Workplace design is increasingly interwoven with the dynamics of the city

workplace designThe Workplace Strategy Summit, held near my adopted home town of Reading in June attracted some of the world’s most renowned experts on workplace design and management. As is the case these days, much of the talk focussed on urbanisation, both in its own right and in terms of its influence on the design of work and workplaces. One speaker, Andrew Laing of Aecom argued convincingly that the city is just as much a part of the modern workplace as the traditional office. ‘As we explore the future of work and place, we are beginning to see a shift towards an urban scale in how we frame the workplace problem,’ he said. ‘Our starting point is perhaps no longer the office but the city at large. And what we mean by the city may not be the bricks and mortar urbanism of the twentieth century, but a bricks and mortar urbanism imbued with digital information and connectivity: a powerful combination of the physical and digital.’

That’s it in a nutshell. The office is part of the workplace equation, but so too are technology and all the spaces in which we are now able to work be that trains, hotels, cafes and our homes. The 21st Century will not only be shaped by urbanisation but by a growing recognition of the importance of Smart Cities, a concept based on technological infrastructure and now said to be worth some $400 billion a year.

The urban environment is an increasingly important part of the ‘virtual’ workplace and offices themselves increasingly resemble the agglomeration of spaces we typically associate with our towns and cities. In September of last year, McKinsey published its latest report into urbanisation. Called How to Make a City Great, it claims that by 2030 around 60 per cent of the world’s population will live in cities, 5 billion people compared to 3.6 billion at the moment. It contrasts the needs and experience of cities in the developing world to those in the developed nations although it says they all have similar challenges in terms of their response to growing urbanisation, use of resources and sustainability.

While this addresses the big issues, the effects are felt at a neighbourhood and personal level. As long ago as 1970, a researcher called William H Whyte decided to carry out a project looking at the impact of urban spaces on people. Using techniques then most commonly associated with studies of indigenous tribes people, The Street Life Project examined the relationship between people and their immediate environment in parts of New York. They specifically focussed on parks and other social spaces, trying to established what worked about them and what didn’t. Their findings were ultimately reported in a short book called The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces and an accompanying film.

What became apparent is that the most interesting aspects of human interactions take place in ritualised and predictable forms and that the best spaces can foster those interactions. Whyte writes about our tendency to engage with chance meetings in particular ways, to say goodbye as part of a three phase ritual and our propensity to mirror the gestures of other people.

Whyte also identifies the characteristics of the best social spaces including the proportion of sitting space to circulation space and the way we like different levels of light in a space. Crucially he also reports that if you want a space to be used, it should be stimulating and enticing.
These are insights that reflect the way public spaces are (or should be) in larger offices. There is already a history of both in the application of urban design principles to workplaces as well as the co-opting of its language. In the 1990s, the seminal design of the British Airways Waterside HQ had at its heart a ‘Street’ with cafes, shops, trees, plazas and road signage. More recently, ISG Group announced its plans for the new Arcadia HQ in the West End, which includes common areas for staff that are internalised parks and amphitheatres from the city.
But even as the city makes its way into our offices, so the people emerge from them to colonise the urban environment. We have become so accustomed to working wherever we think it best that when Overbury recently asked employees to describe their ideal working environment, what they described sounded suspiciously like a High Street cafe.

It’s common to hear people say that the boundaries between the traditional workplace and the outside world have become blurred but it might be closer to the truth to say that in a growing number of cases they have been eradicated and that the evolution of cities and offices is informed by a two way exchange of DNA.

This same strand of DNA is already evident in many of the companies that work across the old divides. It is intertwined with the strand of innovation and is vital for those that don’t already have it to acquire it, if they are to prosper in this new world.


Colin-Watson-18-Nov-2011-B-150x1501Colin Watson is managing director of the British Contract Furniture Association and Director General of FEMB (the European Federation of Office Furniture Trade Associations).