Is this how we work?

/ Ana Teresa Cristobal / Arts & Culture

A recent trip to the Orgatec furniture fair in Cologne prompted our Briefing & Interiors team to consider once again the past, present and future of the workplace.

One of the things that struck us at the fair was that many furniture manufacturers are bringing products to the market which show innovation in aesthetics, but relatively few products that are radically changing the way we work. That led us to wonder if we are in a static period in the history of the workplace, with significant changes in the past but relatively little change in recent times. In response, we turned our thoughts to the future of the workplace - how it is going to have to respond to the next generation, to changes in who uses it and how it is used, and to future technological, societal and market pressures.

We always find it of value when considering the present and future to look back at the past, and so thought back to shifts in the workplace that occurred during the 20th century. From the 1900s open plan ‘Taylorist’ office, which organised the workplace along the same logic as the industrial production line, and the German Bürolandschaft movement of the 1950s, which created non-hierarchical free-plan villages of workers, through to the 1980s ‘Cubicle office’, which created large open floor plans and maximised numbers of workers using highly efficient banks of cubicles, through to modern offices of the 2000s, inspired by silicon valley technology companies, which blur the boundary between life and work through the integration of work and leisure spaces.

Having considered how the workplace has changed in the past, we turned our thoughts to how it might change in the future. We know that the workplace of the future will need to do certain things - it will need to cater for the younger generation - ‘Generation Z’, who are immersed in digital and communication technology, and it will need to cater for an ever older working population as the retirement age increases and people work for longer. As described in the book ‘The Future of the Professions’, the nature of work will change as artificial intelligence and computing technology increases over time, as ‘AI’ becomes a partner in work and ever present in the workplace. Necessity is the mother of invention, and our thoughts turned to consider what might be the societal and technological shifts in the future that will demand the workplace to change.

As well as considering how the workplace will change in the future, it is also worth recognising the ways in which it might stay the same. Human evolution works on a much slower timeline than technological change, and many of the basic underlying principles that shaped the workplaces of the past still shape the workplaces of today - principles such as creating an abundance of natural light, providing a comfortable workplace that users have control over, and introducing a variety of spaces and environments that allow people to come together to work as a group or squirrel away to allow focus and contemplation.

In that regard it was interesting to hear about the briefing process on our Student Centre project for the University of Edinburgh, how the building users are being consulted at length on the ongoing design proposals, and how their needs are being married with these fundamentals of good workplace design. It also offered an opportunity to think back to some of the workplaces we have designed in the past, in which we have sought to incorporate these qualities - of light, space and comfort - such as the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Headquarters, Collegelands, and 50 George Square.