Three dynamic trends defining the Future Office

Reports of the office’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. But how we build, occupy and maintain workplaces must continue to evolve to reflect the changing world of work. Workplace strategy and design specialist Nicola Gillen outlines some of the major forces shaping next-generation workplace design.

The office is dead. Long live the office. Despite continual predictions of its demise, the office is a space that continues to evolve and endure, and remains a central part of our working lives.

Throughout history — from medieval scriptoria and Lloyd-Wright’s first skyscrapers to the modern Apple-style campuses and reimagined mixed-use city quarters of today — we have seen the design and purpose of offices respond to the leading economic ideas, technologies and commercial enterprises of the time. The speed of that evolution is only intensifying.

Work has been disrupted

Digital technologies are rapidly reshaping what we do and how our workplaces need to be imagined, built and operated. Driven by automation and artificial intelligence (AI), the Fourth Industrial Revolution means that some jobs will cease to exist in the coming years while others will be created.

With four generations in the workplace for the first time, we also need offices that support and adapt to the needs and talents of all those who work there, fostering constructive interaction and collaboration.

At the same time, more of us are living in cities than ever before — attracted by employment and other opportunities, leading to growing economic, environmental, and social pressures in some urban areas, such as a lack of affordable housing.

 A new age of work and workplace

As the world of work changes, so too must the approach of those who design, build and maintain our physical and/or virtual offices. In AECOM’s new RIBA book, Future Office: Next-generation workplace design, our workplace experts analyse the practical impacts of these changes on the future of work and workplace. Here, we identify three of the most important trends that workplace designers, developers, occupiers and users need to focus on.

1/ Design to adapt within a circular economy

For generations, the construction industry has followed a ‘linear economy’ model with materials and resources mined, manufactured, used and then thrown away. With the global demand for resources surging, raw materials becoming harder to extract and the threats of climate change increasing, this status quo cannot hold.

The circular economy model offers an alternative, more sustainable, ‘regenerative’ approach, prioritising the retention and refurbishment of buildings over demolition, and designing for the separation and reuse of materials at the end of a building’s life.

Currently, too many buildings are designed with little thought for the future, and risk leaving a legacy of obsolete architecture, composed of complex components irretrievably melded together, that locks away precious resources. By designing buildings with more modular elements that can be deconstructed, adapted and reconstructed, we can extend their life and enable resources to be salvaged and reused.

Similarly, ensuring greater energy efficiency must be a priority for next-generation workplaces, not just to reduce costs but also to meet global emissions targets. As a result, the future of office power will be electric, with more buildings generating their own power via built-in solar panels, and using low carbon and energy efficient solutions such as heat pumps and heat recovery.

2/ Facilitate data-enabled collaboration and customisation

Innovation purely for innovation’s sake quickly dates. What matters most is ensuring that the latest technologies deployed in workplaces support users, enabling them to work more efficiently together.

To that end, with more of us equipped to work on the move, there’s a growing need for flexible workplaces designed to bridge the gap between home and more traditional workspaces. This, in turn, is having a profound effect on the wider market for office space, both financially and physically.

Unsurprisingly, the shift to more agile working is influencing the design of the future office, where a range of formal and informal areas for meeting and collaborative work are interspersed with quieter areas, providing a wide variety of task-specific workspaces and, crucially, providing valued staff with choice and autonomy.

Building on this, the increasing prevalence of sensors in workplace fixtures, fittings and equipment is already helping offices to adapt to their users’ needs, for example through learning and responding to people’s individual preferences for lighting levels and temperature. And, in the future, new technologies could help to make collaboration and individual work even more efficient. Wearables will enable more personalisation of space, and voice and mood sensors in office buildings could recognise the energy of impromptu conversations between colleagues and ‘bring the meeting space to the people’ through a temporary acoustic bubble.

3/ Remember your people will always matter most

More and more of our routine tasks will be automated in the future office. But, as the leading business commentator Geoff Colvin asserts, our very human ability to empathise, collaborate and innovate will remain essential. While the size of the human workforce may decrease, therefore, the value to organisations of their employees and the highly-skilled work they do will only grow in importance.

In response, we envisage a time when the office user will become the client, with workplace design increasingly centred on developing a community base — virtual or physical — that supports comfort, creativity, productivity and job satisfaction. More and more organisations now recognise that their people are their most expensive and valuable asset. But understanding and measuring the impact of workplace environmental factors on issues such as employee motivation, satisfaction, productivity and mental health is a complex task.

A workplace purposely designed around wellbeing must reach beyond the physical and environmental aspects of wellbeing, such as noise, light and indoor climate, to include social and psychological dimensions.

For example, AECOM’s holistic wellbeing assessment at work embraces six dimensions of health: physiological (getting through our day-to-day work without undue fatigue or physical stress); psychological (support for our mental health and emotional balance); social (feeling connected and part of a community), intellectual (being able to use and develop our knowledge and skills to perform well), values (the match between the organisation’s and the individual’s values); and material (experiencing a sense of fairness in terms of the availability, quality and quantity of rewards) (see Figure 1).

Figure 1

Designs should address the wide range of factors that comprise a person’s wellbeing: encouraging them to move around the office, including using the stairs; and providing large and small spaces for socialising, relaxing or quiet chats. In addition, the spaces need to be ergonomic and at a human scale, engender a sense of pride and belonging, and provide welcoming, comfortable team areas that express team identity.

The future is now

This is a pivotal moment for the office — this most familiar of spaces is undergoing significant and extensive change as we enter the next chapter in its history. Workplace designers, developers, occupiers and users need to understand how these changes will impact future workplaces and their own working lives.

It is still early days. But many of the offices of the future are being conceived, designed, built and occupied now. As the digital revolution in workplace continues, profoundly affecting the entire building lifecycle: design, specification and procurement to construction, fit-out, operation and maintenance, collaboration is key to ensuring that offices meet the needs of users today, tomorrow and for generations to come.