There was a curious addition to a 2016 report on the Top 10 Technologies Driving the Digital Workplace from tech researchers Gartner. It wasn’t a technology at all but rather a slightly obscure office design concept that originated in Hamburg in the late 1950s, but which tells us a lot about how we work in the 21st Century, according to Gartner.
Its history lies with the German consulting firm Quickborner. Led by the brothers Eberhard and Wolfgang Schnelle, the firm applied the egalitarian principles of the post war world and rejection of the scientific management theories that had created the familiar factory-like rows of desks that had come to dominate open plan offices to create something more in tune with the new age.
The resultant idea of Bürolandschaft (German for office landscape) applied organic forms to create something they considered more humane and natural. Although the model used conventional office furniture, it was laid out organically and divided up by plants and screens to reflect the needs of individuals and teams and to reflect flows of communication. Management was no longer isolated to private offices. Spaces were defined by the functions of the people who worked in them and their relations to colleagues.
These are familiar themes in the new world of work, especially with its focus on agile and activity based working but in the post war world the focus was on overcoming the rigid hierarchies that had dominated the workplace since the turn of the 20th century.
In 1958, the same year that Quickborner popularised Bürolandschaft, the giant US office furniture manufacturer Herman Miller recruited a designer called Robert Propst to design a new range of products specifically for open plan offices.
Although he came to be known as the father of all those cubicle farms that dominated US office life in the late 20th Century, and still do to a lesser extent, he was driven by some of the same principles as the Schelle brothers. He shared the Schelle’s yearning for egalitarianism and human focussed design and once bemoaned that ‘the cubiclizing of people in modern corporations is monolithic insanity’.
His 1968 treatise called A Facility Based on Change set out the core principles of Action Office and his focus on people and their interactions is clear. Even so, the allure of command and control management structures and their desire for linearity meant his vision and that of the developers of Bürolandschaft was overwhelmed by the mainstream.
The result was the now familiar well-ordered open plan that may have manifested itself in its own way in different part of the world, but was evidently linked to management hierarchies.
Until recently that is. The fact that the world’s leading tech analyst has rehabilitated the idea to define the new relationship between the physical and digital workspace tells us that this is an idea so closely aligned to the needs of people – the workplace’s only almost-consistent element – that its core principles of people-centricity and organic design may be eternal.
Of course, the context in which it matters have changed. We live in an era of technology that the Quickborner team could never have imagined. Yet the things that drive people and the way they think, behave and interact with each other are more or less constant.
At its inception, the idea of Bürolandschaft was defined by pioneers in a world reshaped by new ideas in the wake of a global cataclysm, and in a nation that was at its epicentre. It was the age of the German Wirtschaftswunder and the founding of the then European Common Market. Its history is bound up with the movement towards a more inclusive, egalitarian and collaborative world.
Its enduring resonance also now lies with its applicability to new ways of working. Not only do its principles make it an ideal touchpoint for the era of activity based working, in which people are encouraged to move through the carefully designed organic forms of an office, it also bridges the former gaps between digital and physical space.
As is so often the case with these things, as the office starts to function more like an app with a menu of options for its user, so too does the technology absorb some of the characteristics of the physical environment.
In that regard, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Gartner have chosen to align a 60 year old model of office design alongside unmistakeably 21st Century workplace trends such as algorithms, immersive technology and AI.