12 November 2019

Rethinking the Office Environment

Wooden desks with computers, lamps and other office equipment, within a bright room

The traditional office space, once the bedrock of working life, has had its day.

Thanks to technological advancements and changing attitudes, flexible working is now a reality for many of us, and this trend is only going one way.

But this doesn’t have to mean the end of the communal workspace. Yes, people want flexibility and the chance to work remotely, but they also want face-to-face interaction with colleagues, a sense of community, and a chance to see how their work contributes to the bigger picture.

As the use of offices changes from a necessity to a choice, we have an opportunity to rethink the way we use these spaces. What is the point of a communal workspace? What should they offer? How do we make the most of technology? Before we answer these questions, let’s take a quick look at how we got to this point.

Workspaces past and present

Office design has changed a lot over the years. Early last century, the typical workplace featured rows of identical desks facing the same way – similar to a traditional classroom. Later came the dreaded cubicle office furniture, where colleagues sat separated from each other by grey partition walls. Towards the end of the century, as the influence of technology grew, offices became cluttered with bulky desktop computers, monitors, fax machines and printers.

Workspaces were designed purely to facilitate work – after all, without an office, where would people do their jobs? The primary function of an office was to provide the bare necessities for people to get work done – a desk, a chair, a computer – but very little beyond that. Whether or not the office space was conducive to productive, creative and enjoyable work was another matter entirely. Employees were expected to be productive and creative, but in an environment that was dull and sterile.

For the most part, office design gave zero thought to promoting a culture of collaboration and teamwork. The goal was to cram as many people into a space as possible, regardless of its dehumanising effects. The negative impact on workers simply wasn’t a consideration.

Fast forward to the present day. Digital storage, laptops and ultra-thin monitors have freed up much-needed space, making the modern office cleaner, slicker and more comfortable than ever before. There is also more of a focus on social, non-work elements, such as games and communal areas.

Yet in reality, very little has actually changed. Most of us still work in rooms packed full of desks and office furniture, where we each have our own designated place. Rather than offering something radically different, the modern office is merely a continuation of the same theme – a contemporary version of an old idea. 

Workspaces of the future

Modern technology has liberated us from the confines of the office, allowing us to work anywhere with a decent Wi-Fi signal. As a result, housing employees in offices is no longer a necessity, but rather a choice. This simple fact allows us to view communal workspaces with a fresh eye.

In the future of work, the primary function of workspaces will not be to provide a place for people to work, but to provide an environment that optimises their experience of work. This means going beyond the bare minimum and creating environments specifically designed to support different working styles and nurture creativity, collaboration and engagement. Here are some ideas on how that would look in practice.

  • Diverse and flexible

One of the major downfalls of the traditional office is its lack of flexibility. Each employee has their own desk, where they are expected to do their work – whether it suits them or not.

Future workspaces must be designed to support different working styles and personality types, providing an environment where everyone can thrive. This would include buzzing communal areas, quiet zones, places to relax and switch off, and spaces for meetings. And for the traditionalists, there could even be an area with regular office tables and chairs. Rather than being designated a desk, employees can work where they please, in an environment that best suits their working style or current task.

  • Comfortable and inspirational

Traditional offices are designed to make you feel like you are at work, i.e. not somewhere you would choose to be in your free time. They are nothing like the places we enjoy spending time in – our homes or our favourite cafes, for example. This reinforces the idea that work is separate from real life – something to go to and come home from, rather than something to immerse yourself in.

Future workspaces should be designed to encourage individuality, authenticity and the freedom to be creative – somewhere people can drop the corporate pretence and simply get on with their work.  This means designing spaces where people actually want to spend time, where they can feel relaxed and ‘at home’.

In this way, employers should try to recreate the feeling of co-working spaces, where freelancers and digital nomads come and go as they please. These places are designed to be like professional hangouts, with a mixture of comfy sofas, quiet zones and communal tables – more like modern cafés or apartments than traditional offices.

The modern workspace should be seen as a central hub towards which employees gravitate out of choice – a place where employees pop in for inspiration, meetings, networking, or a change of scene. This shift away from obligation and towards personal choice will completely change the way people think about communal workspaces, creating a vibrant and positive environment where individuals and teams can truly thrive.

  • Smart and personalised

When it comes to the ideal conditions for working, everyone is different. We’ve probably all worked in an office where people can’t agree on the perfect temperature, meaning some people are always too hot or too cold.

In the workplace of the future, technology will take a more extensive role in shaping our work environment. A combination of the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI) and wearable devices will create a ‘smart office’, where the environment is tailored to the individual’s preferences. Imagine an office that reacts to your presence, adjusting the temperature and light levels to provide the optimum conditions for you to do your best work.

This will also bring wide-ranging benefits for the organisation, providing real-time data and insights into how their workspaces are being used. Ultimately, this will help them make smarter decisions about how best to use these spaces.

Final thoughts

As we transition to the future of work, we have the opportunity to look at old ways of working with a fresh eye, and ask pertinent questions around what we should keep and what we should change.

The traditional office space is a symbol of a past time, when colleagues gathered under one roof out of necessity, not choice. The relationship between employees and the office has rarely been a positive one – at best, people accept it; at worst, it can be a hindrance to productive work and positive mood.

With a fresh approach, focusing on creativity, flexibility, and personalisation, the communal workspace can also be a symbol of the future of work – a place where people choose to come because it benefits their work life.

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Nick Edwards

Nick Edwards is a Content Writer at MHR

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