Spezial | the office after the office
initiated by Evoline
The updatable office
Adeline Seidel | Oct 31, 2013

In many cases the creed of today’s employees is more or less that “I shape my world the way I like it”. Employees work where they feel best and when it best fits in with things. This means employers have to tackle the task of providing an office world that does justice to the different needs of what is a considerably individualized workforce – while nevertheless making certain that the corporate culture is strongly in evidence. In an epoch in which working conditions in the office and the technology used there are changing in different cycles, what’s key is the ability to update the office to respond spatially and technically to the transformations.

Marvelously virtual

Kevin Kelly, founder of “Wired” magazine, once quipped at a conference that he only goes to the office in order to be disturbed – he stays at home to work. Being accessible everywhere “online” has long since become more important than spending time in the office. “Home offices” have now emerged as a standard in work-world culture. Digitalization of communication is likewise ensuring workstations are becoming ever more flexible. Precisely staff of global players often work together across different continents on one and the same project – virtually. Corresponding softwares such as “Bluescape” or “Spacedeck” and large touchscreens such as a Smartboard that can be used like an iPad to spawn a multimedia working environment that is not that far removed from that presented in the sci-fi movie “Minority Report”. These technologies are, in addition to the individual needs and preferences of so-called “knowledge workers”, an additional engine driving the dissolution of traditional office structures. Scientists who study the world of work are right to proclaim that the physical structure of an office should above all serve to “network knowledge”. For the place of work today ever more frequently serves as a place to meet colleagues, have chance encounters, and act to anchor project team meetings.

café and co-working space rolled into one. Start-ups can use office space here free of charge and there’s an auditorium for events. Photos © Microsoft

Conversion or new build?

Despite all those trends to work in virtual spaces, in Germany masses of office space is being built. The Federal Statistical Office expects that in 2014 in Frankfurt/Main alone just under 250,000 square meters of new office space will go up. In Berlin the figure is 110,000, in Munich 143,000 and in Hamburg almost 135,000 square meters. In total, that’s just short of 640,000 square meters of work space. Contrast this with the fact that in 2012 there was a total of 1.62 million square meters of vacant space in Frankfurt, with the figure being some 1.37 million square meters in Munich. While the levels were somewhat lower on aggregate in Hamburg and Berlin, the vacancy rates still hit seven figures. In other words, almost ten times as much office space stands empty as is built new each year. Without addressing the reasons for this vacant space, one can assume that simply building offices increasingly does not meet the yardstick for “new” work.

Learning from the past

Often the current new builds are “portfolio” projects with property investors and project developers. These generic office buildings follow the “one size fits all” principle and their shelf life is not much longer than that of their predecessors in the 1980s and ‘90s that are now standing empty. The new builds still follow the same inherent logic, boasting frontage that is considered duly high profile by the respective spirit of the day, and facilities technology that is likewise “state of the art” when the property goes turnkey. The buildings have optimized energy consumption levels, are often actually certified as being such, and an open-plan footprint. And if you believe the marketing brochures, they are flexible in design which means each storey can be adapted to the needs of the respective future tenant.

What flexibility actually means here is pretty constrained. To be flexible means that walls can be shifted, furniture swapped. What does not get factored into the equation is whether the building’s software can be updated – meaning the electrical connections and controls, for example. As the development cycles for such technologies are considerably shorter than those for the hardware we call architecture. Yet it is precisely these technological developments that have triggered the swift change in working culture. If you bear this in mind then it becomes all the more important to keep the individual elements of an office work world separate in the thinking. Only then can they be replaced or adapted as new developments come on the market. And this in turn calls for a far higher degree of perspicacious and integrative planning than customary hitherto. Only if the build and the technology are planned and realized together, albeit as separate elements, will an office building actually be able to respond flexibly to future needs and trends.

flexible technological infrastructure that makes such work places possible. Photo @ Peter Wurmli
The Google office in Tel Aviv. Photo @ Itay Sikolski

Regeneration in the office

What also seems to be true is that the work place does not completely merge with the virtual space of the Internet. So how do the new “Apple” and “Facebook” head offices position themselves in the current debate on the future of offices? The corporate architecture of these companies and the design of their office areas form an elementary building block for young corporations that have pinned permanent innovation to their masts. They cannot derive the values they propagate from some long-standing, perhaps even family-run corporate history. The highly individual staff members expect to work in an environment that fosters an identity and strengthens a sense of ‘we’ while likewise offering sufficient opportunities for regeneration in order to withstand the massive expectations and compulsion to innovate typical of these sectors.

Imagefilm for the planned Apple HQ in Cupertino. Film © Apple

Mutability as trademark

Lord Norman Foster is designing an almost mystical building shaped like a gigantic ring for “Apple”. Frank Gehry is developing an office world for “Facebook” whose many small parts correspond to a city. Both designs are meant to represent the flat hierarchies that purportedly exist in companies which make their billions in the omnipresent digital world. Neither is a building that can be seen from afar, like the “Chrysler Building” was in its day. After all, the landmark qualities of such a building are hardly necessary, given that “Facebook” and “Apple” are more present in our everyday lives than a building could ever be. Yet it seems strange if precisely such companies invest in such customized facilities although they are active in sectors where it is quite possible that they will not exist as companies in 20 years’ time. At present, it’s hard to say just how mutable and flexible the new headquarters of the Internet titans actually are. But the question arises whether and to what extent the built components of both buildings do actually obey the digital world’s “update” logic.

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