What will offices look like in three, five or even 10 years’ time? As advancements in technology and design continue to transform the workplace as we know it, design expert Stephen Todd details some inspiring ideas about where – and how – we’ll be working in the future.
Bask in biophilia
Office designers have been in the grip of a green craze – or biophilia – for a while now but in the future it’s going to mean a lot more than a potted philodendron on your desk. Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos upped the ecological ante when he unveiled a trio of giant interconnected biodomes called The Spheres at the company’s Seattle HQ in January 2018. With more than 40,000 “cloud forest” plants sourced from around the world, the steel-and-glass bubbles form an artificial subtropical Eden in which employees can work or simply hang out.
Amazon describes The Spheres as “a direct link to nature”, noting that “this particular design was chosen due to its natural occurrence and as a nod to historic conservatories, like Kew Gardens [in south-west London].” Elements include timber decking, terraces, floating staircases and water features – and a few tree houses enveloped by greenery for more formal meetings.
Since innumerable studies have shown that biophilic design can enhance creativity, reduce stress, improve brain function and even fortify the immune system, Bezos’s jungle jive is not just greenwashing but a real investment in employee health and wellbeing – and one that will undoubtedly filter down through workplaces in the future.
Ergonomics, the study of human efficiency in the workplace, dates back to the mid-19th century but since the advent of the computer it’s progressed in leaps and bounds. Workspaces of the future will provide different environments for various phases of work – such as protective, insulated cocoons for periods of deep concentration – and desks at which you can potentially take a power nap in between preparing presentations.
Enter the Altwork Station, the newest innovation promising to overtake the standing desk. The creation of a San Francisco technology and engineering startup, the cross between the control centre for a character in The Matrix and a dentist’s chair is a multimodal desk system that takes the user from standing to seated to reclining, all at the touch of a button.
The large metal monitor mounts are composed of articulated arms that track the unit’s movement so that multiple screens and a well-padded seat (complete with head- and footrest) are never out of synch. Inspired by astronauts’ zero-gravity seating, the full recline is the same as that assumed by space travellers at lift-off to disperse the pull that makes the body feel three times heavier than it does on the ground. In the workplace, the Altwork Station is designed to cushion and comfort the user throughout the day and, by coddling the body, increase mindfulness and productivity.
“We’ve adapted to our computers, sitting and slouching for far too long,” according to Altwork. “Isn’t it time they adapted to us?”
Raise a glass
As offices become “smarter” – accelerated by the ever-expanding network of devices known as the Internet of Things – designers are thinking of it less as an agglomeration and more as a living organism. For Spanish designer Patricia Urquiola, the office of the future will be fluid. “It will be almost natural,” she told Metropolis magazine in June last year. “We will need to invent new materials but in the meantime we can augment old ones. Glass, for example, might be the most dynamic material for a wall because you can already embed different properties within its membrane.”
Indeed, scientists have made great progress with a process known as “direct doping”, embedding light-emitting nanoparticles into glass so that it remains perfectly transparent but can become opaque at the flick of a switch, privatising work zones and meeting spaces at will. Able to be moulded to almost any shape, this new hybrid could soon be used to create “smart glass” devices, including 3D displays and remote radiation sensors.
Follow the signs
Wayfinding used to mean little more than signage to the bathrooms and emergency exits. But as the workplace becomes increasingly deconstructed – gone are the days of the isolated cubicle, replaced by a matrix of breakout zones and communal spaces – designers are using graphic tools to help create a sense of openness and connection, enabling new ways of communicating at the same time as creating a renewed sense of place.
Increasingly, graphic markers are being integrated into buildings, anchoring staff in their activities throughout the day. “Designing wayfinding is about giving people an experience, allowing them to navigate even a very complex space in a stress-free, positive way,” says Carlo Giannasca, head of environments at Urbanite, part of the Frost Collective. For their award-winning work on 1 Martin Place, Sydney, Giannasca says the team used “bold, oversized type treatments to differentiate work zones, allowing users to create mind maps and enhance communication between colleagues”.
In the digital sphere, wi-fi-connected wayfinding software will enable workers and clients to GPS-navigate their way through more and more complex office spaces, never missing a meeting and perhaps even making friends along the way. The quantifiable results of efficient wayfinding include lower decision fatigue, better communication and time use plus a culture of inclusiveness. Without those things, quite frankly, your business is lost.