The Future of Office Design

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By William L. Hamilton
What’s the future of office design? We investigate how start-up culture is influencing everything from corporate campuses to contract furniture. See more about Office Environment.

Back in the day, a model employee was an "organization man," loyal to a company. And the workplace was a model of organization, too: a rigid grid of cubicles, centered by conference rooms, squared by corner suites.

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Today, that landscape has evolved—or more precisely, dissolved. The concepts that surfaced more than a decade ago at scrappy start-ups—everyone sitting in a big room, developing a genius idea—are being embraced by the establishment and refined by contemporary architects and furniture designers. The newest work environments are open floor plans that foster informality, flexibility, and an interactive group dynamic. They accommodate various styles and types of work in the same versatile spaces, without the proprietary real estate of traditional typologies: I sit here, you sit there, we meet there.

"Time and space—there are many kinds of time throughout a day at work, and there are many ways to use the space," says the designer Patricia Urquiola, who is developing Collaborative Lounge, a group of office furnishings—her first—for Haworth. Don’t have a dedicated space for greeting clients? Urquiola’s tall, upholstered pieces can carve out a private seating area within a larger space. Need a conference room quickly? Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec’s Alcove Highback sofas from Vitra allow for an instant huddle. Need privacy for a quick phone chat? Try Quiet, a cross between a wingback armchair and a call box, designed by the London-based firm Tilt.

"The key is providing variety—more choices, less prescriptive," says Yves Béhar, who designed the Public Office Landscape for Herman Miller. His desks, chairs, and storage cases function individually but also combine to create work groups, an arrangement that Béhar calls "social desking." 

As the workforce transitions—Generation Y entering, Generation X managing, Boomers retiring—yesterday’s "organization man" is giving way to today’s "disorganization man," continually recalibrating the norm. Mark Zuckerberg defines this as the "Hacker Way," stating in a letter to potential Facebook investors: "Hackers believe something can always be better, and that nothing is ever complete." The workplace is being hacked, too. Increasingly, companies believe that innovative design is critical to successful entrepreneurship and that the ability for employees to easily collaborate translates into a competitive edge.

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Join us on Thursday, October 9, at 12:00 p.m., for our panel on the Modern Workplace. The talk, which features Franklin D. Becker, a professor at Cornell, and Kulapat Yantrasast, a Brooklyn-based architect, in a discussion about the concrete ways in which offices and workplaces are changing. Attendance at the panel counts toward continuing education units (AIA 1.0 LU / HSW .1 CEU).

Learn about how start-up culture is shaping present-day perceptions of offices; what corporate clients are requesting; how communal scenarios have supplanted the aging corporate model of individualism and hierarchy; and fresh strategies on how to incorporate virtual office tenets, concepts first introduced in the 1990s.

"Collaboration is the new telecommuting," says Joseph Chen, product lead at Oculus VR, a virtual reality hardware company that Facebook recently snapped up for $2 billion. Oculus, whose staff has grown from a dozen to 100 in less than two years, provides feedback to Herman Miller on how the company’s office furniture
engenders the workplace experience—all in an effort "to contain the insanity without stifling creativity," Chen says.

Randy Howder, a senior associate at the architecture and design firm Gensler, is helping to shape Facebook’s international campuses. Design can play a critical role at tech companies, he observes. "When the product is cloud-based, the physical manifestation of the ‘brand’ only happens in the workplace," he says. "Facebook has no retail presence, which puts pressure on the work environment to be a communications tool for customers."

Starting with nine existing buildings in Menlo Park, California, Gensler created an anti-corporate headquarters at the client’s request, ripping out private offices and cubicles and leaving existing doors and marks on the concrete floors where enclosures had once stood—a kind of anarchic archaeology. Employees personalized the rest, writing on walls and creating art installations to supplement the furnishings Gensler sourced from Blu Dot, CB2, and other residential resources.

Another corporate headquarters, designed by Gensler’s Los Angeles branch, follows the new-wave workplace model with a glass-walled open floor plan that encompasses a range of places to work, meet, or relax—spaces where employees can serendipitously bump into people, much as they would on the street. Employees sit at multiperson stations rather than individual desks, and bar-height common tables accommodate lunch with one’s laptop.

A + I Architecture worked with Tumblr last year to redesign its original start-up space in New York City into a corporate headquarters where next-phase realities like a sales force and official business visits could be integrated. "We looked a lot at student centers," said A + I principal Bradley Zizmor. A + I created multiuse areas based on scale of interaction—who would use it, how, and when. The cafeteria, for example, is also the company’s largest presentation room, with audio-visual equipment suspended in the ceiling. There are sofas at the edge of communal computer stations where employees with laptops—barefoot, their legs tucked under them—sit programming, headsets on, as though they were cramming for an exam.

The Future of Office Design - Photo 3 of 3 -, a not-for-profit youth-services organization that moved to an 11,000-square-foot open-plan workplace in New York in 2012, has taken the idea of a collaborative mix to a radical degree. Every six months, the staff of 75 draws lots from a hat for new desk assignments and reshuffles the seating. Nancy Lublin, the CEO, calls it "reaping," a playful reference to The Hunger Games. "It’s complete cross-pollination," Lublin explains. "You’re not necessarily sitting next to your team." Like Facebook, finished its own space: For budgetary reasons, its employees painted it themselves, designed their own lighting fixtures, and sourced most furnishings from Ikea.

"I don’t think an office needs to be beautiful like a museum, especially a not-for-profit," Lublin says of her organization, which has only ten employees over age 30. "But people this age spend more time at the office than at home. There should be places to sit on a couch, take a break, have decent coffee." On that note there’s also a shower, for staff members who bike or jog to work.

The frontier of office design could be co-working facilities—club-like membership spaces that businesses share. This new approach has become increasingly popular; The New York Times reported in May 2013 that there are nearly 800 nationally, up from 300 two years earlier. NeueHouse, designed by David Rockwell and located in a renovated 1913 building in Manhattan, opened in July. Aesthetically, it’s a sleek pastiche of the New York Public Library’s famous reading room, a classical European bank, and a 1940s-era fantasy of office life. There’s a screening room, a recording studio, a cafe, an in-house IT support staff, and a catering kitchen run by an alumnus of Le Bernardin. Initial members include Island Records founder Chris Blackwell and the staff of Dazed & Confused magazine, all of whom would rather be there as paying guests than foot the bill for upscale offices of their own.

"There’s a theatrical fluidity to the space, as opposed to hierarchy," says Rockwell, who has also designed stage sets. "Things are nimble and can transform. That’s how we get our information now."