Modern Office Design: The Office is Changing

Anna McCoe via afr.com

  •     Structures hierarchy is out collaboration is king
  •     Floor plans modular and flexible
  •     Communal workstations replace dedicated offices and desks

It’s true: the office is changing. The proof lies behind the doors – or huge pivoting walls – of Ansarada’s high-tech headquarters in The Rocks, Sydney. Here design savants Ben Mitchell and Simon Addinall of Those Architects have reworked an 800-square-metre old wool store for cloud-era work culture.

There’s a swing set to one side and an open-plan gymnasium to the other. There’s also a fully functioning kitchen behind panel doors, high ceilings, exposed brick and jaw-dropping Opera House views, not to mention a communal bank of workstations, each with equal share of the view, where the chief executive, analysts and admin assistants are all in cahoots.

Hierarchy is out. Democracy is in. Collaboration is king. And the 24-hour work cycle is the new nine to 5.30. So yes, the workplace is going millennial.

Mitchell explains: “The Gen Y workforce is accessible 24 hours a day. As they come of age, workplace design has to adapt to that mode of working.”

Ansarada is the purveyor of virtual data rooms for big business deals. The workforce is young (all under 35), highly motivated and required to video conference across international time zones. “That meant crumpling up the old model, throwing it out the window and going back to first principles,” Mitchell says.

Mitchell and Addinall have designed spaces for interaction, recreation, relaxation and fitness – a home away from home for dedicated staff.

Personal trainer on site

Timber furniture by Koskela takes the place of the usual corporate chattels, and open windows fill the space with harbour breezes and natural light. There’s even a personal trainer on site to tailor individual well-being programs for each employee.

The modular floor plan is communal and entirely flexible. “The staff aren’t chained to their workstations, they can work in a beanbag, in the kitchen eating a sandwich or at a desk,” Mitchell says. Addinall adds: “It’s about making the staff feel as composed as possible in high-pressure situations.”

Workplace strategist Kellie Payne and director Simon Swaney of Bates Smart Architects believe in the power of open-plan workspaces.

As Swaney puts it: “To collaborate and share knowledge you have to communicate; to mentor people you have to be alongside them – you can’t be in an office behind closed doors.”

Even lawyers, the last bastions of formality and structure, are beginning to leave their corner offices. Perhaps the greatest example of the shift is Bates Smart’s recent refit for the Corrs Chambers Westgarth Sydney office. “Corrs is the first Australian law firm to go completely open-plan. There are no offices, only workstations and all workstations are the same size,” Payne says. “They have completely broken the tether between hierarchy and workplace, and that’s unprecedented in Australian law firms.”

What about the need for focus? Payne still champions the open-plan cause but at Corrs’s headquarters she has provided for concentration with a number of so-called quiet rooms – “offices you can use by the hour”. She explains: “When people are always behind doors, they keep getting interrupted. Their staff aren’t able to identify when they are doing focused work.”

Home comforts

In the new workplace, workers have lockers for their personal effects, not dedicated offices, or even their own desks. Seamless technology allows workers to move around without having to log on and off. Data is managed electronically and important papers are stored in centralised files.

“The cynics will call it a real estate issue. It’s true an activity-based workplace requires 30 per cent less floor area than private offices,” Swaney says. “But the productivity benefits go far beyond that.”

As work invades personal lives via smartphones and laptops, it seems only fair that the comforts of home occupy the workplace. Furniture label Jardan, for instance, has just launched its first-ever office collection aimed at “taking the home to work”.

Pioneering British designer Oliver Marlow of Tilt was recently in Australia for Architecture Media’s Workplace/Worklife forum. He says the future workplace is “a place you want to spend time in” and that beautiful, inviting and inspiring environments are conducive to work.

Marlow would like to see future workplace design address the question of why we work, not just how.

“We have sufficiently developed the life systems for work: safe and warm buildings, ergonomics and the like,” he says. “But we are yet to crack the needs of the soul; of wellbeing, healthy spaces and real fulfilment.

“We need to move away from space making to place making, to start creating destinations for work that invite all sorts of activities and approaches.”

And for all this talk of fading personal connection and invasive technology, Marlow foresees the workplace as a respite for the soul. “It can be a place at the heart of the community.”