Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Offices of the Future – Green or (Depressingly) Blue

I have been asked to present on Offices of the Future at the Sustainable Futures event hosted by Carbon Smart. This blog represents what I intend to say.

First of all I am not a futurologist, I am a psychologist. I can no more predict the future than I can read your mind. But I can give you my views on the future of offices based on current workplace trends. You might even accuse me of wishful thinking as my views represent the way I hope offices evolve.
Before we consider the future I would like to reflect on the past and the history of the office. At the tail-end of the renaissance in the mid-17th century coffee houses flourished as a place of networking and business. The lack of alcohol made it a more suitable place for commerce than the already popular ale houses. By the 18th century there was a move towards the merchant’s counting house. This was mostly due to an increase in global trading and the need for clerks to keep and share ledgers and records. The clerks used bureau style desks for their paperwork. The increased need for central filing, the invention of the phone and typewriter in the late 19th Century all contributed towards the pollination of the desk as the primary work-setting. Management techniques such as Taylorism in the early 20th century initiated the congregation of these desks in large open plan offices.
So we come to 21st century and you might think not a lot has happened with office design. Despite computers and phones being mobile devices, most of us are still reliant on the desk. But it is only the desk, that wooden surface, that has not changed.

If you venture beyond the desk, to the edges of the office you will see that it is changing. Consider the recent office designs for Google, Microsoft, Red Bull, Ogilvy & Mather and so on. Analysis shows that desk space is decreasing in return for an increase in other types of space. Spaces such as breakout and social space, informal meeting areas, quiet rooms, and 1:1 rooms. We are also seeing more greenery appearing in offices, recognition that biopheila, our affinity to plants, has productivity benefits.
The reason for this change is that these more creative organisations recognise that business is shifting towards a new economic age. We are leaving the service and knowledge industry to a new quaternary economic age, the innovation and creative sector. These organisations understand the value of an idea, and recognise that the desk is not necessarily the best environment for creating that idea.
Despite these changes, it’s the things you can’t see that are changing the most. We now use the office as a resource, a base to come back to rather than a continuous place of work. We are team workers, sharing and developing ideas with colleagues. We welcome clients into our offices to entertain and impress them with our ideas. Thanks to pervasive technology, we don’t even need to be at a desk to do the processing work. Inexpensive, reliable technology is available to all; we are all connected in and out of the office. The office is now about facilitating mobility, collaboration and showcasing to clients. So the desks themselves lie empty. Utilisation studies consistently show that around 50% of office desks are unused at any one time during the normal working week. That’s around one-third of the total building space wasted – space that is constructed, heated/cooled, and managed i.e. space that is paid for. So what else is causing this?
Well our public transport infrastructure is broken. Investment is being made in the rail network but it could take 10 years to complete, meanwhile the number of commuters is steadily increasing. Last summer temperatures on the Underground exceeded 40°C yet it is illegal to transport livestock at temperatures above 35°C. We have the highest train fares in Europe and so some have returned to the roads. But the UK has the highest commute time in Europe – 45 mins compared to 23 mins in Italy. Those 90 minutes per day is equivalent to working a 6th day. With all the overcrowding and disruption many choose not to come into our cities every day.
Based on carbon emissions, the UK Climate model predicts that external summer temperatures will increase by 1°C every 10 years. As well as hot summers we have had more severe winters. The Chief Scientific Advisor warns that it is the increasing variability and extreme weather that will cause us problems geeting to work in the future. We also can’t ignore the disruption to getting to work from events such as terrorist acts, viral epidemics, volcanoes and even the Olympic games. The smart companies will not depend on their staff having to commute to the office for them to conduct business.
The law and attitude to flexible working is changing. In the UK the right to work flexibly is being extended to include more employees with a wider rnage of dependents. Paternity leave options now mean that the father rather than mother can take extended leave. There has been much research on how the Next Gen, the digital natives, will use the workplace and their expectations. What is clear is that the way they use technology, and the way they learn and communicate through multimedia channels, will make them less reliant on the traditional office.
We have seen a rapid rise of alternative co-working spaces, such as serviced offices, hubs and jellies. New nimble businesses are leasing office space as and when required across a range of locations. And for some time we have reverted to using coffee houses to connect and catch up between visiting offices. The UK GDP cycles every 5 to 7 years. We tend to take on additional property during a boom only to be left with surplus space in the decline. Large corporates are now aiming to better manage the supply and demand of office space through flexible working and desk sharing.
"The greenest building is the one already built" (Carl Elefante) refers to carbon savings from embodied and operating energy. I am not a fan of eco-bling – green wash such roof mounted wind turbines or PVs. I’d rather they were not built in the first place only to end up one-third empty. Various analyses indicate that the carbon offset through flexible working and desk sharing far outweighs that from eco-bling. (I calculate that implementing flexible working and reducing office space by one-third will offset approximately 650 KgCO2 per person per annum compared to 450 KgCO2 for a typical domestic PV array.)
According to Colliers there is currently 3 million sq ft of empty office space in London. Much of it is small legacy buildings, great for start-up ventures, for co-working and for distributed business. Such buildings are also shallow plan, heavily constructed, and ideal for passive cooling. Or perhaps these empty offices can be converted to housing and bring life back into quiet city areas. This would reduce the burden on our transport infrastructure and wasted commuting time. I understand that there is now a government initiative to convert some of the larger unused offices, such as Shell Centre, into homes.
But new offices are still appearing on the London skyline – large offices of all shapes and sizes, iconic and distinctive offices. But I am not convinced such offices reflect what the 21st centruy worker requires or if they will enhance business performance. I prefer offices built on a human scale – offices that support small business communities and teams. I would like to see a landscaped office rather than simple open plan – a hybrid of open and enclosed space which includes a full range of work-settings to facilitate all work activities. I would like to see offices cater for psychological needs – recognising the importance of evolutionary psychology like biopheila, and providing spaces that support all personality types, for example introverts as well as extroverts, rather than assume we are all the same.
If we do carry on building shapes in the sky then we should at least consider their adaptive re-use. They should be designed such that, if they are not needed by the future mobile workforce, they can be easily converted to key worker housing, local retail, care homes and other useful buildings.

Meanwhile let's implement flexible working to save space, money and carbon whilst increasing staff satisfaction and productivity.

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