Offices today can come in many shapes and forms, from home offices in the corner of a kitchen to a converted bedroom to a beautifully designed managed flexible workspace in a converted mill, yet when asked, most people will think of tall glass skyscrapers filled with desks and buzzing with people every day. But how did we, humans, end up in these offices, where we spend most of our days, what does the future of the office look like?
According to an article by K2space the first actual offices that we might recognise as such today belonged to the English Admiralty & then the even larger mercantile offices belonging to The East India Company, one of the most successful companies in history. We may now strongly question their morality & methods, but they did set the standard for organising office space & may arguably have started the corporate culture of centralised decision making and control.
Fast forward to early 20th century, and we can see the development of office space design. You may think that the open plan design is something new, but in fact this dates back over 100 years. One model of open space design, called ‘Taylorism’, was popular in the early 20th century. The design was focused on productivity and was manifest with a simple layout of rows and rows or ordered desks, all facing the same way rather like a giant Victorian school room. We will all have seen this style in films portraying the ‘drudgery’ of repetitive administrative tasks in the 20’s and 30s & continuing right up until the late 50s.
In the 60s a new concept called ‘Burolandschaft’ emerged in Europe, where the office layout became more focused on socialising and the needs of the employees. This concept has evolved through several stages, and, where workers were assigned to desks, they were afforded a little more privacy with these changes ultimately leading to the phenomenon known as ‘cubicles’.
These cubicles still exist, but many companies, enabled by technology & influenced by new workplace philosophies are reverting to the open space model, focused on collaboration, team working and transparency. This is often accompanied by interior design, plants, artwork, and in some companies sleeping pods & game rooms are provided. Staff comfort, motivation and the creativity are now watchwords of office design. Google, probably the famous exponent of this type of office provision, has been voted as one of the best places to work, according to a survey by Glassdoor.
Not everyone has the resources or indeed the needs of the huge tech conglomerates, so what if you do not have an office at all? What are the alternatives for the employees of start-ups or for established small businesses? You can work from home, which is now more than relevant than ever, but if you are looking for something more formal and need to bring people together to accomplish the work then perhaps you will eventually need to find a co-working space or share office space?
The first co-working spaces are believed to have been situated in Berlin occupied by “internet engineers” in 1995 and a few years later by a Feminist collective in San-Francisco – epicentre of start-ups and entrepreneurship today. The co-working spaces now exist all over the world under different models. Some focus on community with events and collaboration areas, some simply provide a desk and some offer a mixture of ‘hot desks’ and private offices to work from - with different price ranges and payment models.
One company which made co-working spaces even more popular was WeWork. The story of the company’s rapid growth and equally rapid difficulties is perhaps for another time, but now at least everyone knows that such buildings and services exist! With this mode of office set up becoming so popular, even hotels are offering their common areas as co-working spaces and the trend is only increasing. With interior design and personal comfort at the forefront, co-working spaces are filled with things people love - amazing food, entertainment options, artistic elements and more.
These changes are all part of the natural evolution of the workspace, and very much influenced by business theory, societal change and personal preference. However, since earlier this year there has also been something of a workplace revolution...Covid-19!
Covid-19 has stopped the world in its tracks and effected every single one of us. The global economy and day to day commerce virtually ground to a halt in the spring. However, over the summer and in various ways the world’s economies and each individual business has begun to re-think re-start and re-deploy its resources. This has meant that all the office workers who had to abandon their buildings and work from home using the available technological solutions are now facing some tough decisions. Some progressive companies were already adapting their working practices before the virus and examining the economic and motivational benefits of a hybrid or ‘blended’ model where people would have flexibility of choosing to attend the office on required or pre-scheduled days.
According to recent reports by many of the larger companies, their productivity has not dropped and in some cases has even increased. Companies like Google, Airbnb and some others decided to extend the work-from-home system till 2021 and may be even further. On the other hand, the UK government is actively encouraging people to go back to work and back into their offices. This will help the commercial landlords of course, and all the shops & restaurants that service these workers every day in our city & town centres. So, if people go back to their offices, what will that look like?
National Geographic has noted that the open workspace as we knew it may go away for the foreseeable future. In one example from Korea it shows that in one call centre over 40% of the employees were diagnosed with the virus. This effect has the potential to be repeated in every open office space, globally if adequate measures are not taken. The standard ideas being implemented across business are: distanced seating, one way systems, controlled entrance & exit, increased cleaning and guidance, scheduled visits and more.
Many are asking how the office will change over the next 6-24 months as we learn more, adapt and change? We have already seen the return of the cubicle & a lot of clear plastic and glass partitions springing up in every public space, but what else will return or be consigned to corporate history? Common spaces, such as kitchens, game rooms and the ubiquitous meeting room are all being re-thought and re-planned.
Engineers recommend increased fresh air flow, and re-designed air conditioning systems. This might be manageable for large corporates with facilities management, and budgets set aside, but for many SMEs this is simply unaffordable. While an open door and window was easy in July, how will businesses cope in the north in the middle of November?!
What about co-working spaces? By definition these buildings are more open and are characterised by busy foyers and reception areas in addition to the dedicated offices available for each resident business. Previously networking & socialising in the shared spaces formed part of the attraction to many potential tenants. Perhaps the modern day managed workspace is under threat? Or maybe not. According to Yahoo finance the co-working spaces suffered a lot during the months of April-June, where their occupancy rates plummeted from near capacity to around 50%. However according to media reports (and we can confirm this from our own contacts in the Industry) the occupancy rates for many of the leading brands – WeWork, Regus, Spaces & Clockwise - are building up again - towards pre Covid occupancy rates once more. Many tenants left to save money and their businesses, but now many return, perhaps with different numbers & different needs and now they are joined by new tenants who have relinquished expensive leases elsewhere and are attracted by the flexibility & simplicity.
According to JLL more and more landlords are working on turning their premises into flexible or shared spaces. Many offices may be re-purposed into residential property but an equal number may also be leased out to other clients as several large companies, according to unconfirmed reports, plan to formalise the blended & home working models – freeing up whole floors that several smaller companies may wish to occupy?
One thing is for certain, though many can and will continue to work remotely via the benefits of high speed internet and video conferencing, there will be an equal or greater number of employees that need to work with the others and be present in ‘the office’ for all or at least part of the working week, and for a variety of reasons. While an established experienced senior manager may well be able to work from a home office or spare room, what about a 20-something graduate with 4 other housemates in a flat-share, all in their first few years of working life? They can’t all sit around the Kitchen table. Not everyone has found this new way of working easier or more efficient. As well as the practical we must also consider the psychological effects – feelings of isolation and the lack of variety created by the home-working ‘new normal’ have clear and obvious detriments to our mental health.
So with the future being shaped in front of our eyes, and all this ongoing uncertainty, what can make work and work spaces more safe, pleasant and enjoyable again? We would like to look at it from the perspective of art, which will be featured in our next blogpost.