Workplace Trends 2013…what’s new in work space?

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By Dr Harriet Shortt

Another part of my week last week was spent at the Workplace Trends Conference 2013, held at the Royal College of General Practitioners. This is one of the few non-academic conferences I have been to and it was recommended by a friend of mine, Steve Brewer, at Burtt-Jones and Brewer, a great Workplace Design Consultancy

This conference, which has been going for 11 years now (why didn’t I know about this before!?)  is at the cutting edge of workplace design, architectural work and consultancy. There were delegates from all over the world and from a whole variety of organisations….Cambridge Architectural Research, Credit Suisse, Hassell, Leesman Index, Herman Miller, Google, Steelcase and so on….!

The amazing Frank Duffy kicked off the day with an overview of architectural workplace change over the past 5 decades…the US office landscape, the shift from the individual office to collaborative working, technology and how the computer has completely changed the way we work and where we work, globalisation and its impact on how we develop space, urbanisation and the big debate – are office spaces obsolete?

The rest of the day included some great presentations…from case studies of innovative work spaces in Australia, to academic research on work space and productivity, to trends in property development in London and how this shapes the future of the office build…

Broadly, for me, there were 5 key issues that emerged from this conference and raised questions in my mind – given work space is my area of academic research, the ideas here touched on some personal topics of interest!

1. There was a lot of cross-over here with the Learning Spaces conference I had just been to!…in fact I met Caroline Paradise from IBI Nightingale here too! In particular, we heard the same sorts of themes here in London as we did in South Wales…how do we cope with increasing numbers of employees/ students and the same/ less space?…flexible and collaborative working spaces…the impact of technology…and the little things matter. In fact, one speaker noted that we should be looking to universities for inspiration in terms of the future of our offices, given HE institutions are having to deal with an increasingly diverse population who work in increasingly diverse ways…

2. I LOVED the entertaining debate we had after lunch! “Offices don’t work: They’re a waste of space!” – Paul Morrell (Paul Morrell Consulting) and Paul Finch (Architects Journal). This is a debate we should all have if we are really and truly interested in the future of space and the nature of work. Get together at lunch with your colleagues and thrash it out! :)

3.  I still found that the core threads of what was discussed here was ‘functional’ and ‘physical’. There was still that age-old debate about productivity and when pushed, it was about what the CFO would say when you said you wanted to change the work space. Although I believe that there is a place for research and design that uses ‘efficiency’ and ‘productivity’ as its foundation, where was the emotional stuff?! There were glimmers of this, I admit… hints at the ‘people’ side of things, how do you cope when people don’t like change, how do you get people to collaborate in certain spaces….but it was being ‘measured’ (there were lots of statistics and graphs!) and people wanted ‘proof’ and ‘truth’ that it worked! It’s a question of where you come from, but arguably there is a space (forgive the pun!) for other sorts of research – research that embraces complexity, doesn’t look for the ‘holy grail’ of work space and ‘how to make people happy with their desks’ and that genuinely, collaboratively works with everyday users of space to understand what IS meaningful to people and where they work!…research like mine :)

4. There was a fab presentation by Ian Clarke – a polar explorer who has explored the 7 summits and travelled to the edges of remote spaces all over the world. There was something about this presentation – apart from the fact that it was completely awe-inspiring! It made me think about what we could and should learn from people who see space differently – and not from an ‘office’ planning/ architectural perspective. Ian’s talk included important ideas about trust, pride, people, power and being alone…

5. This conference was about the office. When we talked about ‘workplace’, we were talking about the office…and yes, there was the debate around where we actually ‘work’ nowadays and technology and the future of work meaning we would work at home more…on the train…in cafes and so on….but! In workplace research we still focus, broadly, on the corporate world. I know I have my own agenda going on here…but what about other workers and their workplace?! What about hairdressers, what about taxi drivers, what about refuse collectors, what about teachers in schools, what about body workers, what about nurses in hospitals…what about all those that don’t work in offices? These are areas that, in my view, are ripe for research – there’s more to space than the office, there’s more to space than office workers. We’ve still got a way to go before we really understand the future of workplace trends…

Harriet Shortt

P.S. Apologies again to those of you who have seen this on my blog too …again, it was perhaps another one worth sharing! 🙂

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