Without a crystal ball there is no way to be certain of precisely how office design will alter in future. But it is indeed certain that it will do so, and likely markedly, as much research is being done on the effect of the workspace on output and on wellbeing. The facts and figures testify to people’s intrinsic disgruntlement. In short, it is clear that the majority of office environments are noisy, uncomfortable, and aesthetically displeasing, decidedly hindering the health and contentment of those who inhabit them day in and day out. DAMN° collects various imaginings about tomorrow’s workplace.

There was a time when everyone thought that the history of office design would forever be marked as BG or AG: Before Google or After Google. Yet today, some 10 years since the playground concept was instated at the Googleplex in Mountain View, most of us are still working in old-fashioned spaces. And this despite much research indicating the economic value of people-focused work environments (a 5.5% increase in productivity per year, according to the latest paper produced by the Smart Working Observatory at the Politecnico di Milano). But, as a recent New York Times investigative article revealed, large employers like Amazon still thrive thanks to a culture of mutual spying, unbearable working hours, and office spaces purposely designed for people to look at one another’s backs.

Torre Intesa Sanpaolo in Turin, a skyscraper housing the headquarters of banking group Intesa Sanpaolo, designed by Renzo Piano, with interiors created in collaboration with Lago Photo: Enrico Cano
According to Barry Schwartz, professor of Social Theory and Social Action in the Psychology Department at Swarthmore College (Pennsylvania), this is a mentality issue. “A handful of forward-thinking exceptions aside,” he writes in his recently published book Why We Work, “most companies are still stuck in the 18th century when it comes to work ethics, with bosses believing, like capitalism’s father Adam Smith, that people only work because they have to, with money as the main and only drive.” Change the mentality, Schwartz suggests, and a new world will dawn.

What seems more likely to happen, though, is a bottom-up approach, a people-driven shift going mainstream come 2025, when 75% of the working population will consist of Millennials born between 1980 and 1997. They will – research tells us – have a very different approach to work than that of their parents: they will not give up their personal life or the quality of their daily experience for the sake of a career (or for a cool campus designed by a starchitect), and will actively pursue freelance assignments rather than steady jobs, with the most highly qualified individuals fleeing traditional workplaces.

Jean Prouvé office furniture, re-edited by Vitra and G-Star Raw
In forward-thinking environments, this social and economic shift has already become a design issue. According to Matthew Kobylar, Workplace Strategist at AFK Studios, the first thing to immediately do away with, in order to start catering for the future, is the traditional open-plan space. “In the US, the open plan configuration is responsible for the 6% decline in productivity that has occurred over the last few years”, he states. ‘The future model should be the home office: quiet and clustered corners, thoroughly customisable, where people can concentrate or talk in small groups in a relaxed, cosy atmosphere. Including proper acoustic insulation.”

“I don’t believe we can generalise or embrace a trend when thinking of what’s next”, remarks Steffen Lipsky, Principal Designer at American giant Haworth Inc. “I like to think of every office as an ecosystem in which variety – which is great for users – provides added value. Thus, my thinking is: analyse your workforce and come up with a plan that achieves that balance.”

Lego PMD in Billund, Denmark, designed by Rosan Bosch & Rune Fjord Photo: Anders Sune Berg
New workspace for Second Home, London, designed by SelgasCano
In the meantime, furniture companies have begun to experience the shift. “Versatility and personalised solutions are much more in demand than hyper-sophisticated tables and chairs”, declares Monica Pedrali, marketing manager at Italian furniture brand Pedrali. “And so are all the elements that allow for privacy and silence in open spaces: high-back sofas, sheltered tables, lounge seats, and sound-absorbing dividers.” Even lighting companies are thinking along these lines, with Luceplan introducing lamps that capture noise without creating a physical barrier. And the ‘vintage’ atmosphere (so in demand in home interiors, hotels, and restaurants) is also growing immensely as an elegant, indulging office solution. For example, Vitra, together with G-Star Raw, has revived a selection of Jean Prouvé furniture for use in the workplace.

But the biggest changes may come from technology. “The office of tomorrow? Think of it as a car-sharing service”, proffers Giovanni de Niederhäusern of Carlo Ratti Associati, who is heading a tech+interiors project for a large international banking group in Milan, centred on an App. “You are an independent worker; you use a shared office space. Your smart phone is instantly recognised, thus allowing you to enter the premises, to unlock a desktop and turn it into your own, to access your private data with complete security. In the same way, you can book and access meeting rooms, labs, and workshop areas, regulate the climate, and connect all devices – with no cables in sight.” According to Carlo Ratti, such products do not exist anywhere else in the world.

“Interior design for freelance workers should aim at fostering relationships and business opportunities”, opines Davide Dattoli, CEO and co-founder of Talent Garden, a digital co-working network with campuses in Italy, Spain, Lithuania, Luxembourg, and Albania, and fast expanding. The most recent location (co-designed with Carlo Ratti Associati) is in Milan, near Fondazione Prada. It has a capacity for 400 people. ‘The professionals who work here are selected according to their area of expertise. The purpose is to foster mutual creativity, to allow one-man businesses to thrive with the help of others. That’s why we have mixed areas for education, events, and meetings, and lounges with large open spaces for desks, which are easy to customise and shield due to the use of purpose-designed, free-standing wood and glass partitions.” Talent Garden looks more like the lobby of a cool Berlin hotel than an office: there are simple yet comfortable mini-sofas everywhere, digital panels, and a nice cafeteria; the building’s industrial aesthetic remains intact, with the concrete enclosure dotted with colourful accessories. Nothing is dramatically new in terms of its general appearance, but the mentality behind the design of the interior is new. “We think of the office as a cultural relationship and wellbeing hub. For 250 euros per month, our guests not only get an office space and Wi-Fi, but a home-like environment, with two hours of yoga and two hours of English lessons included, along with free access to the rooftop swimming pool. In the summer, it is also possible to work in the garden”, informs Dattoli.

Next to this cool garage concept is another emergent type. “I believe the time has come for a new, Mediterranean work model to develop”, declares Daniele Lago, owner of Lago. The company has recently co-designed office spaces for banking group Intesa Sanpaolo’s innovation centre in the Renzo Piano tower in Turin, as well as the offices of a viral marketing agency, and it has furnished Patchwork, a co-working space in the rue de Cléry in Paris. “This is a model based on conviviality, the wide availability of noble materials, and comfortable solutions – where the meeting room is a kitchen area and technology is present but unobtrusive. More than 70% of market value is created through intellectual work. Being in beautiful environs conceived for people rather than machines, will make us more productive and happy. We are thinking of affordable, not low-cost solutions.”

“It is not necessary to go to the seaside to feel good”, effuses architect Jean Nouvel, who has designed office spaces all over the world. “What truly makes a difference are environments impregnated with generosity.” Which could also be the reason why the ‘playground’ format is steadily being replaced by a more ‘adult’ concept. When interior designers Morgan Lovell proposed to the web hosting team at Rackspace in London that they have a slide in their studio, they said no thank you. “All they wanted was an excellent coffee machine and a super-comfy sofa to sit on whilst drinking the superb coffee”, claims the design team. We are left to wonder what Adam Smith would have said about this. But we do know what Millennials would say: It’s (the new) capitalism, baby. And there’s nothing you can do about it.

Why We Work, by Barry Schwartz, published by TED Books, 2015

This article appeared in DAM53. Order your personal copy.