Open-access content 27th November 2008
4 December 2008
by David Arminas
Technology is now so pervasive that we are all workers to some extent, whether we like it or not, said Robert Heller, a best-selling author whose books include The Naked Manager.
"In this digital age, there is only one thing left for us to ask ourselves, and that is whether our business is geared for change," said Heller, a former business editor of The Observer and the founding editor of Management Today.
The PC is dead, long live the PC. That was the message from Peter Ecsery-Merrens, a director of Cisco Systems and head of its IBSG consultancy group in the UK. Just as you thought that your office was getting fully wired up, now the wires themselves have become obsolete. Within five years, he predicted, no new office will be wired but have Wi-fi built into it during construction.
"Cloud computing" is just around the corner, too, where data is stored on the web. There will be no need for desktop computers to have storage capability, or even a need for a USB memory stick. All employees will have a cheap "appliance computer" that can access the web and write documents and tables. Because the world will be Wi-fi, you can access what you need anywhere, anytime, almost instantly.
There will be more and more ambient intelligence in the office, said Ecsery-Merrens. The photocopier will sense that you are approaching and will start to warm up in anticipation of your using it. And more and more video will be used, especially for conferencing because the technology is getting better. No longer are people forced to squint at a small picture of their co-worker in Japan. Pictures are larger and more clear.
Any office is a "city state", said Andy Law, founder of workplace consultancy The Law Firm. As with a real city, the office-city is a constantly changing layout. The hi-tech revolution has allowed more imaginative use and designs of offices, as well as real cities. Wi-fi is a example, now found in offices and increasingly found in city parks, coffee houses and public buildings. People - especially young ones - expect it to be all around them and constantly available.
But this drive towards more hi-tech gadgetry, especially communication gadgets, means that physical communication becomes more important. Be it in the boardroom or factory floor, the most must be made of the physical encounter, urged Law. More than ever it is important for managers to plan meetings to inspire creativity and generally "work your human capital".
Law did recognise that some people will always be creatures of habit, want a place to nest at work rather than hot-desk or share and require more quiet than is usually offered by an open-plan workspace.
Solid research lay behind Google's new Zurich office design (pictured), said Stefan Camenzind and Tanya Ruegg-Basheva of design studio Camenzind Evolution. Except for a frugal budget, they had no brief from Google. Employees filled out a questionnaire - about half-an-hour long - and then had one-to-one interviews. There were workshops and feedback sessions to examine design plans.
Camenzind's avant-garde design for the 130,000 sq ft office includes quick connection routes such as a fire-pole between some floors. A quiet communal area is designed like a Victorian room, complete with fireplace (gas). On some of the floors are located "eggs", cubicles for quick, private meetings.
A chill-out room has bathtubs (no water) into which employees can settle and watch tropical fish swim around a huge aquarium to somnolent ambient music.
Free food is available in the staff restaurant where employees bring the family.
Camenzind said their design helps Google employees to be creative. Also, attraction and retention of employees is easier. People are happier, therefore they work harder and are more productive.
The employees got what they wanted, but what did, or will, Google get for its investment? asked one delegate. Has Google even got in place a strategy for monitoring productivity or creativity? If so, the designers were not aware of it.
The issue is important, noted the delegate. The current financial situation means senior management will need a solid business case for investing in office design, or that more comfy workplace may have to be put on hold.
David Arminas is a freelance journalist
Inclusion is an important issue for designers, said Jeremy Myerson, director of the Helen Hamlyn Centre at the Royal College of Art (pictured). Office designers, in their rush to accommodate their young guns should be careful that new designs don't alienate the 'grey-hair' employee. More and more older people are remaining in the workplace, said Myerson, the centre's professor of design. The difficulty for designers is that these people tend to be less vocal than their younger co-workers about what they want.
So while designers rush towards ever-more impressive open-space planning, studies by Myerson have shown that the biggest design issue troubling older people is noise from such areas. Their concentration is severely affected, they have said in his studies. Designers must ensure solid research into what all the workforce wants and needs.