The office of the future will be hyper-collaborative, sustainable and employee-centric.

Much of this is coming about through the changing workforce and technology. The International Interior Design Association tells us to think back just 15 years. Remember the workplaces with bulky computers — few of which were connected to the Internet — cumbersome wires, and oversized fax machines and copiers?

“Today, outdated equipment has been replaced with flat screens, wireless devices and high-tech conferencing systems. Ten years from now, modern devices will give way to more advanced technologies such as multilingual and sensory-recognition software that allows work to be conducted more efficiently — potentially meaning less people required to do a job.”

In its Office of the Future: 2020 report, staffing agency Office Team forecasts that technology tools will provide even greater flexibility. Miniature wireless devices, WiFi, WiMax and mobile technology will allow staff to work outside of the office with greater ease. Virtual environments and web-based conferencing services will provide off-site employees with real-time access to meetings, reducing the need to travel.

There will be more telecommuting with improved wireless connectivity, people will be putting in more time at work but they will do so using tools that provide more control over their schedules and enable them to better balance priorities. There will also be an increasingly blurred line between work and other activities; people will need to multitask to meet all of their obligations efficiently.

Blurring the work and private divide

According to the Design Future Council, the next generation of workers will all of course be “digital natives”. They’ll go for open floor plans, mobility and multitasking. There’ll be no cubicles. Because they are totally at one with technology, the office will become an anchoring physical location away from the digital realm. But that means on thing: the blurring of lines between work and private life.

Distributed work

The council sees the next generation of workspaces moving away from dedicated offices and workstations. Instead, we will see social, mobile and collaborative models of what they call “distributed work” disbursed geographically over a wide area, saving companies on investing in too much real estate and providing greater space utilisation.

Better work spaces

New buildings will be more easily repurposed to accommodate new technology, tenants and amenities. Workstations will come with personalised environmental controls to improve comfort, enhance productivity and save energy costs. They will have greater access to daylight and natural ventilation, views, green space, public transport, on-site parking and proximity to residences.

The productivity holy grail

What’s also driving this is productivity. Studies show there is a link between greener offices and employee productivity with a decrease in employees taking time off due to allergies and asthma and the mean number of hours per month respondents reporting being absent due to depression and stress dropping quite markedly.

Flexible, energy-smart kaleidoscope offices

Office solutions company Staples Advantage sees winning offices with features like radiant heating and cooling, solar-powered fibre optic ceilings that fluctuate in colour and intensity, thermally active furniture with touch screen capabilities and multiple varieties of plant life local to each climactic zone in the building.

Mike McKeown, a senior workplace strategist for HOK, a design, architecture, engineering and planning firm told the Houston Chronicle that offices will have to be “future-proofed” to build in flexibility for needs that may arise in the future so that the office can be reconfigured when the need arises.

He says health and sustainability in the office design of the future will become critical. That includes paying attention to indoor air quality and thermal temperature as well as providing employees access to health and fitness facilities. Ideally, the decision about fundamental workplace design elements should not be made just by the CEO and the human resources executive. Instead, it should be a group effort that includes input from employees across age groups and departments.

Similarly, energy-related elements that barely received a nod of attention in the past are now at the forefront of the decision-making process when it comes to setting up office space. That includes efficiency in energy use, water quality, lighting and even recycled furniture.

Employees driving the agenda

All of this, he says, is coming from employees. They expect nothing less. “There is a lot more transparency within organisations now,” he says. “Before, an employee might show up and use the workplace without really knowing much about it and wouldn’t even think to ask about things like air quality. But now, employees are asking for more access to that sort of information.”

Architects have told that flexibility and sustainability will be key features in the office of the future.

“The most important consideration for small businesses, other than cost, is flexibility, especially in progressive cities with a creative class,’ says architect Thomas Bercy of Bercy Chen Studio in Austin.

He says he’s seeing smaller companies borrowing from the tech industry in the way they leverage shared workspaces. A recent project for a paperless real-estate agency featured 22 stations – none of them dedicated to any one person. “Anyone can come in, plug in and connect to the server. It gives ultimate flexibility. There’s no longer a need for as many office stations as there are employees, and that’s a trend we’ll see more of”.

Bercy says people want two things that are competing with each other: complete openness – no more of the ’70s or ’80s kind of office – and they want space for one-on-one meeting. His solution? Small, phone-booth-like spaces where people can meet without disturbing co-workers yet still be within an open office. Hand in hand with flexibility is a new kind of sustainability in which employees operate individually controlled light and temperature settings. More than providing creature comforts, such features are energy-efficient, promote well-being and, in turn, foster productivity and pride of place.

Sustainability is key in Europe

Jones Lang La Salle says sustainability is now a key consideration for office real estate. While environmental change, cost control and ethical business practices are all part of the equation, legislation is the real game-changer, forcing European occupiers and investors to adapt their office buildings.

The European Union requires all new buildings to be nearly zero energy by 2020, and there is a growing divergence between different buildings and different countries.

This gap is widening and will increase over the next decade between those leading the way towards sustainable real estate and those falling behind. Sustainability was once seen as a soft issue on the periphery of business strategy but this has now changed. We now have case studies where sustainable changes to buildings have improved employee productivity. Owners and developers of office stock will need to take rapid action to protect the value of their buildings and prevent them from becoming obsolete. A sustainable building will quite quickly become a prerequisite for prime property.

And gadgets says the office of the future will feature 3D printers, stand-up desks with research showing that being seated for much of the day can increase the risk of developing chronic illnesses such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, robotic technology which will take task automation and productivity to a new level while allowing more employees to work from home and  touchscreen panels completely eliminating the need for dials, keyboards and mouses and being more space efficient, faster and encouraging digital productivity, will facilitate the collaboration of ideas with clients and co-workers as well as allowing simple adjustments of the office lighting and acoustics with an easy wireless setup.

Green walls

The office of the future will also have living green walls. These are walls covered in greenery or vegetation which can be incorporated as office partitions or as an alternative to the conventional unadorned office wall. As well as the foliage being a tasteful visual display, interior green walls offer a number of other benefits such as encouraging the rate of fresh air exchange and discourage allergenic mould growth.

Already, some of these offices are springing up around Australia. Examples include the CH2 in Melbourne, 1 Bligh Street in Sydney and the Zilllmere Joint Contact Centre in Brisbane.

All this is a sign of things to come.  The office of tomorrow will be a very different space.

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