Chris Middleton and Karim El-Ishmawi, founders of the Berlin architectural office Kinzo, in front of the transparent protection "DisCo"

Cultivating workplaces

What kind of spaces and premises do employees need to ensure a company is fit for the future? Stylepark put the question to Karim El-Ishmawi and Chris Middleton, founders of Berlin-based architecture firm Kinzo.
by Adeline Seidel | 10/12/2020

We’re in the year 2020 and finally the home office has arrived in Germany. As recently as January, spatial autonomy for employees was something a lot of bosses found unappealing and thoroughly disapproved of. Only, then… well, you know what happened. As a result we also finally saw some momentum in the changes affecting our everyday lives. Companies had to be quick in getting to grips with digital tools and online collaboration; they had to change their work processes and re-examine well-established routines. Ultimately, a lot of supervisors have learned that people will work even when they’re not in the office. Yet while some bosses still hope that the prolonged period of working from home is merely an interlude and soon everything will get back to the way it was, a lot of employees are hoping to retain their new freedoms and not to return to the office –at least not five days a week.

So what is the point of the office if no one wants to go there to work anymore? We talked to architecture firm Kinzo about changes in office design. The progressive planners from Berlin have already spent a decade at the forefront of the development, design and organization of work environments for greater innovative strength – and they are excited about the offices of the future.

Adeline Seidel: It’s true that over the past 15 years a lot of offices have become more open and, in some cases, more enjoyable places to spend time. Yet amid the football tables and colorful furniture, it has nevertheless quickly become apparent that the office still has to be an efficient place to work economically and in terms of productivity. To what extent have plans that were already underway in your firm during the spring of 2020 changed over the course of the last six months?

Karim El-Ishmawi: That depends on the approach chosen. In general, however, we can say that all those companies that organize their work in a very conservative way are now rethinking their work processes and needs.

Chris Middleton: The circumstances of the pandemic are accelerating the changes in work culture. What was perhaps being considered for the future prior to the spring is now a reality: The standard workplace is the home office, while the office is a place for exchange. This leads to an increase in the proportion of communication space, which has to be designed more individually and to a higher standard.

In other words: The interfaces that are lacking in the home office and in digital collaboration now require more space in the office?

Chris Middleton: Yes, that’s the way we see it: People are planning their weeks deliberately and deciding to go to the office based on which tasks they have to tackle. The need for co-creating and communicative spaces is growing, while the number of standard workstations is falling.

But what is the office if people basically no longer actually “work” there?

Chris Middleton: The office has to be the place where you can work perfectly: where the technology works, where you have everything you need and where the temperature, lighting and acoustics are optimal. The home office is perhaps cozy and you can put some laundry on, but there’s one mode only. In the office I have the choice of different modes, and that’s what defines its quality.

Karim El-Ishmawi: The office is the “cultural center”, the home of the corporate culture. In the office there is a feeling of belonging, an identification with projects and with the company. That might come about thanks to café areas with adjoining coworking spaces and various options for meetings. On the other hand, though, it might be through areas such as project spaces and zones, where people can work together as a team. All areas are always equipped with a digital interface so that the colleagues working remotely can be involved.

AmorePacific F21, Seoul
AmorePacific F21, Seoul

How does an architect design the interfaces between the digital and physical worlds?

Chris Middleton: That’s a task architects have always faced. You don’t need complex layouts to connect everyone together. In technical terms, you don’t need much: power, fast internet and a camera on your computer – that’s all. Yet in terms of design, it is much more about the atmospheric-spatial conditions for digital-physical exchange, which have to be right: for example, a good range of room sizes to accommodate different-sized groups.

Karim El-Ishmawi: In future, each office will have a kind of “digital twin”. As an employee, I see the building as a digital reference, somewhere I can move around and know where to find group XY. The digital and physical realms must be valued equally, and people will be able to move between the two ever more seamlessly – it’s a kind of cultural technique we are learning.

Is outdoor space gaining importance as a place to work – with the key concept here being ventilation – in the plans being produced?

Karim El-Ishmawi: Most definitely! In almost all of the new projects, the developers place great emphasis on offering areas for working outdoors: terraces, balconies, gardens, orangeries and indoor gardens, as well as two- or three-story-high atrium spaces that create an “outdoor-like atmosphere”.

Germany is the country of standards: Has the Workplaces Ordinance become obsolete in the face of agile working?

Karim El-Ishmawi: The standards and guidelines stem from the model whereby the employer provides a workplace for their employees. If I have to spend the whole day there, then it should indeed meet these standards. However, if I have the chance to choose my workstations freely throughout the day, then I can decide for myself whether and when I would rather work in the hammock or at an ergonomically arranged desk.

DSGV Newsroom, Berlin

How have your clients’ demands changed over the last ten years?

Karim El-Ishmawi: Changing workstations during the day is now part of day-to-day work. For that reason, the spatial offerings also need to be very varied and include things like team or project workspaces where the process can be made visible on the walls.

Chris Middleton: The food&beverage offerings are an important element when it comes to establishing a shared culture and fostering communication. Developers want to create a place that is attractive as an office, which has a particular appeal – a place people are happy to spend time in. In the “war for talents”, so our clients tell us, this represents a crucial factor for recruitment.

Do companies even need headquarters then? Or are they better off renting a space within a property that is already equipped with all the prescribed conveniences in order to be able to react quickly to changes – a kind of “plug ‘n’ play” for modern work, perfectly quick and straightforward?

Karim El-Ishmawi: I don’t share that opinion. Yes, there are these rental models, which basically transfer the model of the coworking space to a company, but such places, such as WeWork etc., are one thing above all: generic. Such offices exude zeitgeist, but they don’t have any identity. If I, as a firm, aim to practice and establish a certain culture and I want to shape and live this together with my employees, then I need a place where I can do that. A company without a physical center for its culture will, in the long term, have problems strengthening its content, brand identity and community, which represent the glue that binds the employees and the company together.

Suhrkamp Verlag, Berlin
Suhrkamp Verlag, Berlin