Working life

Offices equipped with the comforts of home are the ones that attract talented staff.

Office design predictions rarely hit the mark. In the 1960s and 1970s the prophecy was offices run by robots and workers enjoying copious amounts of free time. In the 1980s it was the paperless office, hot-desking and legions of telecommuters. Both these versions of the future ring hollow now, as people seem to be spending more and more time at work, and advances in technology seem to have generated even more paper.

These days the office has a more demanding role, as a place where people practically live, as well as work. According to The Henley Centre’s Planning For Consumer Change report, between 1992 and 1999 there was an overall decline in the number of people choosing to work from home.

The technological revolution has not changed the average white collar worker’s office environment as radically as we were led to believe. So much for everyone working from home or hot-desking. And the idea of the paperless office now seems like a weak joke.

This is being reflected in the buzz words that are being used to describe the latest designs. “Homing from work” and “social interaction” are top of the agenda, influenced at least in part by the entry of a new generation into the workplace, one that eschews the rigid hierarchy of traditional office life.

Nowicka Stern design director Oded Stern-Meiraz puts some of this down to the sort of managers making decisions these days: “The type of people are younger, and are wearing T-shirts and sandals.”

“The trend seems to be towards a more humanistic way of working,” says Tilney Shane chief executive Kathy Tilney, “with a more domestic feel.” The consultancy has recently redesigned the reception area of the London headquarters of publisher Cheerman.

Is there an office being designed at the moment without a café, a crêche, or at least a “chill-out” zone? These ancillary elements are seen as crucial these days, and not just because of the long hours many people are expected to work. They are also seen as a way of holding on to good staff. “There is a stronger emphasis on resources, and a recognition that there is a skills shortage, so we have to give them the things that make them stay,” says Tilney.

Found Associates’ design for graphics group Spin Communications includes a 370m2 chill-out zone. “It is a freer environment, showing that you don’t have to be at your desk to be working,” says consultancy partner Richard Found. The scheduled completion date is 7 July.

Electronic Arts, whose headquarters are in Redwood City, California, is a £1.2bn interactive entertainment software company. The company’s £20m new building on its Chertsey site was designed by Foster & Partners. It upholds EA’s values, nurturing the “homing from work” concept. This philosophy allows staff to order their shopping from Waitrose, pick up provisions from the EA general store, eat in the 140-seat restaurant, use the library, exercise in the gym, play five-a-side football and socialise in the licensed EA sports bar. On Friday evenings in the summer, EA plans to host barbeques on the campus as the sun sets.

“In order to retain the creative edge, a lively community where people can readily exchange and develop ideas is essential,” says head of EA Europe David Gardner. “Our best creative ideas and concepts have never come from one individual working in isolation, and we believe they never will.”

Nowicka Stern has taken this concept to another level for the offices of Another.com. The consultancy aimed to create “an environment beyond work”, according to Stern-Meiraz. Located on the second floor of a disused 1920s carpet warehouse in London’s Kentish Town, the 250m2 site had to accommodate four teams, totalling 40 people. The consultancy came up with a visual rendition of the culinary expression “surf and turf”, aiming to emulate a cityscape. While the surfing is done on the Internet, turf is where people come to meet, eat, rest, play, discuss and debate. Hence the indoor grass – with its own internal irrigation – and the five swings suspended in the reception area “to put visitors at ease”, says Stern-Meiraz. Nowicka Stern is now redesigning Framestore’s headquarters in London’s Soho.

The continued push towards flatter management structures is reflected in the egalitarian nature of today’s floor plans. “The old traditional hierarchies are breaking down, leading to behavioural changes which allow the workplace to change,” says Tilney.

“A work environment that incorporates… an egalitarian floor plan was a prerequisite of the design brief,” says Gardner at EA Europe. And at Another.com Nowicka Stern was briefed to create a space with no hierarchy whatsoever.

However, the pure open-plan concept, so favoured in recent years, is being rethought. “There is a big concern that open-plan doesn’t work – it’s noisy, it distracts employees and it’s anonymous,” says Tilney.

“People require some privacy,” adds Found. So the consultancy designed small workstations for 24-hour on-line financial news provider GlobalNet Financial.com. The 560m2 office in London’s Glasshouse Street features glass walls between the desks. The height of these walls is actually being increased, to reduce the distraction and noise from phone-bound consultants.

Hot-desking has its own disadvantages and is seen as counter-productive to the efforts of creating a friendlier working environment. “It takes away a very secure symbol for people,” says Tilney, “and that is a sense of belonging.” At the end of the day, staff still want their own wall to pin things up on.

The continued advances of technology are not just affecting so-called hi-tech companies, and mean that it is impossible to predict how any office space will work, even in the near future. “We are blue sky thinking every day,” says Tilney. Clients are after flexibility – with walls and furniture that can easily be reconfigured. “But flexibility costs money and is a management nightmare,” she adds.

In the meantime, designers are vicariously benefiting from the current economic boom in another way. Barber Osgerby Associates has been working with digital media consultancy Razorfish for two years on its Smithfield building in central London, but every space designed is already full to bursting before work begins on-site. Back to the drawing board, then.

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