Today's office is a heck of a lot more than a bullpen full of desks where workers shuffle papers for eight hours a day.
It is supposed to be so inspiring in its beauty that it literally spurs creativity. It should be striking enough to impress clients and work as a recruiting tool, but not so flashy that it irks investors. It requires ample nooks for privacy, and plentiful breakout spaces for boisterous group debate. It provides spaces for employees to eat together, play together, and hang out together, but it's also supposed to boost productivity.
Yes, expectations for what that old office can accomplish are higher than ever. And they are often at odds.
One concept that rose in popularity over the past couple of years is hot desking. It was a quasi-extension of the open office concept, in which individual offices fade from existence and a company's managerial layers flatten out by situating everyone from intern to CEO in roughly the same type of digs (often within the same massive space). But in hot desking, there is a complete lack of owned territory. Just bring your laptop and plunk it anywhere. Multiple employees can, in this arrangement, use the same desk at different hours during a day. Or they can share a booth for a tête-à-tête.
The practice, adopted by lots of small firms as well as large ones such as Macquarie Bank, Microsoft, and Ernst & Young, just ended up feeling too much like high school--where you have to pack up completely at the end of the day. Also, sometimes it's nice to have a photo of your cat staring at you from the corner of your desk. RIP, hot desking.
Certain aesthetic choices, too, are waning in popularity. What one might call "lumberjack chic," wherein an interior resembles a Wes Anderson movie set at a bohemian hunting lodge in Brooklyn, replete with exposed brick and Edison light bulbs, is now a rapidly fading vestige of the early aughts.
What's replacing those choices seems to nod more to the barefoot brightness of California summers, and less to the coziness of New England winters. It's breezy and open, and full of more choices. Here's what we found this year.
Sustainability has staying power
Not every trend from recent years is going the way of the personal secretary. For instance, what's green is only getting greener.
"There's a lot of flora inside lately," says Scott Lesizza, a founding principal at Workwell Partners, an office-furnishing company. "I've seen a grass-front reception desk, green walls, and grass walls, where water filters through. Another client built a full boardwalk, with the sorts of brush you would have on the beach."
One of 2015's World's Coolest Offices, a former pencil factory in Brooklyn's Greenpoint neighborhood that now houses Kickstarter, was rebuilt around a large central atrium and rooftop garden. Many of the interior offices are glass-walled, so some of the outdoor green is visible from nearly all angles.
Green isn't just sticking around in the form of plants. "We are moving toward architecture that is greener, lighter, and smarter," says Stanley Felderman, co-founder of and partner at Felderman Keatinge, a design and architecture studio based in Culver City, California. "Everyone is on board with the idea that we all have to be custodians of our environments."
Part of what he means is very intriguing--and is just starting to pop up in new office internal architecture. He says "lighter" in that construction materials do not literally need to be so heavy, or so solid.
Lightweight, movable, and pliable materials will increasingly be weaving their way into office design--including rolling walls, super-thin plywood, and sheer glass barriers. In the near future, expect more 3-D-printed elements to also find their homes in the workplace.
Not just lighter, but also smarter
Office spaces aren't just becoming more nimble; they're also increasingly wired for tech--and future tech. That doesn't just mean more outlets in more places (though those certainly are multiplying). We are past the tipping point of technology being part of our environment--it's becoming ubiquitous, appearing in walls, in chairs, in adjustable workstations.
Felderman says sound and lighting are new areas of focus for innovative companies. "For instance, there's knowledge that lighting affects the mood and productivity of people," he says. "Companies will be coming out with lighting for which you can change the color temperature, so it's cooler in the morning and warmer in the afternoon."
His business partner, Nancy Keatinge, notes that companies are taking employees' health into account when constructing new office spaces. Flexible workstations, in the mode of Herman Miller's Living Office, that allow for standing or seated work and ergonomic computer viewing, are becoming standard. So are outdoor areas that allow workers to soak in the sun without taking a vacation. And health rooms, for practicing yoga or meditation, are on the rise.
Where'd the executive office go?
Part of the shift toward open-plan offices was the general decline in large private-office space. Although architects and designers say they've seen a backlash against completely open-plan offices in recent construction, there's no real return to grand executive suites.
"We don't do a lot of individual offices, still," says Denise Cherry, principal at Studio O+A. "If it's a space for an executive, you are seeing dedicated areas where they can entertain and impress."
Mini conference rooms and open-seating nooks, for team discussions and group working, are taking the place of some individual offices.
"In terms of the global landscape of the offices, we are seeing a lot of demand for flexibility of place--rooms that have more than one purpose," says Justin Huxol, founder of HuxHux Design. "You have one-on-one rooms, focus rooms, small meeting areas. They are standard organs of the office these days."
And that means the whole allocation of space in an office has shifted. Cherry suggests that perhaps the sharing economy is rubbing off on companies, especially scrappy startups, where individuals are more willing to share amenities. "People are happy to sacrifice their personal space for more communal space," she says, noting the footprints of corporate kitchens and café-seating areas are growing.
When building out a new area of Uber's office in San Francisco, for instance, Cherry worked with the company to create team-based work areas. These spaces encourage collaboration, and give some privacy, without giving up floor space to walls and barriers.
It's not just the office managers and design gurus of the world who feel the pull of the new realities of office design--employees get it too.
"Everyone knows they are not going to have a private office anymore," Workwell Partners' Lesizza says. "They say, 'Make my bench as cool as you can.' But in an era when offices don't exist and cubicles are less private, it's been shown that having some areas for employees to decompress is really important to them."
Building on a story
So we've arrived at some middle ground, in which companies are abandoning hot desking but not returning to closed-door offices. Where exactly does that leave us?
"It's quite easy to point to the limitations of both ends of the spectrum," Huxol says. "This friction between what the open office means for our clients' corporate culture or brand ethos, and designing truly productive work environments has motivated our work in this sector."
Call it the new era of super-customization. For the office of Bluecore, an email marketing startup in New York City, HuxHux and decorating firm Homepolish not only created meeting rooms of varying sizes, but also listened to the company's individual story--and the needs of employees within it--to create some unorthodox arrangements.
"One employee we talked to said, 'I'm most creative when I'm in my bed with my laptop,' so I thought, 'Let's make that happen,'" Huxol says. He carved out a tiny nook high above the company's grand entranceway, and lined it with glass. The little eagle's nest is the perfect size for a few pillows and an informal meeting. And it has the best view in the office.
Another consideration when laying out the space was that Bluecore has an in-office custom of halting work every day so everyone can eat lunch together. That worked without a hitch when it was a few folks working out of an apartment, but when the head count approached 40, it seemed impossible to sustain.
HuxHux came up with a solution. It brought in a massive table for the café that seats 38 people. Now the team can continue the tradition from its early days.
Is this a trend toward the end of trends? It's certainly encouraging to see designers and architects embrace the individual narratives of the companies for whom they are creating the next generation of workplaces. For now, at least, customization seems like it is king.