businesses started to realise that staff moral was directly related to productivity and consequently, the boundaries between work and social life blurred.

Typical cubical form

Typical cubical form

Today’s open-plan office still follows the same principals established many decades ago. However, there is a greater emphasis on a sense of community with a multitude of spaces dedicated to task related working. The introduction of collaboration areas, phone booths, multifunctional breakout areas, etc. support the ever-evolving complexities of today’s businesses, but one cannot ignore the impact real estate prices, especially within established markets such as London, New York and Dubai, have had on office design. The need for efficiencies and better space utilisation has, in many ways, driven space diversification.

Linkedin business central tower headquarters Dubai - Perkins+Will

LinkedIn business central tower headquarters Dubai – Perkins+Will

The modern workplace, although evolved, is showing significant failings. Miscellaneous noise, a lack of privacy and other distractions seem to be the worst offenders. A lack of boundaries has reprogrammed inter-office relationships, allowing colleagues to be interrupted frequently, which in turn negatively affects their ability to perform complex tasks.

bp downtown Dubai headquarters - Perkins+Will

bp downtown Dubai headquarters – Perkins+Will

Studies from the University of California and the University of London respectively have shown, on average within an open-plan environment, we are interrupted every 11 minutes. Furthermore, it takes 23 minutes to get back to a level of focus where one is deeply engaged. This, in turn, has led to employees consciously separating themselves from their coworkers in order to concentrate. If you translate this into fiscal terms, the impact can be significant.

Perkins+Will - Confidential Technology Services Client DXB

Perkins+Will – Confidential Technology Services Client DXB

The fundamental purpose of why we bring people together and the desired outcome of doing so is as relevant today as it was decades ago. Employees are at the centre of office design and businesses are starting to understand that their main value lies with the people that produce. The key to the future is to understand the needs and requirements of the individuals and the collective, to cultivate growth, foster collaboration and to retain staff. The forum within which this takes place, although it must be intuitive, is very much secondary to the occupants.

As corporate office designers, we are committed to progress and furniture. With the ever-evolving advances in technology and the global marketplace becoming more and more accessible, a “one size fits all” solution is no longer the answer.

It’s time now to throw away the rulebook, and start thinking about the workplace of the future – an environment where your international colleagues can “sit next to you” while still in another country; where individual working and team working can flip back and forth without changing seats; and where offices can produce the energy required, generated from the staff themselves.

As Steve Jobs once said: “Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” And how it works has changed.

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