No board rooms, no desks. The office of the future…
Images of future offices, with physically distanced workstations to separate desk-bound workers, seem to miss the point. Offices aren’t for staying apart – they’re for coming together. But how can that be organised in a post-COVID world?
Offices have desks because we’ve long thought that people couldn’t or shouldn’t work from home. Attitudes were changing slowly, with progressively greater levels of home working in recent years. Now, enforced lockdown has shown, in a short space of time, that for many of us it’s entirely possible to do much of our work from the place we live.
This is especially so when we’ve got the right kit and the right applications, and when we’ve moved sufficiently well along the learning curve to use our tech properly. And home working is likely to be even easier when, for many, the kids are back at school and home is an emptier, quieter and less disruptive place to be.
To continue to be relevant, to be attractive to people who are used to the comforts of home working, offices should no longer be boxes where people sit further apart from each other. Instead, they need to be places for doing what can’t be as easily done at home:
⁃ serendipitous encounter outside of planned meetings
⁃ overheard conversations that prompt interruptions, discussions and, as a result, new ideas
⁃ introductions between the person you’re with and the person you bump into.
All this is much harder to make happen online. And, since we’ve discovered that group meetings are much easier online than we’d imagined, then we will soon realise that office-based meeting rooms aren’t as important as we thought they were.
So, with no desks and no meeting rooms, what will the office of the future look like? And, with proximity being possible between the COVID+ but distancing required between the COVID-, how will behaviours change?
The best offices of the future will be entirely different from anything that has gone before: more like open public spaces or gardens where desks for task-work are replaced by benches for conversations; where people can see and be seen; be physically close or separate but still in eye contact and earshot; where spatial design will manage the relationship between proximity and visibility; where someone can easily find a quiet corner or the far side of a partition to be online and elsewhere; providing spaces for group experiences that are part physical and part virtual, where some are online and others are in the room.
Need quiet? Put your earphones in. Bothered by the conversations or the speakerphones of people on the other side of the room? Not any more because we’ve been sharing space with multiple conversations while working from home in the company of our flatmates and family members. We’ve been hearing three or four conversations at the same time and we’ve begun to tune our own in and the others out.
The balance has shifted away from the desk and the cellular space to the bench and the forum. The “corporate” office of the future will be a place to create ideas not write them up. Home can handle write-up. The office must be a factory of unexpected human interaction and, as a consequence, a place of continuous innovation.