Architecture & design

Division of labour

The workplace as merely a row of desks is an outmoded concept; a new generation of offices are designed with human factors in mind, to create environments that promote collaboration and focus. We profile the projects enabling a shift in working culture, including OMA’s G-Star RAW headquarters, Mecanoo’s Rabobank development and Wiels Arets’ Allianz Headquarters.

To a casual observer, office design might seem to be split down the middle. In one camp, we have the traditionalists: the rows of desks or cubicles, with a corner office for the boss and conversation confined to the water cooler. In the other camp, we have the non-conformists: the wacky startups where chairs are replaced with beanbags and slides are deemed conducive to ‘blue sky thinking’.

Both stereotypes contain a kernel of truth, in that it isn’t hard to find suitably egregious examples. Whether overly conservative or overly edgy, the sitcom trope is there for a reason – a poor office design makes the perfect backdrop to a bad case of workplace ennui.

Luckily, this binary isn’t entirely accurate. It ignores the growing wave of offices that pay heed, at least in theory, to human factors, incorporating insights about employees’ needs into the very structure of the building. With traditional working practices being uprooted, and fierce competition for top employees, firms simply can’t afford to ignore the wider implications of their workspace. Neither drab nor try-hard will suffice.

For architecture firm Wiels Arets, which recently completed the Allianz Headquarters in Zurich, luring workers was a central consideration.

“Bringing the best people into your company isn’t easy,” says partner, Wiels Arets. “You have to create an environment where they feel comfortable; an environment which stimulates them to work but also one which stimulates them to communicate. People get interested in your company not only as a company but as a building, and the building should become the attractor.”

Their response, a hybrid office comprising a 20-storey tower and five-storey annex, leaps out from the city centre with its striking onyx marble façade. Once you step inside, however, it’s as much about liveability as showiness, with the interior conceived as a nexus of neighbourhoods. Despite the formal, corporate aesthetic, there are lounge-like spaces throughout – designated zones for downtime. This fits the culture of a financial services company, in which many employees stay long hours and the work-life balance is more of a work-life blend.

“People don’t just work here, they’re here 24/7, so the building should feel comfortable,” says Arets. “Of course people should recognise they’re in a corporate environment, but on the other hand they can say hey, I’m a human being and I feel extremely at home.”

Embracing the new

In times gone by, the task for office designers was simpler: provide a space for your physically present workers, who are there at pre-determined times, while rewarding seniority through bigger and plusher private rooms. Whether this meant lines of workers, as per a 1950s secretarial pool, or something cubicle-based, it was essentially about keeping the team in one place.

Today, the 9-5 grind is no longer a given. We see more teleworking, for instance, and a cultural shift towards variable working patterns, meaning the number of people stationed at desks may change from one day to the next.

At the new Rabobank advice centre in Sittard, the Netherlands, fixed working space has been eliminated altogether. As Paul Ketelaars, partner at design firm Mecanoo explains: “Like a lot of office spaces, Rabobank wants to optimise the working conditions – they have less space, so people get more flexible in where they work, and that helps to reduce the cost. But because you don’t sit in the same place every day, it also promotes interaction between you and your colleagues.”

This push towards interaction mirrors a wider trend. Rigidly hierarchical models have fallen out of favour, notionally replaced by a flattened landscape of ‘co-working’ and ‘symbiosis’. At the extreme, this leads to the beanbag stereotype – a utopian world in which you sit your team in circles, ‘cross-pollinate’ ideas, and jointly create some hot new tech.

For most office designers, however, removing barriers between workers is only one part of the equation. Their central challenge is weighting collaboration against concentration; a delicate balancing act with powerful implications for productivity. The design firm Gensler, in a 2013 survey, identified four distinct ‘work modes’: focus, collaborate, learn and socialise. Where offices struck the right balance between interactive and individual work, employees showed significant spikes in performance.

At the Rabobank building, flexible working really does mean flexibility of choice, whether that means joining your friends round a zigzagging table, or hiding away at a single workstation. The ground floor auditorium, which is open to the public as well as employees, features a curtain that allows the space to be reconfigured as desired. The central premise is simple: not all work scenarios are made alike.

“Some spaces are quieter and protected by walls, whereas others are more open – you would use them for working for an hour, checking your emails,” says Ketelaars. “People sit all day and work in the auditorium, because it’s very spacious and easy to meet your colleagues. They use it in a very broad way; they can really find a space that suits their needs.”

Determining what workers are looking for is a science as much as an art. Many design firms these days are delving into data analytics, using hard figures to dream up the most amenable working environment. This means considering all kinds of sensory input, not least light, acoustics, temperature and haptics.

Sound judgement 

Noise management is perhaps one of the toughest challenges faced by any ‘collaborative’ workspace. After all, idea sharing is all well and good until those ideas are being yelled across the room by your requisite loud-mouthed co-worker. In Gensler’s survey, 53% of knowledge workers in open-plan offices said they were frequently distracted by colleagues, a problem which is perhaps impossible to eliminate in spaces where the four work modes co-exist. It can, however, be addressed by ascertaining people’s average levels of tolerance.

During the early design stage for the Rabobank development, Mecanoo visited numerous open-plan environments to learn what kind of sound they could expect in their central square. They then used computer modeling to arrange their private workspaces, discovering which would be most and least susceptible to noise intrusion.

“Some people can handle sound better than others, but because there’s so many different options you can choose from, it basically works for everybody,” Ketelaars says.

At OMA’s G-Star RAW headquarters in Amsterdam, lighting was a key concern. Because this is a denim brand, it was critical to keep the interior as neutral as possible, allowing designs to take shape without visual distractions.

“When you design clothes you need higher lighting levels than when you’re in an office,” says partner Ellen van Loon. “We placed the creative areas in this glazed surface, all facing north so that you always have good light and you’re not bothered by the sun. It’s very important when you design certain products that the surroundings are not too aggressive, so you can concentrate on what you’re working on.”

This is both about seeing and being seen – while the support facilities are housed within a dark concrete frame, the so-called ‘creative nucleus’ consists of a row of glass boxes, visible from other areas of the building. With staggered floor plates and double-height spaces, all the floor areas have a view towards one another while enabling a degree of privacy.

“This works extremely well because you can see departments working together, but you still find your own spot within this large space,” says van Loon. “There is a lot of connection between different levels and over different view lines, and that makes the whole interior space a kind of design machine.”

Meanwhile, many companies have introduced healthy living initiatives, which can be seen in the recent vogue for standing or even treadmill desks. Productivity is seen to stem from worker wellbeing, as opposed to being a simple proxy for time spent behind a desk.

While today’s workplaces vary greatly, it is clear that getting it right depends on sensitivity to the workers’ actual requirements. Traditional models – in which the employee is chained to their desk for eight hours a day – are coming to seem increasingly unsustainable, particularly as the so-called ‘millennial’ generation makes inroads in the workplace. More concerned with output than hours logged, they want to see what their workspace can do for them.

“The 21st century worker should feel sometimes like a child who likes to play, sometimes a student who likes to do research and be educated, and sometimes like a worker who is producing but is relaxed, knows what he’s doing,” says Arets. “If you have a good working environment, you spent more time being productive, so it’s important to talk very intensely about what the environment should be.”

This is the cover story for the Winter 2014 edition of LEAF Review

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