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The coronavirus crisis will challenge our thinking about office design

Paul Finch
  • 4 Comments

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).

Officeinabriefcase

Officeinabriefcase

Source: Chadwick

Office in a Briefcase, Andrew Chadwick’s 1982 prediction for the ‘Office of the Year 2000’

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.

  • 4 Comments

Readers' comments (4)

  • After 1 week of working at home I have heard many people already rushing to the conclusion the workplace will never be the same again - this is undoubtedly true, but I think people forget that the experience of the office for younger team members is different. For them the social dynamic and opportunity to learn from their peers and mentors is a key dimension of their experience at work. This builds the culture of an organisation and is difficult to replicate in the fragmented model. We will need to find a balance that works in a cross generational way to sustain the learning environment in the workplace

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  • We are fundamentally social animals. It is hard to see there not being a real enthusiasm for a return to offices of the right sort.

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  • Indeed! Our thinking will be challenged in the solving of what to do with the countless abandoned office buildings that will soon litter our cities.
    It ain't coming back; It's over. Employers are probably now kicking themselves for having spent so much when the option of homeworking has been available for the past decade.
    Like bricks and mortar retail, reality in the office construction and rental business will take a while to sink in.

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  • Office rents are a very small proportion of total employer costs, so it would be highly premature to assume that office life is at an end. What may be over is the ultra-conventional use of offices by the unimaginative. A good challenge for architects to engage with -- including how they themselves work in the future. The pandemic will prompt a reappraisal of many building types; also the way we design neighbourhoods and cities. Again, architectural knowledge and experience will be in strong demand in order to create more resilient (in every sense) environments.

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