To the many of us bemoaning the battery-farm ranks  of cramped cubicles that still comprise the working environment of all too many hen-pecked office employees the world over: spare a thought for the poor soul who, since the very inception of same, has been so erroneously held responsible.

In 1964, while working for Herman Miller in Ann Arbor, Michigan, inventor Robert Propst designed the Action Office furniture system. Based on the principal tenets of openness and flexibility, the system perfectly encapsulated the designer’s utopian idea that office workers could shape their own space, and have some level of privacy in an open environment.

That a white Propst-designed roll-top desk takes pride of place in the space station lobby in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey is, perhaps, the most fitting testament to just how far ahead of its time Action Office 1 was. It even featured a standing desk decades before a consensus began to consider this a good idea.

Though beautiful, however, Action Office was expensive and difficult to assemble, and sales were poor. The simplified Action Office II followed, and was an instant success. Unfortunately, the flexible partitioning integral to this  new system was to prove the inadvertent culprit that so unjustly afforded Propst the sobriquet ‘Father of the Cubicle’.

In truth, his design placed the partitions at 120 degree angles and allowed them to be shaped at will for meetings; a system to accommodate, not determine, the work undertaken.

And it was actually the advent of the personal computer that saw his vision of adaptability and rapid change in the workplace ruthlessly discarded in favour of the fixed, serried ranks of the ‘cubicle farm’.

Indeed, towards the end of his life he himself stated: “The cubiclising of people in modern corporations is monolithic insanity.”

How ironic, then, that the advent of wireless connectivity should once again free office workers from the constraints of any single workstation and afford Propst’s utopia the opportunity of an increasingly rampant global renaissance. Today, employees are increasingly looking for ever more flexible ways of working...

In a recent article, Tim Oldman of the Leesman Index (which measures workplace effectiveness) suggests that shared space is the future of the workplace; that the modern office has to adapt to the idea that people want the option of a desk or shared workspace, working from home or even from a client’s facility.

Oldman quotes one interviewee who suggests that employees will treat the office as a hive – leaving to go to other work places, co-worker hubs, etc, before returning to the hive and the collective for certain core tasks and duties and, above all, to work as a team. And this calls for more engaging, rewarding spaces that aim to attract their fleeting customers...

Google

With offices around the world, Google is one of  the first companies to embrace such thinking, striving to attract employees back to the hive through one fundamental design principle: to create a space that promotes creativity.

Designed by architects Camenzind Evolution within the entirely pragmatic shell of an old brewery, its EMEA Engineering Hub in Zurich all too vocally announces that Google is not a conventional company, and does not intend to become one. Here, the ‘Zooglers’ participated in the design process to create their own local identity.

Hence, while personal workspaces remain relatively neutral and functional, communal areas offer a witty riot of colour, form and space diversity to stimulate creativity, innovation and collaboration. Within colour-coded floor levels, the office areas mix open-plan workspaces with smaller office enclosures, the glass partitions of which combine transparency with privacy.

Standard meeting rooms aside, numerous informal meeting areas reflect the growing importance placed on a ‘nook’ to which those who have a chance encounter on stairs or at the coffee machine can retire for semi-private conversation. Many incorporate the theme of the floor; hence igloo satellite cabins with penguins, and original ski-lift gondolas set in a snow-scape.

Work and play are not mutually exclusive (as Google puts it ‘it is possible to code and pass the puck at the same time’), so communal areas and ‘micro kitchens’ are deliberately dispersed throughout the building to encourage Zooglers to circulate, fireman’s poles provide a rapid link between floors, and a steep slide affords the hungry instant access to the cafeteria from the floor above.

Redbull

Within the equally unprepossessing framework of an old shipbuilding factory, Canadian firm Sid Lee Architecture has adopted a similarly bold approach to Red Bull’s Amsterdam headquarters.

“To design the inner space, we aimed at retrieving Red Bull’s philosophy,” says Sid Lee Architecture’s Jean Pelland, “dividing spaces according to their use and spirit, to suggest the idea of the two opposed and complementary hemispheres of the human mind; reason versus intuition, arts versus industry, dark versus light, the rise of the angel versus the mention of the beast.”

In other words, this extraordinary space of powerful, ostensibly random geometries aspires to combine the brutal simplicity of an industrial building with Red Bull’s call to arms – the invitation to perform.

Open to interpretation as mountain cliffs, skateboard ramps, chunks of steel cut from the hull of a ship... the aggressively angular black and white niches, bridges and mezzanines merely compartmentalise the space, rather than dictating its function, a perfect reflection of the flexibility and variability inherent in modern office working practice. And yes, the gentlemen’s urinal does come complete with a set of mosaic wings...

BBC

At BBC North headquarters in Manchester, north west England, ID:SR architects worked with the BBC to create a design solution that would allow the latter to work more effectively and creatively in less, more efficient space.

The result of months of exhaustive interviewing, input and people profiling, the building is amenity– rather than desk-centric. So the ‘Velcro and wheels’ flexible workplace provides a wide diversity of settings tailored to every conceivable activity from a team meeting to an informal chat, a phone call to a tweet.

Transforming dead space too narrow for desks or rooms at the edge of the atrium, visually striking ‘meeting pods’ which reference digital pixels in their form and colour create both focus spaces and intimate collaboration opportunities within the most public of places. They also artfully fulfil ID:SR’s brief from the BBC: to promote a smile.

iProspect

In Fort Worth, Texas, the VLK Architects-designed offices of global digital marketing agency iProspect showcase the fruits of further workspace research. Several studies over the last couple of years have identified that curvilinear – as opposed to rectilinear – furniture may be linked to positive emotions, which are known to be beneficial to creativity and productivity.

Moreover, people rate curved, rounded environments as more beautiful than straight-edged, rectilinear spaces, the former triggering more activity in brain regions associated with reward and aesthetic appreciation. To that end, an oval conference room known as the ‘brain room’ dominates this open-office concept with both walls and furniture therein designed as both projectable and writable surfaces.

Alcatel-Lucent

DEGW’s new headquarters design for French telecommunications company Alcatel-Lucent is a further, striking example of curvaceous workspace design, here allied to the results of a further study on the psychological effects of ceiling height.

A higher ceiling was associated with feelings of freedom, together with a more abstract and relational thinking style that helped study participants see the commonalities between objects and concepts.

Those that baulk at the price of affording their staff such engaging and stimulating workspaces should bear in mind that 80 per cent of the cost of an office is its employees, not the workspace itself. So, if you wish to breed loyalty in a hive the individuals of which no longer have an absolute need to work on the premises at all, it is, surely, worth making their environment as appealing as possible.

TBWA

Finally, Klein Dytham Architecture’s design for the Hakuhodo and TBWA advertising agencies joint-venture office in downtown Tokyo artfully manipulates colour and light to transform a defunct bowling alley into a thoroughly engaging workspace. Rather than negating the building’s original function, the architects embraced its linearity, designing the office layout in conjunction with the predefined alleys. Under soft, indirect lighting (a dimmer environment deemed to foster superior creativity), white central walkways mimic the overhead structure, while whimsical project, meeting and directors’ rooms are scattered throughout the space.

The colour green is shown to enhance performance on tasks that require the generation of new ideas, so Astroturf-ed ‘shelters’ emerge from the wooden floor like small grassy knolls covered in soft moss. The additional use of trees, exterior furniture and materials and forms that reference nature creates a highly socially orientated ‘outdoor’ space at the heart of one of the world’s most crowded urban conurbations, designed to imbue employees and visitors alike with the feeling of strolling through a park and happening upon a friendly stranger.

Buidling referenced:

Google EMEA Engineering Hub,Zurich, Switzerland

Red Bull Netherlands,Amsterdam, Holland

BBC North, Manchester, England

iProspect, Forth Worth, Texas, USA

TBWA/Hakuhodo, Tokyo, Japan

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