Designing workspaces for the future

25 May 2018

Gimmicky ping pong tables used to be the symbol of a funky employee-centric office, but these days office spaces need to attract workers with excellent facilities while also fostering innovation and collaboration. Bradford Keen hears from OMA’s Ellen van Loon, BIG’s Andy Young and Airbnb’s Aaron Taylor Harvey about creating workplaces that not only fulfil contemporary needs, but also anticipate the ideological shifts of the future.

Our workspaces are shrinking and, with it, the allocation of personal space. “There has been obsessive focus on resolving body movement within a desk footprint,” says Aaron Taylor Harvey, executive creative director of Airbnb Environments.

The result has been movable desks, foot rests, wrist pads and complex chairs. This is why, to many, ergonomics just means “desk crap”, says Harvey, who dismisses current thinking on the topic as outdated.

Desks tend to be 4ft wide, granting employees about 8–10ft2 of personal office space. It is impossible to give people a healthy range of movement in this area, Harvey says. But this is problematic only if architects and designers “assume employees are chained to their desks”.

Workers, who are now mobile through laptops and smartphones, should be able to access alternative work areas made from different textures, materials and surface heights. This encourages them to move around the office, working in different physical positions.

“That is true ergonomics, and it’s the stuff that is going to make your blood flow, make you use your limbs to stretch out,” Harvey says. “In this way, a desk can go back to being a desk.”

Having a sofa or a living room or a ‘boat’ – yes, Airbnb has a boat in its 999 Brannan building in San Francisco, in which employees host impromptu meetings or work while lying down – should not be a bonus for working hard. “It is essential to their ergonomic health that they have really distinct places to go to and that keeps them moving,” Harvey says.

OMA partner Ellen van Loon also espouses the value of diverse spaces. “I am not only talking about different kinds of work spots, but also architectural spaces,” she says. “The level of surfaces should change within the building.” A combination of coffee corners and restaurants, breakout areas and formal working spaces is essential. “Not everyone wants to work in the same environment,” Van Loon continues.

OMA recently completed Rijnstraat 8, the renewed government office building in The Hague, for the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs; the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management; the Central Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers; and the Immigration and Naturalisation Service.

Spanning 100,000m2, the site houses 6,000 government workers. In line with cost savings and new ways of working, there are half as many desks as there are employees. The need for flexible workspaces to foster intra and inter-ministerial collaboration guided much of OMA’s design. Teams are able to work together on a specific project and easily reshuffle afterwards. “The informal exchange of information is important,” Van Loon notes. Informal passages: this was a concern of Steve Jobs. While CEO of Pixar, he wanted only one set of toilets in the office’s central atrium, to increase the likelihood of spontaneous meetings. His plans were vetoed, much to the relief of employees.

Still, the idea of breakout spaces remains popular. Basing the floor plan at Rijnstraat 8 on urban master-planning, Van Loon blended public and private areas along the main corridor or ‘spine’ of the building. Flexibility was vital, not only for diversity of work areas, but also for adapting to changes in thinking about how work is performed.

“You basically design a building for at least 25 years of use,” Van Loon says. “You have to be careful, as an architect, that what you design can be corrected in the future in such a way that it still works, but with very few changes.”

Andy Young, director of BIG London, believes tech giants are the ones to watch when it comes to changing workspace design. The architecture firm is responsible for the design of Google’s £1-billion London HQ in King’s Cross.

Speaking at LEAF International in Berlin in October 2017, Young argued that co-working companies have just replicated the customised workspaces Google espoused a decade ago. In the future, however, “the office building will undoubtedly be based on principles of what these tech companies are doing now, what they care about and the new typologies of buildings coming out of that”, he said.

Workspace demographics are shifting, as are prevailing ideologies, and it’s millennials who are guiding the conversation. These young workers might decide on Friday to go on holiday for the weekend, book tickets on their phones and reserve an apartment on Airbnb while at the airport. “Baby boomers can’t figure that out,” Young says. “And that’s happening now. What will happen in the future?”

His answer is a desk-first approach that organises spaces and the people in them according to how they work. There needs to be high-quality air and light, as well as good acoustics, Young says. Gone are the days when bowls of free fruit, funky colour schemes and gaming consoles were sufficient for employees. These aspects still play a role, but “it seems Google is growing up a bit”, by placing greater focus on the building itself, Young says.

Three-storey-high spaces allow natural light to penetrate through to the building’s centre. The upper floor houses toilets, conference rooms and cafes, while the bottom floor has everyone working together in shared space “unencumbered by all that usual stuff”. There has been a maturation process that does not call for ostentatious displays of success. Young defines it as “austerity despite wealth”, where everything is understated, beautiful and has multiple functions.

A lack of wealth among employees is also influencing office design. Property ownership is prohibitively expensive to many and workspaces of the future may have to meet modern requirements. “Not having an expensive, gorgeous house or apartment to go back to maybe means you put different emphasis on things in your life,” Young says. “So in office buildings, in order to attract very intelligent millennials to come work for you, you will put loads of stuff that turns your office building into an almost 24-hour environment, which is a clever place to be.”

Google’s HQ in London will have four cafes, gyms, massage rooms, a swimming pool and multi-use indoor sports pitch, a 200m running track and a rooftop garden. Those in need of a power nap or a bed after a late night of working can sleep in pods.

Beer on tap

In Portland, US, which was the first Airbnb office Aaron Taylor Harvey designed, there is a tendency for employees to hang out at the office on the weekend, where there is a big screen TV and beer on tap.

“They just use it as a living room, which to me is like the biggest compliment, because it is such a home-like space that it just feels natural that they would use it, extracurricular, as a gathering space,” says Harvey.

Harvey co-leads the team with his wife Rachael. The couple and their 14-month-old toddler live just an eight-minute walk from the San Francisco office. “Our lives are extremely blended between home, work, personal, professional,” Harvey says. “It’s very natural for me. I would never do a job that felt independent from my life. The only way I can engage with things is if it is taking over every part of my brain and, obviously, all architects are kind of like that. We are obsessive.”

While tech firms tend to have the reputation for creating cool millennial playgrounds, Van Loon thinks the fuss comes down to clever branding: “You hear these wonderful stories on the internet about Google and Facebook and, when you get there, it is not really as fantastic as you might think, because they are fairly good at marketing,” she says.

Our lives are extremely blended between home, work, personal, professional. It’s very natural for me.

Instead, Van Loon focuses on how to make office buildings better connected to their locations through views, shared spaces and minimal barriers. Sustainability continues to drive her designs. Rijnstraat 8 uses triple glass in the six atriums, solar panels, LED lights, and heat and cold storage. About 20.0% of the original building from 1993 was demolished but 99.7% of those materials were reused.

“The most important thing you can do as an architect is design a building that people will love for a very long time,” Van Loon says. “A building that people don’t like after ten years is the most unsustainable building on the planet.”

In the future, a building’s sustainability credentials may become even more essential, helping to determine, as Norman Foster suggests, whether or not young employees will work for a particular company.

Designers need a clear understanding of why people would want to stay in a building for 40 hours a week. “There needs to be a fully conceptualised idea of why that’s worth it to the employee,” Harvey says. “Offices have to be compelling to them in a way that no other space is.”

The cool spaces in offices should not infantilise employees or be treated as “candy so you can go back and eat your vegetables”, Harvey says. “Everything should support engagement and better ways of thinking about problems. It should never be seen as a distraction from work.”

While employees’ personal space is being reduced, the notion of flexible work areas and different ergonomic zones gives them freer movement and room to think, work, relax and collaborate. As boundaries between work and life continue to blur, companies will need to figure out how to get the most from occupants, while giving them spaces that foster a sense of comfort and, ultimately, purpose.

Airbnb’s headquarters at Brannan Street in San Francisco features a boat in which employees can meet or work.
The Rijnstraat 8 building designed by OMA.

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