“Change is the only constant” is a favourite conclusion of those who set out to predict what the workplace might become. And it’s probably true, despite our yearning for certainties in an increasingly turbulent life.
As Scott Adams has Dilbert say in an ad for Johnson Controls’ Personal Environments, “I am king of my cubicle, the absolute ruler of this tiny realm”. Dilbert exists at the nexus of change: the meeting point of people, work processes and workplace. His silliness gives comfort to millions who feel change happening to them, but who feel powerless to affect its outcomes.
At a large economic scale, as the recent downturn has demonstrated, we really do live in a global economic system. Deregulation in Western capital markets, in Asian markets, and in emerging markets has stimulated global capital flows as never before. This is good for growth and development, but part of its price is that we all catch cold together. Another consequence is global competition for markets, which results in ever tighter margins and a ceaseless quest for efficiency. Compete-or-die is the watchword of the ordinary businesses which support local economies around the world, and they are increasingly office-based service industries.
This business climate puts a premium on any tool which can help improve competitiveness, whether that is better information technology, hiring smarter people or the wholesale export of clerical work to Bangladesh. Of course, this does not apply to all sectors of the economy equally; public administration, for example.
Information technology is the most obvious agent for change in the workplace in this context. By the millennium, the personal computer will be about 20 years old; distributed (server) technology about ten years old; and the World Wide Web about eight. And yet these developments will have touched the lives of almost everyone on the planet, and provided the livelihood for a majority of workers in the developed economies. IT product life cycles continue to shrink and innovations come faster and faster.
But to achieve market penetration, operating systems and their conventions are becoming more familiar and user-friendly. Using the kindly conventions of integrated packages with their forgiving fuzzy logic is like learning to ride a bicycle. It remains only to diminish dependence on awkward peripherals and terminals, and to facilitate direct communication with and between machines. These innovations will be with us very soon, and they will accelerate some crucial trends already under way.
What we are facing is, as Marshall McLuhan foresaw, a mirror image of the industrial revolution. Two hundred years ago the technology that could transform raw materials and lend competitive edge was centralised, driven by steam. People came from far around to serve it, and eventually to coalesce into towns and cities. Today’s technology is ever less place-dependent. Home working or networked remote operating units, little more than a joke a few years ago, are becoming reality and are developing their own culture that was previously unknown.
The organisational model of call centres, works well for a large slice of “industrial-clerical” business – insurance, retail banking, travel and direct sales. They provide employment in areas impervious to capital investment. In due course, as margins tighten further and technology adapts, smaller work cells and individual home work become more viable. With these changes will come new patterns of social organisation, just as the first industrial revolution led to the growth of towns and cities. The increasing difficulty and expense of personal mobility will reinforce these changes, and may even lead to better collective transportation.
It is, of course, impossible to predict change with any certainty. We may know for sure that speech recognition and two-way video are coming in three years, but it is hard to imagine their impact on the behaviour of their users. Certain tendencies can, however, be suggested. Businesses will still need at least a virtual locus of the corporate cultural identity, but office buildings as the tradable medium of a property industry will look questionable if their value depends only on the covenant of corporate occupiers tied to them for long periods of time.
Business will find new ways of focusing creative talent and providing administrative and emotional positioning for staff. This may mean new types of setting involving buildings. The phenomenal growth in highly flexible serviced offices is a recent recognition of this type of organisational transformation. And this product will transform itself to match and eventually anticipate corporate needs. After all, that is what it must do to remain competitive.
The architectural response to these developments is hard to imagine, but it may well focus on strong manifestations of corporate identity as prefigured in the offices of Disney and ad agencies such as Chiat/Day. It will be a sort of essence of the corporation, even when relatively few of the employees actually work there. It will be propagated among the workforce by imagery as a sort of corporate glue, reinforced at reunions and company events.
Another critical arena of change is likely to be office furniture. This is currently a strongly fetishised design-driven business which operates by the careful seduction of the specifiers of furniture, mostly interior designers and architects. The design orientation of the manufacturers masks an industrial dinosaur sanctuary in which product design and production are concentrated into massive factories modelled on a Henry Ford vision of production. The order processing and delivery systems necessary to support such factories, and the long product lifecycles necessary to amortise tooling and marketing costs will eventually marginalise these businesses and kill them off.
Ironically, IT will speed the demise of the furniture giants. Small flexible CAD/CAM systems and order-processing software put flexible production within the reach of clients in local markets. Why wait for a desk from Grand Rapids when you can have one built by a local supplier, delivered in half the time, and at less cost?
There needs to be a freeing up of the imagination on the supply side with respect to the workplace. Simultaneously, it is important to keep in view those universal human factors – which are caricatured by Dilbert – the desire to be noticed, to be rewarded, to poke fun, to punish, to belong, and, of course, to express creativity.
The mere mention of Orgatec – Cologne’s biennial office furniture fair – is enough to make some specifiers and designers shudder. The hugeness of the KlnMesse site alone, sited in the heart of Cologne, can be daunting. And the stands can be as large as the galleries in London’s museums. But, for the latest in office trends, and office products, it is the place to be.
According to the organisers, “the mobile office is expected to experience its major breakthrough” this year – so, you might ask, what has changed? Two years ago, all the desking seemed to have sprouted wheels; this year, it’s the partitioning, wall and storage systems that are mobile. The paperless office is still a way off, so there is plenty of scope for flexible storage units such as cupboards, room dividers, pedestals and personal “puppies” or “caddies”.
One interesting partitioning range promises to be from Belgian manufacturer Bulo which, following on from its successful H2O and M2 desk ranges, is now launching a free-standing partitioning wall made of polypropylene. Lio is designed to be either transparent or semi-transparent (lined with silk screen designs), and incorporates cabinets and electrical wiring.
But it is innovations in office desking which should cause a stir. US giant Haworth has adopted the theme of “furniture for what’s © next” in its quest to build the intelligent workplace environment. Herman Miller, however, is noticeably absent as is Knoll, despite its new PL1 furniture system from British duo Pearson Lloyd.
British companies exhibiting include Lamb Macintosh, which is launching the Abacus range of desking, Hands of Wycombe with the Semaphore range of conference and executive furniture by Adrian Stokes of ASA Designers, and Forza Furniture with additions to its ABC range from Studio Bellini. Staverton, better known for its high quality joinery and executive furniture, is a first-time exhibitor, with an office system by Canadian-based designer Jonathan Crinion. The core of this new Landscape system is the table, which is used to create three distinct combinations: Local Landscape, a worktable for the simple, uncluttered office; Rural Landscape, incorporating storage and a side table; and Urban Landscape, the complete system with workstations and moveable screens. It’s worth checking this latest design from Crinion, which has a good track record working with manufacturers such as Knoll, Teknion and Tecno.
In terms of office seating, a number of British manufacturers have chosen not to exhibit this time round, notably Hille and Evertaut. Boss Design will, however, be there, with a host of new products by Hilary Birkbeck and Ian Marchant. The new Curve and Adder soft seating ranges will be on show alongside the Flo range of conference seating, and a swivel office chair shown in prototype form. From the Continent, K&N will launch Tensa, a comprehensive range of office seating by Ito-Design; Sedus will introduce the New York range of task management and visitor seating; and Girsberger will be showing Zampano, a range of ergonomic seating which will be available here early next year.
But Orgatec isn’t just about task seating and five-star swivel bases. Jorge Pensi’s extensive repertoire of contract seating continues with Splash, a new chair in polypropylene and aluminium for Spanish manufacturer Amat. Pensi’s designs can also be found on the Kusch stand. Danish company Fredericia will be unveiling new designs by Nanna Ditzel, including a bar stool version of her award-winning Trinidad chair. And German company Wilkhahn will introduce the Senza cafÃ©-cum-conference chair designed by Thomas Starczewski and the new Avera lounge seating with laminated wood seat shells and fabric or leather cushions.
British designers are also putting in quite an appearance. On a stand designed by architect Caruso St John, SCP will be showing Jasper Morrison’s pH chair, designed for London’s Pharmacy restaurant (now called Army Chap), and a new seating range by Terence Woodgate. The latter, dubbed the Joe Seating System, is modular with a stainless steel frame and plywood seat. According to SCP founder Sheridan Coakley, it’s “half-way between airport waiting and a sofa system” and is aimed at office lobbies as well as public spaces.
Leicester-based Paul Atkinson has designed the new Fahrenheit range for Norwegian manufacturer Hov&Dokka, incorporating both curved and straight benches in natural beech and complementary tables in various shapes.
And Vitra, which made such an impact two years ago with its Meda chair, will be showing an extensive range of new products including designs by Morrison, Ron Arad and Foster and Partners. Much of it is still veiled in secrecy as we go to press, but look out for a beam-seating system by Foster, a plastic version of Arad’s Tomvac chair, and, from Morrison, a multipurpose stacking chair in plastic. Happy hour commences each evening at 6pm. m
Orgatec is at KlnMesse until 27 October