The open office is here to stay

The personalized workspace versus the open office. From Orgatec 2018 it was clear that the open office and the hot desk – that latter is terminology now avoided – are here to stay, and for a few very good reasons.

As never before, the arena of office design is an exciting place to be. Decades of stagnancy have exploded into rampant change – and as with most revolutions, absolutely everything is up for negotiation. On domusweb we recently published an op-ed piece written by Tim Harford on a hot topic in office design: the personalized workspace verses the open office and its contentious hot desk. The article makes the case that “people are really creative in disorderly and chaotic environments, which they have the ability to customize.”

However, judging from Orgatec – perhaps the best place to glean what the future has in store for the workplace – no matter what came out of one such example at MIT, a personalized cubbyhole is not the vision of tomorrow. Held every two years in Cologne, the office design trade show ran October 23–27, and drew some 63,000 visitors from 142 countries, with workplace products from some 750 exhibitors. Prowling the halls, it was clear: the open office and the hot desk – that latter is terminology now avoided – are here to stay, and for a few very good reasons.

The Vitra booth at Orgatec 2018. Photo courtesy of Vitra


In the driver’s seat of all this change: Digitalization. These days, putting the word ‘agile’ in a resume earns consultants day rates four figures and up, as companies scramble to meet all these new developments. “We’ve now been working on our phones for 15 years, tablets since 2008, and laptops have been around 20 plus 30 years,” says L.A.-based designer Jonathan Olivares. Then there’s the work from home option and the freelance economy – that’s 20 percent of the workforce in the US, Olevaries continues. We simply do not work in the same way that we did 10 years ago. Our devices and our work is portable. Sometimes we come to the office purely for collaboration. Sometimes – in co-working spaces for example – we come for human interaction or the excuse to change out of pajamas.

The Y-Kicker by Ben Beyer, showcased in "PLANT 10.1". Photo by Bernd Zöllner/courtesy of Orange Council

Merger of the Workplace and the Public Realm

Parks, cafes, hotel lobbies, airplanes – all serve as ‘office’ for a workforce moving around the globe more than ever. As a result, public areas and the workplace have developed a symbiotic relationship, each feeding the other. As Nora Felbman, CEO of Swiss furniture manufacture Vitra explains, “We believe that the workplace and the public realm are merging.”

Demonstrating this merger at Vitra’s Orgatec booth were an urban park and a cafe, presented as part of a hypothetical urban headquarters in the installation “The Company Home” by architect Sevil Peach. While today’s offices should absolutely provide private workspace for concentrated work, this space is not private, personal workspace. As Peach explains, “You don’t let your daughter put Kylie Minogue posters in the kitchen and the living room. In the bedroom they can do whatever they want. The office is communal space – I don’t quite understand what this fixation is about ‘me me me’ in an office.”

Soft Work by Edward Barber & Jay Osgerby for Vitra. Photo courtesy of Vitra

Maximizing Space Benefits Everyone

In the early days of digitalization, there was a time, when an abundance of dedicated desks sat empty. Now, from pools to gyms to events spaces to games areas or a running track – Google’s planned London headquarters will have all of these – flexible working environments reclaim this lost space. These new zones are geared towards both attracting and keeping a workforce and productivity. Through a wide variety of corners to put your coffee cup and laptop down, staff is able to control how they work. Choice and the resulting healthy and essential empowerment has been reintroduced with, ‘where should I sit today?’

Zones geared towards creative thinking are also increasingly the norm. The Y-Kicker by Ben Beyer, for example, showcased in Orgatec exhibit “Plant 10.1” is a foosball table drawing a double take. It calls for six players, shooting on not two but three different goals – a nod to team building and thinking outside the box.

"However, lessons have been learned – and today’s companies have realized that making staff feel disposable doesn’t benefit anyone. The problem – that feeling of being just a cog in a machine – can and should be solved with design."

A Kinder, Gentler Working Environment

Designer Alain Gilles once worked in finance, and he remembers the switch away from personalized cubicles. “JP Morgan was one of the first companies doing all this hot-desk stuff, and every evening you removed all your personal stuff and put it in a little trolley. When you left for the day, you’d go park your trolley – it was stressful because you had the feeling that the company could just say, ‘You’re fired!’ and you could just pull the stupid trolley and take your life away.” However, lessons have been learned – and today’s companies have realized that making staff feel disposable doesn’t benefit anyone. The problem – that feeling of being just a cog in a machine – can and should be solved with design.

True Desig and Michieli Floricoltura’s Pocket Garden accessories, part of the True Green collection. Photo courtesy of True Design

The homey office

Which brings us to the homey office. With work increasingly taking place at both home and the office, it was only a matter of time before the home came to the office. Several manufacturers are betting hard that the homey office – the most visible trend at Orgatec – is here to stay.

One of the most talked about launches at the fair makes working on the sofa official. Soft Work is a modular sofa system by Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby of design studio Barber & Osgerby for Swiss furniture manufacturer Vitra. “We strongly believe that the conventional office desk and chair are now dead and our system will replace that,” Barber says. Kinder, gentler and inherently more comfortable, the sofa has been a work destination since the invention of the laptop. However, more than just a sofa, Soft Work offers lumbar support in its back, with a higher, slightly firmer seat. Laptops and tablets can be placed on built-in table surfaces, while charging takes place from USB and power outlets below the seat.

Another clever way to tackle the home to office trend – hire residential designers. Plenium is Spanish artist and designer Jaime Hayon‘s first product for the contract market, designed for Danish furniture manufacturer Republic of Fritz Hansen. Consisting of one-seater, two-seater, and three-seater units cocooning from three sides, the soft seating system is “not so squarish, a little bit more round and more feminine,” when compared to traditional office furnishings, says Hayon. With each new residential-styled office product, there seems to be the same adjectives: emotive, femininity, materiality – but this is exactly the way to make us feel more secure, more embraced, and less dispensable.

The Plenum lounge system by Jaime Hayon for Republic of Fritz Hansen. Photo courtesy of Republic of Fritz Hansen

The green office

Nature makes us happy, study’s repeatedly show. Facebook’s solution, a 3.6-acre rooftop garden with more than 200 trees at its newly expanded headquarters in Menlo Park, California, is one way companies (with no cash-flow breaks) can go. However, new products are now emerging that make cultivating a taste of nature in the office much easier and cost-effective. Earlier this year, Gilles launched G-Screens for Green Mood – which are sound absorbing panels incorporating real moss. An Orgatec showstopper, True Design and Michieli Floricoltura’s Pocket Garden accessories—part of the True Green collection—frame the evergreen Tillandsia. Unless the environment is particularly dry, all necessary nutrients and water are absorbed through the air plant’s leaves.

Modular unit BuzziBracks by Alain Gilles for Buzzispace. Photo courtesy of Buzzispace

Privacy Rediscovered

Collaborative sounds wonderful – but if it includes listening to all of your coworker’s one-sided phone calls, something failed. Offices have learned that acoustical microenvironments solve the biggest fallout from the open office: noise. Hayon’s Plenium seating units are also acoustical shelters. BuzziBracks which Gilles designed for Buzzispace, is a system of of sheltered microenvironments for the open office created from panels of sound-absorbing fabric. Nesting and cocooning, these semi-transparent protective zones provide a comfort “kind of like sunglasses,” Giles notes.

text: Mairi Beautyman / Orgatec