The future office

Renu Chopra reports on an interview with the author of a book that looks at the future of our workplaces, and puts people at the heart of design and engineering

“I was surprised at the continued lack of focus on people and they are the reason we build these buildings,” says Nicola Gillen, Aecom director and architect. Wellbeing is a term that is constantly referred to now in the industry, however, Gillen highlights in her new book, Future office: Next-generation workplace design, that we need to do more to put people at the core of building future workplaces.

Speaking to MBStv in April, Gillen explained that RIBA approached Aecom to write a book about the future office. Rather than simply being a guide to architectural design, the finished publication is a multi-disciplinary book which brings together experts from across the industry to reflect the reality of creating today’s offices.

The book features chapters on topics ranging from engineering to wellbeing as well as technology. All of this is centred around the book’s core focal point - people and how they work. Gillen says: “Buildings are fundamentally for people. It doesn’t matter what we do with the clever structures or services, if it isn’t right and working for the people then we’re all wasting our time.”

Ways in which we, live and work have evolved over time through generational changes and advancements in technology. We no longer all want to work 9-to-5 and sit in rows of cubicles. Instead, flexibility has become a key driver within people’s working lives, and technology enables us to work anywhere, whether that’s from home or in coffee shops.

Property developers Cushman and Wakefield estimates that flexible working spaces have increased massively over the last five years and currently equate to around 4% of Central London office stock. Recently, the popular pub chain, Brewdog jumped on the remote working culture by creating workspaces to be occupied during otherwise quiet times during the day. They see freelancers and home workers looking for alternative space as their key market.

So why do we need the office, if there are far more alternative places to work? Gillen says: “It’s a very old-fashioned idea to think that the office is a place that contains work. Work follows us now wherever we go. Homeworking will certainly continue and so will working from other locations, but that does fundamentally change what the office is for.”

Gillen makes the point that the office has become a “social vehicle”. Environments are now designed to support multiple ways of working and learning from peer reviewing and collaborative projects to quit working. A place also for people to socialise and interact not just to work.

The National Human Activity Pattern Survey (NHAPS) also makes aware that on average most of us spend around 90% of our day inside. Therefore, workplaces need to be comfortable to influence the productivity of occupants. Gillen reflects on buildings as being “a catalyst for business performance.”

In relation to this, a survey conducted by Peldon Rose to assess the correlation between buildings and occupant productivity highlighted the number one concerns for occupants: heating, air quality, and lighting. Alan Jamieson, M&E director at Peldon Rose, explained to MBStv that: “Looking across the whole space and how space is used—that’s actually driving a lot for occupants, driving a lot of change through how we approach projects.”

Future Office explores this issue through a number of case studies which look at how the built environment can impact the performance and productivity of people. Wellbeing, data-led design, and productivity measurements are particular focuses.

When studying how buildings are occupied, Gillen highlights that technology has brought about greater mobility, freeing people from offices. Offices are no longer accommodating stable and static populations. Instead, people are coming and going throughout the working day and week. Smart technology is, therefore, necessary to monitor and control energy levels within future offices.

Gillen says: “Increasingly, organisations are looking at s putting sensors into buildings to measure how much they are occupied but also measuring things like light levels and heat levels.

‘We’re reaching the point where people can customise their environment and also buildings will learn with them and will be able to predict the settings and environments that people like to work in.”

Gillen predicts the changes in how we use technology in buildings will revise the role of architects and engineers to focus much more on data analytics. This creates a need for degree courses to prioritise teaching data science and analytics. Architect and engineering professions will become more about data interpretation and manipulation, she forecasts.

“It will be a lot less about creating detail and more about being a conductor of information in the future.”

The reality is most ‘future offices’ already exist or have already been designed, so updating and refurbishment will be important. Gillen highlights the importance of the circular economy and designing adaptable buildings. The most sustainable way forward is to adapt existing buildings to suit the way that we want to work.

Future Office overturns earlier predictions that the office is dead, but instead envisions thriving and productive workspaces. It pulls apart the design, ideas, technology and materials behind the construction of future offices. It is an ideal book for architects, designers, developers, clients and occupiers seeking to learn about the developments of workspaces and changes in construction professions as we look towards smarter technology. For all of these professionals, occupant wellbeing and the reminder of who offices are really for remains the central focus.

Main image credit: Shutterstock/Monkey Business Images

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