Spezial | the office after the office
initiated by Evoline
Life beyond the desk is becoming ever more important
Adeline Seidel talks to

Raphael Gielgen

Oct 16, 2013

Adeline Seidel: Mr. Gielgen, has office building architecture and office equipment and furnishing changed radically over the last few centuries?

Raphael Gielgen: We are living through exciting times! First, buildings are still being commissioned that combine all the advantages of the industrial economy in the sense of generic repetition of rooms for work. Second, there are offices that focus on both industry and on a knowledge-based economy. Never before has the spectrum been so large I believe. The good examples stand out for both forging an identity and conveying a company-specific authenticity while, at the same time, enabling a whole host of different uses.

For over 22 years Raphael Gielgen closely monitors the global changes in the office as a location. Photo © Adam Drobiec

What exactly does diversity need in order to evolve?

Raphael Gielgen: For me diversity involves a range of different activities in the course of everybody’s working day. And then there’s the diversity of places where in the final analysis the different activities get done. Another important aspect is diversity in the sense of a vital, lively and stimulating work environment. An office environment should surely be like a great city! You live in your own “quarter”, have all sorts of facilities and leisure time opportunities close at hand. Even if you only leave your apartment for lunch and immerse yourself in the madding crowd, that in itself is exciting enough. For the simple fact that different offerings are available gives you a good feeling. And spells quality of life, even if not everyone uses them.

Often developers request that the architect design a flexible footprint in order to accommodate all possible types of office use. Does this not considerably impair architects’ scope?

Raphael Gielgen: No, I don’t think so. Today, architects possibly no longer specify each and every piece of furniture, but they do create the essential underlying structure of the building. Essentially, office planning is pretty similar to urban design. You structure the usages, define the public and private zones as well as the places where people meet and what the infrastructure is – irrespective of the architecture that then evolves. In my opinion, developers’ wishes for maximum flexibility in usage in the case of office buildings are a little less dramatic. Rather, this development means that architects and the specialist planners involved really must engage in intense and critical dialog with the users. Now unfortunately that is not always possible.

Photo © Adam Drobiec
Photo © Adam Drobiec

Once the building’s standing your work starts. “Bene” as an office furniture maker is closely involved in the planning and design of office structures. How do you proceed? How do “urbane” offices for diverse uses arise?

Raphael Gielgen: Firstly, it’s up to us to give the client a sense of direction and assistance when tackling the idea of the ‘office’ without making things overly scientific. Because it’s key that during the planning phase the client can see how his own internal corporate processes, which so influence operations and the value chain are then reflected in the spatial configurations.

No two clients are alike and the internal workflow also differs from one case to the next. Can you nevertheless bring certain categories and typologies to bear in the planning?

Raphael Gielgen: Every client has specific needs and wishes, but some ‘patterns’ always recur in the workflow. For example, we have devised four typologies for knowledge workers: “Anchor”, “Connector”, “Gatherer” and “Navigator”. They differ by degree of interaction facilitated. On principle, the more mobility, the more interaction. For example, a “clerical worker” is an “anchor”, and permanently requires his or her own workstation. By contrast, a “navigator” is almost never in the office, and does large swaths of work while on the road. That is the first level that structures an office. The second level is made up of “We” and “Me” places. “We-places” are zones for formal and informal interaction and spaces for collaboration. Whereas a “Me” place is somewhere to which you can withdraw, for example to work in peace and quiet, or to relax on your own.

Photo © Adam Drobiec
The Frankfurt office of Bene is located in the "Squaire", a central hub at Frankfurt am Main Airport to work, live and shop. Photo © Adam Drobiec

Are these typologies based only on experiences gained?

Raphael Gielgen: We developed the basic pillars of our consultancy services together with Jeremy Myerson, the Director of the “Helen Hamlyn Research Centre” at the London Royal College of Art, and several of his colleagues. The foundations we have thus laid inform our daily work and also help our clients to understand the concepts. Although naturally a large part of our expertise is indeed a product of experience.

Today, workstations tend to be embedded in a high-tech environment. How do you rate coming technological developments and which of them will change the office world?

Raphael Gielgen: One important topic as regards current and future workflow will be systems integration between the working environment and tools not to mention fostering more efficient cooperation between staff members. In particular in knowledge-based companies with in excess of 400 staff members spread across different geographical locations. Here, the virtual and physical worlds increasingly overlap and intersect. One example of this is “Double Robotics”. Staff members see their colleagues on an “iPad” and the on-iPad colleague is able to see where the other person is thanks to the integrated camera. Now this we are already familiar with from videoconferencing. The difference here is the mobile stand on which the iPad is placed and which the person controls who is only linked to his colleagues virtually. This enables that person to move around the office without being physically present there. And believe me that radically changes the interaction between colleagues and is hardly comparable with a video conference. Or take a software such as “Bluescape”: Irrespective of where you are physically you can collaborate on highly complex projects – by sharing a virtual “workshop zone” that consists of a mixture of pinboard, desk and flipchart. And if you can afford it, then use this software with an extremely large touchscreen as then you can work direct hands-on. The technology is not all that unlike what you see in a few of the scenes in “Minority Report”: Instead of simply moving your mouse back and forth, you use your hands, the way we all already do with tablet computers anyway. Now if we consider Moore’s Law, according to which the complexity of integrated circuits doubles within a short period of time, then it’s easy to imagine that these working media will in the not too distant future change our office walls.

How do such technological changes affect trends among the office furniture makers and by extension furniture design?

Raphael Gielgen: I have been working for 22 years in the “office” context. Has anything really changed, other perhaps than the inclusion of aspects such as sustainability, energy saving and flexibility? Has there been a real highlight, felt by me, personally? Now we have fold-closed cable ducts and technical connecting points with all kinds of different ports – that’s no revolution to my mind. Whether you’re at a laptop or a stationary PC, whether you have one, two or three screens – those are no quantum leaps forward that will completely change the face and essence of office furniture. The desk remains a desk and the cabinet a cabinet. And a workstation needs power and data, preferably in invisible form. However, users are not interested in such technical and functional aspects. For them it’s important that the technology works and that fits in with the times.

Photo © Adam Drobiec
Photo © Adam Drobiec

What is the role of the furniture industry in the context of tomorrow’s working worlds?

Raphael Gielgen: Those working in the “Betahaus” in Berlin’s “Co-Working Space” once said that value is not created at the desk. I absolutely agree! Life beyond the desk is becoming ever more important. Which is why we need to think about creating smart working environments away from the desk, as only these can offer real “usability”. I believe there has to be a good mix of analog and digital. So much wall space is simply not being used today, which could be turned into an active space for scribbling notes, writing things down or pinning items on it. At the end of the day, the similarity with urban design springs to mind once again: Our job is to create an attractive, value-adding and above all authentic environment around the working space.

Compared to the computer, desks have hardly changed at all. As an office furniture maker, how do you ensure that your products by can be adapted and updated accordingly?

Raphael Gielgen: By thinking in terms of “adding things”. There is no need for complete integration and to have everything looking “neat and tidy” at all times. Display technologies are a perfect example here. The display is the first component in any car that due to its poor resolution looks old after just six months. So why can screens not simply be wall-mounted today? In a few years’ time they may then be replaced by a pane of glass or some other surface that serves the same function. Instead we integrate screens in wall-cabinets or frames. Those who are still trying to create a perfect and seamless look today will simply get left behind.

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