Offices as a formal typology in architecture did not gain prominence until the early 1700s with the advent of colonisation. Large organisations such as the East India Company required meticulous planning to manage their vast spread of wealth and assets. For this they created the East India House in London, the UK, where numerous employees worked towards organising, recording and mobilising the riches the company amassed in its long history. As time progressed, technological innovations such as electricity, elevators and use of steel in construction allowed for buildings to be built lighter and taller. Oriel Chambers, a five-storey building in Liverpool, which was built earlier in 1864 by architect Peter Ellis, featured a framed glass curtain wall disassociating the façade from the structure of the building and allowing a lot of light to flood each floor of the building. The World’s first skyscraper, albeit controversially, is credited to the Home Insurance Building, built in Chicago in 1885, which was able to provide offices of smaller and larger sizes on a single floor plate. Skyscrapers of the twentieth century took this definition to new heights (quite literally) and a lot of what has been built is based on those very same principles found in the Oriel Chambers and the Home Insurance Building.
Office design has taken advantage of social, economic and technological innovations at various instances and enabled us to work more collaboratively, productively and effectively. Design gives us great flexibility to meet the needs of the time and also propels us into the future. In our day and age, the need to be in a single place and do our work is now an obsolete notion. The need for shared economies where the want to be nimble, quick and loose is forcing us to rethink our work landscape. “Use what you want, when you want it” is an important notion that we do need to take note of. Space always carries a cost and each square foot is being valued. In America, estimates state that by 2020, 65 million Americans shall be freelancers and independent contractors and will constitute about 40 percent of the workforce. This trend is being seen the world over and combined with the larger workforce in India turning to the millennial age there is a push for all companies to rethink how their office spaces are designed. Here too companies need to be careful and not simply adopt the open plan, a couple of bean bags and a foosball table. The design of the office environment does need to be carefully considered.
In 2016, the architecture firm Gensler, carried out a US Workplace Survey where a direct proportional link was established between innovation and workplace effectiveness and functionality. They found that more innovative employees have better designed spaces and that the least innovative are more often found in open plan offices where problems of noise and a lack of privacy affect productivity. Effective employees have access to a variety of spaces in and out of the office where they have access to the outdoors, collaborative as well as private corners inside the office space. Creating a good mix of private and public spaces gives freedom and a sense of autonomy to the workforce. This freedom can motivate, engage and keep employees happy. This in turn has a great impact on effective working habits and also keeps attrition levels low.
As the country, demographically, gets more millennial there is an increasing push for design to be incorporated into the workspace and companies do need to take notice. The culture of the company should be thoroughly analysed which in turn should inform the design decisions. If you feel the company culture needs an overhaul or even perhaps tweaked slightly then design can help you do just that. Just as the eighteenth and nineteenth century demanded new environments of work, we too are at an age where design can lift us to a collaborative future.
Robin Chhabra is the Founder and CEO of Dextrus.