What is the future for open-plan workspaces? This was the question addressed by a panel of experts at a half-day conference hosted by Architecture Today and Amtico at the Institution of Structural Engineers in London
In association with
Dr Kerstin Sailer
Reader in social and spatial networks, Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London
Workplace director, Landsec
Head of ID:SR, Sheppard Robson
Executive consultant, Unispace
Founding director, Thirdway Architecture
Managing director, Workplace Services & Real Estate, Deloitte
Head of Workplace Strategy, Workplace Services & Real Estate, Deloitte
The ubiquity of the open-plan office is such that its performance, suitability and even relevance are rarely questioned. But this is changing as rapid developments in technology, working practices and commerce reshape the business world. So is the open-plan still a viable proposition at the beginning of the 21st century, or is a radical rethink needed?
Does open-plan work?
Kerstin Sailer of the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London, began by highlighting the principal problem with many of today’s open-plan offices – namely their propensity to make people withdraw in search of privacy. Sailer evidenced this by highlighting the prevalence of headphones at workstations, and staff taking private phone conversations to public areas, such as atria and stairwells.
Sailer went on to discuss the importance of affordances – multiple action possibilities latent in the environment – and space syntax – mechanisms for generating and constraining patterns of encounter and avoidance between groups of people – as a means of creating work spaces that facilitate both collaboration (public) and concentration (private). “We need to explore specific types of open-plan space and how they look”, observed Sailer, “We must also examine what people do in the work environment and how to provide for this.”
The changing nature of collaboration
Carissa Kilgour of Landsec concurred with Sailer. “Lazy open-plan design can stifle collaboration and create alienating workplaces. Endless rows of desks force people to work in a certain way. Staff become distracted and face-to-face interaction is reduced, while email activity rises. Overall, we lose a lot in terms of effective communication.”
Kilgour advocated the need to re-examine the collaborative process in the light of new working methods. “Lots of jobs are going to be automated in the near future, with others being created in their place, so we will need new working environments. We should also consider the changing workforce, including millennials and generation Z, who want more choice of where and when they work. How, for instance, do we facilitate effective collaboration for the growing numbers of freelancers?”
Kilgour also acknowledged that increasing technological developments relating to connectivity (5G), augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) will necessitate different spaces from the generic open-plan offices of today.
How important is technology?
Helen Berresford of ID:SR, Neil Usher of Unispace, and Thirdway Architecture’s Liam Spencer all agreed that the integration of new technology was essential for the creation of successful, inclusive and future-proof workplaces. “Office space needs to step-up and respond to the rise in digital working”, remarked Berresford.
Spencer made the point that the benefits of digital communication, including speed, connectivity and transience, should be translated into the physical world of the office. He suggested that workplaces of the future were analogous to fairground dodgems, with the ‘track’ defining the physical boundaries of the office; the cars representing personalisation and individuality; the movement of the vehicles denoting interaction and avoidance; and the overhead power grid forming an ever-present and ‘umbilical-like’ connection to technology.
Usher’s view was that technology should be at the heart of any workplace strategy, followed – in order of importance – by amenity provision, primary and alternative work settings, services and enablers. “The open-plan office of the future is a hybrid, technology-enabled, amenity-centric, brilliantly serviced, and people-powered environment”, he asserted.
Open or closed?
The panel agreed that a more flexible and spatially-rich approach to office design was vital if workspaces were to meet changing commercial and social requirements. “We are never going to get everyone communicating, so there has to be space for cerebral activity as well as collaboration and interaction”, suggested Usher. Sailer spoke about the need to ‘cycle’ to and from collaborative spaces, and the way office furniture can be an effective tool in creating segregated areas for ‘deep’ work.
Berresford advocated the merging of different activities based on how people use office spaces. “Variety is the key, workplaces need to be more responsive with different levels of openness and closure.” The architect likened this approach to creating a ‘city’ within the office. The architect also highlighted the importance of ‘wellness’ in terms of adequate daylighting, comfort and hydration.
Usher highlighted the importance of defining the essential components or ‘building blocks’ of workspaces. “Some of these will be enclosed (to different heights) and some will not”, he explained. “We then specify the performance criteria for each space in relation to its openness and function. Finally, we explore its physical form and appearance.”
Spencer made the case for private and semi-private ‘booths’ within larger open-plan areas, as a means of providing both collaborative and individual working environments. Berresford, Spencer and Sailer all acknowledged the potential of the staircase for aiding collaboration and departmental cross-fertilisation, particularly when linked to amenity spaces.
Putting theory into practice
Some of the key themes and ideas discussed by the panelists have already been implemented and continue to be monitored at 1 New Street Square – the latest addition to Deloitte’s London campus. Will Esplen and Devinder Bhogal of Deloitte highlighted the decision-making processes behind the fit-out, as well as some of the 40 different working environments now contained within the new site.
According to Esplen, 1 New Street is conceived as a connected and inspiring environment aimed at attracting and retaining staff. In-depth analysis revealed that only 72 per cent of Deloitte’s existing office space was being used at any one time – equating to 1600 unoccupied desks.
Amtico Designers’ Choice Portico with Signature Kura Anise flooring at the manufacturer’s Coventry office
Staff consultation indicated that there was not enough choice in terms of workspace, and there was insufficient scope to ‘mold’ or personalise the working environment using furniture. “
Reducing 1 New Street’s storage capacity by 60 per cent was a key move in terms of opening up the design and adding variety to the workspaces”, explained Bhogal. Each floor is conceived as a ‘neighbourhood’ with around 10 different work settings. These include focus booths for solo working, team tables for collaborative tasks, and ‘phone’ booths, which allow staff to make private calls.
Meeting rooms are similarly varied in terms of size, shape and mode of occupation (standing, sitting or adjustable). Two ‘unallocated’ floors provide a means of ‘escape’ from the working environment, and include a restaurant, tea bar, coffee shops and an events space. They allow people to be on their own or come together as teams.
Amtico Signature Herringbone random plank flooring at Toggl office,Tallin, Estonia
Flexibility is central to the design. Staircase landings arrive in breakout spaces that encourage staff to visit other floors. Touchdown areas have proven popular with staff who are in and out of the office on a regular basis, or in meetings all day. Originally envisaged as social areas, beanbag-populated shared spaces have become some of most popular workplaces in the building.
Staff feel a real sense of belonging and pride in their new office”, concluded Bhogal. “But it’s an ongoing process with monitoring and feedback from the business, its staff and the intelligent building system informing future decisions.”
Architects’ Choice Samoan flooring from Amtico at Space 48 office in Manchester
Phil Southall, Amtico Sales & Marketing Director, discusses the role of flooring in open-plan office environments
Squeezing ever more functionality from tighter building footprints creates a challenge for specifiers and developers in terms of meeting human needs for interaction and privacy. Too much open space and we are vulnerable; too little and we are constrained. Flooring might not precisely answer this dilemma. But it will provide a visual map to an interior that helps designate space and offers cues for occupiers to move into different areas for key activities.
Amtico flooring provides customisable design floors for entrance and greeting areas, breakout spaces and meeting rooms that few manufacturers can rival in terms of cost and quality. We can draw people into a space and inspire them to collaborate as many promoters of open-plan suggest. We can also demarcate space for the individual to retreat into.
Amtico understands how occupiers need to interact with the fabric of the building, its services and spaces. Harmonised Amtico Carpet and Amtico loose-lay Access Luxury tiles address these hard-working areas that are central to the occupier experience.