The office space of the future

Flexible work techniques, such as ‘swarming’, will shape the next generation of offices. John McRae of ORMS Architecture Design explains why.

If you took a surgical section of, say, ten office buildings in the 1970s, you’d see the same thing over and over again. The symmetrical criss-cross pattern of cubicles, rows and columns of labyrinthine workstations, like a giant game of Jenga. This type of office was designed around the employee’s need for privacy and peace and quiet, to focus in isolation on a certain task, only occasionally breaking out to meet teams or managers.

Fast-forward forty years and, of course, the business world is a very different place. Mobile devices like smartphones and tablets, combined with the recent arrival of 4G and cloud computing, has ushered many of us towards more flexible ways of working, often outside the traditional office. In fact, it’s becoming commonplace for businesses to set firm targets for remote working.

Whilst there’s now nothing to stop most of us from following suit and jumping on the virtual bandwagon, there’s one thing that keeps drawing us back together. The gravitational pull of collaboration.  Ad hoc and fast-paced interactions are still (and arguably always will be) an inherent part of business. Take today as an example. The increasing unpredictability of the economic climate requires constant monitoring and minute-by-minute adjustments of every decision.

Swarming – the way forward

A recent report from Gartner Inc finds office-based work becoming steadily less routine and more characterised by a trend known as ‘swarming’ – whereby diverse groups of specialist professionals quickly convene, for a short flurry of activity around a specific objective, and then disperse (often pulled towards their next task in a different group). Think of a hastily-assembled TV news team, huddled around a glass table as the next big story unfolds, working out their unique broadcast angle.

There are lessons to be learned from the natural world. For many years, scientists have studied ‘swarm intelligence’—the collective behaviour of social insects like honeybees and ants—to better understand the mechanisms underlying the effectiveness of groups of individuals interacting ‘in the moment’. From honeybee swarms they learned that groups can reliably make good decisions in a timely manner as long as they seek diversity of knowledge. By studying termite mounds they’ve seen how even small contributions to a shared project can create something useful. Finally, flocks of starlings have shown them how, without direction from a single leader, members of a group can coordinate their behaviour with amazing precision simply by paying attention to their nearest neighbour.

If observations like these can inform how we, as business people, work in more efficient ways (and the Gartner Inc report seems to suggest we’re already doing so) it raises one big question about the working environment. How do we design the new office space, so that techniques like swarming are supported, not hindered? The more that is understood about the human brain and collective intelligence, the clearer it becomes that physical proximity and an open plan, flexible space that supports and promotes interaction are essential components of collaboration. The power of face-to-face, same-time same-place meetings cannot be underestimated.

The truth is, despite the stratospheric advances in technology, office design simply hasn’t kept pace. There are some compelling examples of businesses that are successfully shaping their entire spaces around flexible working techniques, but they are still in the minority.

Flexible collaboration

So the future of office space design points towards ‘flexible collaboration’ as a theme. We’ll see fewer fixed workstations, more hot-desking, breakout areas and a variety of different room types and sizes. The environment will, of course, be tech-friendly, with WiFi and cloud solutions underpinning the whole area. But it will be chat-friendly too, with areas for human interaction, spaces set aside for swarming, lounges for idea generation and brainstorming, with flexibly designed furniture and fittings that allow us to form ad hoc spaces for specific tasks and purposes.

Naturally, the move towards ‘work anywhere’ will gather pace as businesses harness technology to create efficiency. But there’s a strong argument to say, if the space is used to its full potential, the office will become a real hub for accelerated productivity.


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