The Future of Work is: human
By UNStudio Founder & Principal Architect Ben van Berkel
They say that necessity is the mother of invention. When given a brief, designers work to understand the necessities of end-users, and for architects, we can now design responsive spaces that accommodate those needs in real time. But invention can also allow us to overcome the necessities that we cannot easily quantify, like human connectedness, or group morale. To design for these, we must remember to invent spaces that people can appropriate for themselves, allowing them to take ownership of space through meeting and socializing, creating solutions for the kind of obstacles that we cannot easily calibrate.
So, within the context of work, what kinds of necessities are we inventing for – both today and in the future?
The answer is – as always - it depends, as needs differ greatly from company to company. But even geographically, whether working in the Middle East or in China, architects need to understand how the future of work relates to the city and to buildings that are being built there. Meanwhile, in Europe, we need to consider all of the same issues while retrofitting the industrial heritage around us, building appropriate and purposeful designs where possible in cities. The difficulty (beyond the technical complexities of retrofitting or the urgent need to design for a circular economy) is that ‘working’ as we used to imagine it in the industrial era has almost completely faded away. We used to consider that “bringing home the bacon”, working nine-to-five, and only working for one company alone was the trajectory for most of our lives. As a result, a lot of older work spaces are no longer fit for the purpose, being designed only as places of production.
Whether a freelancer, someone who works for a start-up, or someone making a living from online platforms, life, work, knowledge-sharing and play can all happen within the same space. But with commute times increasing and with flexible and distance work growing, offices now have stiff competition. Offices must compete with the home, as well as with all of the potential workspaces between the home and office in order to remain relevant. According to a Savills study on worker needs, people value a shorter commute, a quiet place to focus, good transport connections, ease of transport around the building, good interior design, access to breakout areas, easy to access meeting rooms and green space. As we already know from our research into healthy design strategies, they don’t appreciate noise, bad air quality or uncomfortable temperatures. Any well-designed and well-connected city library can offer all of the above.
To compete, places of work must offer all of this and something more: something that competitors cannot offer.
For us at UNStudio, offices are no longer just spaces to produce work. These are places where we achieve our goals, enrich our lives, and surround ourselves with people who are guided by a purpose similar to our own. These are mixed use, diverse and hybrid spaces within cities that have public space incorporated into them, acting as recruiting machines for potential employees.
As such, I don’t like to talk about office buildings. I like to imagine the workspace as being more like a campus. As much as ‘campus’ is now used as a buzzword to describe workspace, it is an appropriate term for the kind of building that can produce the best quality work. These are spaces that feel more like university buildings, where people can be social, undertake group or focused work, initiate activities and take work in the direction that makes them feel more productive. I also like to think back to Andy Warhol’s Factory, where like-minded, hyper creative individuals brought ideas to life by playing with the concept of a workplace. It was a space to produce, as well as live, socialize and ideate, and importantly, it was a space that expressed a sense of its own identity. It was a space for creative people to belong.
Flexible spaces like these are absolutely necessary for the direction that we’re heading in. Particularly for the tech industry and industries associated with it (which today means nearly every industry) where careers have yet to be defined. The future of work is, therefore, more human than it ever has been: uncertain, changeable, flexible and undefinable. That doesn't mean that designed work spaces should also be undefined or uncertain. Instead, it means that the spaces where people produce their best work should be flexible enough to accommodate us at our most ‘human’. Technology will guide us - as it always has - to produce spaces like these that can adapt. But that does not mean that the future of work is algorithmic. It’s not so much about data, but about information that can help us design better spaces for people.