What’s the future of the office? Expert views from the Workspace Design Show
What’s the future of the office? Expert views from the Workspace Design Show

The first ‘real’ UK show since 2019 was held at The Business Design Centre on 4th and 5th November – and what an exciting event it was! Packed with enthusiastic attendees, the show floor was buzzing – and a series of ‘Expert Panel’ discussions gave us some real insights into the future of the office.

Our thanks to the organisers, who did an amazing job gathering the best of British and International design talent for the talks programme, and attracting many leading interior product makers to exhibit.

Expert views

The format of the talks was typically ‘panel discussion’ rather than formal presentations. An expert chairperson put questions to the panellists, so we got a nice mix of fact and opinion! Many leading experts of the Design community took part and there was strong sense that we could trust their words as a guide to what the future holds.

We’ve chosen two of these talks as examples; highlighting the main points made by each panellist.

Expert views

Designs to inspire creativity and innovation, chaired by Mark Eltringham

Angela Bardino, Design Principal, Jacobs
Colin Burry, Design Principal, Gensler
Jack Pringle, Managing Director, Studio Pringle

Working from home (WFH) – will it continue?

JP Truthfully, we don’t know, but the most likely scenario is yes, but not exclusively – perhaps 2/3 days a week. WFH is ‘unequal’ – fine perhaps for the executive with a big country house, but less so for younger workers who perhaps live in a rented studio flat and need to be mentored. A ‘place’ of work is far more important to them – they want to meet people and learn, so that they can succeed in their career. They may even meet their life partner at the office!
CB It’s impossible to work as well together creatively if in different places. Personal experience based on two lockdown design projects (one remote, one working in the same space) confirms better outcomes when collaborators are in the same space.
AB Creative (added value’) thinking is about stepping away from the norm; being stimulated by colleagues. WFH can’t replace the collective creative process.

So what will we see in the office?

CB We should use the experience of tech companies in the USA bay area; to attract talent, they offered amazing facilities so that staff were excited to go there. The driver became about the people/occupants rather than the real estate department.
JP The purpose of the office is changing; it’s less about ‘processing’, more about developing ideas with others. The ‘seed’ of an idea can happen anywhere, but working together is the way an idea is developed and implemented.
AB Professional Designers can add value by helping clients make small changes that can become big changes. The ‘new normal’ is not yet defined, but we can build in flexibility to allow change as we move towards ‘blended’ working approaches.
CB Perhaps more than ever ‘design’ will become ‘Social Engineering’!
JP In the ‘olden days’, it was generally the smokers who were regarded as the most creative. They would regularly ‘break out’ for a cigarette and chat, so they knew everything that was going on. There may be lessons here...
CB Right now, the day you move in, your office won’t be finished. It will have to adapt and change further.
AB In the face of uncertainty, costs may be considered a barrier to doing anything now. But think about the costs of NOT doing anything.

Designing the experience of the future workplace, chaired by Daniel Gava

Natasha Bonugli, Founder and Creative Director,The Bon Collective
Erik Behrens, Creative Director, AECOM

What’s your personal experience of going back to the office?

NB A realisation that we need to coordinate with others and be organised about being in the same place at the same time. There’s little point going back just to sit by yourself!
EB AECOM were already set up with flexible offices and working practices before lockdown, so personal impact has fortunately been minimal.

What do you think will change in practice?

NB The office must become more ‘user-centric’, giving choice and control so that occupants can select work settings appropriate to the task at hand. Not everyone works well at home. Smaller clients are already trying to provide ‘what staff want’; but larger businesses seem to be taking pause
EB ...and perhaps we don’t want the office to be ‘like home’ at all. For example, Facebook USA provides a complete Campus experience, including accommodation.
NB But the working environment (like clothing standards) will probably become more casual; there may be implications for furniture designers.
EB And we need to think more ‘out of the box’ – ‘Breakout areas’ alone don’t really do it. As an example, people may choose to meet in a restaurant, which is a different mindset. The office is not typically the best place to ‘seed’ ideas; they often come away from work; perhaps at night or while travelling.
NB In practical terms, there will be more smaller meeting rooms /areas with well-integrated technology
EB Also more customisation, rather than using ‘off-the shelf’ products (also more sanitisation of shared facilities)
NB ‘The Evolution Workplace’ is emerging, we are beginning to see retail space converted to workspace; the term ‘office’ may gradually lose relevance
EB Yes, on a larger scale, we may see tower offices separated in to living/working/parking floors – perhaps even towers connected by sky bridges.
EB In the future, society will judge ‘Corporate Success’ differently; People, Planet and Personality rather than just ‘Profit’.
NB ...and don’t forget ‘Place’!

Expert Views – Conclusions

Appropriately, none of the experts claimed to know it all, but all agreed that a ‘place’ of work is fundamental to corporate success and employee wellbeing.

It was broadly suggested that the corporate winners will be those who are prepared to embrace some changes now, as a step towards a blended work future. The cost of not doing so could be greater than doing nothing, if there’s a desire to attract and retain the best talent.

Along with this we may see changes in appearance from ‘formal off the shelf’ to ‘casual and customised’. Potentially we’ll develop a new understanding of what the workplace is; certainly not ‘just’ an office.

Studio Pringle is soon to publish ideas for an ‘interim interior’ - an approach that will allow occupiers to accommodate future adaptations over time.


The Exhibitors

This wasn’t the biggest show, but we admire the commitment and enthusiasm of all the exhibitors who took part. It’s they who effectively fund such shows, allowing attendees to benefit from the talks programme.

If the answer to the new workplace is ‘more acoustic booths’, we were spoilt for choice. For us, this highlighted something of a disconnect between what the experts are thinking about, and where the manufacturers are currently – not entirely surprising given the length of time typically required for product design and development.

However, in general it’s reasonable to assume that the balance of workspace will shift towards more spaces for meeting and interaction – and that these spaces will need to be easy to move or reconfigure, which is where booths have the edge over traditional partition walls. Not all meeting spaces can be acoustically isolated, so it was good to see attention being paid to more general acoustics treatments.

We were also pleased to note the commitment by some suppliers towards a sustainable future. Exhibitor Casala (See end of article) was particularly strong in this respect; we need more producers to consider not only use of recycled materials in production, but also end-of-life recycling and re-purposing.

Mute Design

Mute Design

Polish maker Mute was unfamiliar to us before this show, but we were immediately drawn to their attractive stand by their unique ‘Light wall’ screens, which include a hidden transparent acoustic barrier behind fabric slats (See header image).

As their name would suggest, Mute specialise in workplace acoustics, including sound-absorbent light fittings and panels – and of course booths! These booths appeared to be of very high quality, performance and appearance, available in a wide range of configurations.

Spacestor

Spacestor

Consistently innovating, Spacestor have been a staple feature of the workplace scene during lockdown. They have run a series of Webinars featuring leading experts from around the globe, and have made a real contribution to the debate.

At this show they introduced ‘Verandas’ – a recyclable steel-based framework from which can be created acoustically-enclosed and semi-open meeting and breakout spaces – a step beyond ‘standalone’ booths.

Table Place Chairs / Stansons

Table Place Chairs / Stansons

This fine collaboration has created ‘The Circle of Life’ - a less formal structured meeting zone, utilising strong curved steel sections hung with recycled plastic fabrics. Not acoustically isolated perhaps, but a comfortable and attractive environment for casual meetings. This was judged #1 Show Winner by the show’s expert panel.

Abstracta

Abstracta

A show regular, Abstracta have forged a reputation for providing innovative, high quality, workplace acoustic products. Their excellent plenty pod acoustic booth was displayed, along with some neat ideas like the dB Pillar acoustic display pole and the compact dB modular sofa

Agilita

Agilita

Agilita displayed a number of their compact meeting/breakout configurations, including this innovative ‘daybed’ pod / room divider called Relax

Buzzispace

Buzzispace

Buzzispace participated, although their stand could not convey the breadth and depth of their huge and sometimes quirky workplace acoustics offering. They featured the new BuzziCee lounge seating – nice to Cee you!

Allsfar

Allsfar

Allsfar make acoustic products with a felt material made from 60% recycled PET (from plastic bottles), 100% recyclable at end of life, so they score on the environment too. Their stand was deservedly busy!

Actiu

Actiu

Spanish manufacturer Actiu is strong on innovation and environmentally-friendly production processes (Their technology park is LEED and WELL Platinum Certified).

As an example, they displayed some bespoke version of the soon-to-be-launched Fluit chair, injection-moulded using recycled plastic pellets. Additionally, they have developed a unique sensor-based environment-monitoring system Gaia that can help Facilities Managers improve lighting and air quality, and help users to find an appropriate ‘agile’ work setting.

Casala

Casala

Casala really impressed – not only because of the warm welcome from Alex and Kim (that’s Alex in the photo), but because of their commitment to ‘circular economy’ principles from design & manufacture to end-of-life.

We began by looking at the Curvy stacking chair. A nice piece, and one of the strongest and most comfortable of its type we have seen - now available in a palette whose seat and back are made from 100% recycled plastic household waste.

Also featured was Capsule soft seating – elegant, beautifully detailed and space-efficient with good acoustic properties; available in a complementary form without the upper acoustic enclosure as Capsule Lounge.


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