Not so long ago, most experienced workplace designers would feel confident that they could identify the sector of an organisation just by looking at its offices. The cultural demarcations between the worlds of tech, law, finance and the public sector would be mirrored by the distinctive layouts and features of the places they called home.
That is no longer the case. Although the number of workplace design models has proliferated in the last quarter of a century, their application is no longer aligned to business sectors in the same way. In the UK and other countries around the world, a law firm or local authority is just as likely to inhabit an agile space as a tech firm or creative agency.
There are a number of reasons for this including a growing awareness of the way a well-designed workplace can add to the bottom line and an appreciation of the options open to firms. At the same time, organisations are adapting to the new realities of their business models. It’s no coincidence, for example, that law firms are amongst the most proactive in this regard. Their sector is subject to the full disruptive force of new technologies.
But perhaps the most important factor is that all are involved in a war for talent. The workplace and working culture are shopfronts for recruiters who know they must not only offer employees a job, but also an experience. In a world in which people have a choice of employers as well as choice of places to work, the challenge is to become the best firm to work for and create an office is better than alternative workspaces.
The sector that embodies this dynamic more than any other is the tech sector. Although its habitually quirky design features are not necessarily practical for everybody, its commitment to creating outstanding workspaces and cultures in the right locations is an object lesson in how to go about getting the best people to work for you and do so under a shared roof.
They also tend to cluster as they seek to attract the best talent, often in the hearts of cities. In major cities such as London this can also lead to a war for space. Last year a report from Knight Frank found that the parts of London favoured by tech firms, such as Shoreditch, were seeing rents on a level previously associated with the City.
This hothousing of talent and space has its own by-product in the form of a proliferation of coworking space. This form of office occupancy has its very clear and attractive business rationale, but it has also led to a curious homogenisation of design idioms.
Such spaces are inherently as agile and flexible in their design as they are in their lease terms. They are attractive to larger occupiers as well as smaller startups and freelancers and we are seeing more and more talk from clients about the idea of core and flex workplaces. This is an increasingly attractive model in which an occupier takes on core space on longer lease terms for its relatively fixed functions alongside flex space for project work and to respond to changing business needs.
Inevitably some of the design ideas we commonly associate with coworking spaces – agile working, informality, experiential design, collaborative work – are now transferring to core space.
What is happening is not precisely a homogenisation of space, but it would be a shame if we lost some of the diversity that is needed to reflect specific corporate identities and cultures. The challenge for firms like our own is to express individuality within the context of a new paradigm. We know what helps to attract the best candidates for jobs, but it should be expressed in a unique way through workplace design.
We must also be aware of what is to come. AI and automation will transform the business landscape and the sorts of work we do, but it will also have profound implications for the places we work. We might think we know what smart cities and smart buildings are but we ain’t seen nothing yet. This will not just be about the introduction of sensors and systems that improve the functioning of the building, but also about how it serves the people who occupy the space and their wellbeing. This is the shape of things to come.