The changing space of the workplace – virtual worlds, collaboration, and democratic spaces

For millennia architects have been keenly aware of the forces acting on a structure on which they worked – as the physical forces acting on these structures created both centrifugal (outward throwing) and centripetal (inward throwing) forces. So too, in their work on the construction of physical spaces to structure the way people engaged with one another and the built environment, architects have long focused on the ways in which certain types of space create certain types of movement and interaction. Linear routes are thus suited for movement while more centroidal places are suited to assembly.

In the modern environment, where even the concept of space itself begins to fall to the wayside as we become increasingly virtual in our work, we need to understand the forces at play. For, to do otherwise, is to create spaces of at best inappropriateness and, at worst, of inadequacy.

The world is changing. The world has changed. So too, the workplace needs to change. To create workspaces which are based on the forces of the first or second industrial revolution is to create spaces ill-suited for the needs of the modern work place and the modern work force too.

Where virtual and physical worlds collide – workplaces now need to be designed to optimize that which cannot be found in the virtual world: the construction of democratic spaces of collaboration, adaptability, and spontaneity.

In this respect, improving the ‘employee journey’ is just vital as improving the ‘customer journey’ in the modern organization. The most recent evidence we’ve seen of this can be found in the Design Council’s report: Leading Business by Design.

Focusing on how embedding design thinking into workspace design can affect productivity the report aligned well with a new body of work on the concept of the ‘Living Office’ curated and produced by Herman Miller (the pictures in this piece are taken from this collection). The new body of work includes pieces by Industrial Facility and Yves Behar’s fuseproject.

Given that the modern workplace exists as much in virtual space as it does in physical space, the suite of designs are focused on what makes the office space necessary, this being:

easy and democratic collaboration with others.

With modern technology, the facilities of the 'office' are now as easily as accessible from home as they are from the physical office, and so there is a need to differentiate the functionality that these spaces offer to those who work in them.

In doing this, Herman Miller have set out through this particular project to create a ‘vision and a framework’ that works to help organizations attract and retain talent through the creation of more satisfying work spaces.

DesignWeek have produced an interesting new piece on this work exploring the two key solutions that have emerged from this project.

The first is the Public Office Landscape design, created by Yves Behar and fuseproject. Based on the concept of the Social Chair:

a soft seat that promises to be able to accommodate ‘a range of people and postures’.

the design has been created to

support casual work and provide comfort, at the desk, in circulation space, and in group areas – all within a consistent design vocabulary.

This in turn dovetails with the design solutions offered in the Locale suite designed by Industrial Facility. Designed with the understanding that work is no longer necessarily confined to a particular space, this particular suite of work is based on the realization that people use office space now as spaces for face-to-face conversation – as distinct from that offered through more virtual computer-mediated forms of interaction.

With this in mind, their suite of work is based on the concept of proximity. Physical proximity is important as this is how spontaneous meetings of minds and people can occur - which in turn provides the catalyst for creativity. Key to this suite of products then is their adjustable nature – to promote movement, collaboration and spontaneity.

Collaboration and adaptability then is key to this entire suite of products.

In this respect the work emerging from this project echoes the work of architect Robert Geddes, for who:

choice is the essence of design. 

In this respect architecture of the built environment – just as for organizational architecture:

is an enabling mechanism. It does not determine what we do, but it does make some things possible, and sometimes more probable.

In the modern workplace we need to be increasingly aware of the forces acting on an organization – it’s gravity, so to speak.

At the very least – in purely pragmatic terms – in the knowledge economy, the attraction and retention of staff is paramount: for that is where value creation now lies. Organizations need to provide spaces that promote this. They need to be useful for those who use them. In this respect then, improving the ‘employee journey’ is just as important as improving the ‘customer journey’.

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