Once we are out of the coronavirus crisis, all concerned with office design and development will need to ask themselves why people would want to work in their buildings, when they could do it all from their kitchens, says Paul Finch
Those old enough to remember Edward Heath’s three-day week, miners’ strikes and the oil price crisis might also remember the near-impossibility for architects or, indeed, most other people, of effective home working.
It was an analogue and physical world, where the effects of strike action, for example, could bring instant havoc, compared with how we can respond today, thanks largely to digital technology.
Once the coronavirus crisis has passed, there will be a repeat of the perennial claim that the office is dead: as building type, as workplace environment, and as economic necessity.
The British Council for Offices, which has been forced to postpone its annual conference, due to have been held in Toronto this June, may find that our attitude to home working has changed our view about office life.
Possible but, in my view, unlikely. Although there are people in offices who would clearly prefer to be working at home (note the vacant stare, the cheerless demeanour, the non-communication), for most, office life has social benefits as well as its burdens.
Millennials seem positively to relish the idea of the shared contemporary office, replete with amenities and facilities way beyond anything provided back in the 1970s. While WeWork may be struggling to justify its recent excessive stock-exchange valuation, as an idea it has transformed the market.
Digital players such as Google have, meanwhile, reinvented the office as a bespoke environment for thousands of workers all regarded, in some way, as key. The old mantra beloved of developers, that, compared with overall costs, the price for office accommodation is a drop in the ocean, has been reinforced by the workplace investment of the ‘fintech’ sector.
That other mantra, that office design should ‘attract, retain and motivate’ staff seems to be alive and well.
At least it was until the virus arrived. As Andrew Chadwick realised when he won a BCO ideas competition in 1982, predicting what the office of 2000 would be like, your office is your briefcase (assuming there is a laptop in it).
Given the ability of people to ‘work’ almost anywhere, how has the office market managed to retain its appeal for employees, as well as investing institutions and hence developers and their architects? Partly, surely, because many people work better in teams where they know the other players and where ideas can bounce around in a quite different way to email exchanges.
Moreover, for many institutions, it is the chance meetings and the possibility of ideas being generated as a result of people from different teams interacting in the same environment that is valued. This explains designs based on increasing the likelihood of chance interactions, whether in the world of commerce, or in institutions such as universities. Ian Ritchie’s 2016 neuro-science centre for UCL springs to mind.
It also explains the many different models of how employees might use office space, explored in the AJ/Crown Estate Future Office competition, also in 2016, from plug-in remote outlets to hubs and clubs in town.
It is easy to work remotely if you can communicate with colleagues – but that is because you have worked with them in an office
As many are currently experiencing, it is easy to work remotely if you can communicate collectively with your colleagues – but that is because you have worked with them physically in an office. Would this sort of working happen so easily if the people involved scarcely knew each other?
My far-from-original prediction is that the world of offices will make a big comeback once we are back to normal – except that it will be a new normal, where all concerned with design and delivery of offices will need to ask themselves why people would want to work in their buildings, when they could do it all from their kitchens.