A typical new office space might try to mimic elements of home, with couches, full kitchens, and even beds. The unstated goal is often to get employees to stick around for longer hours. At the same time, it’s more and more common for people to take work home with them, and answer work emails in the middle of the night. The division between work and home continues to disappear.
A new conceptual design for the workplace of the future, the winner in this year’s RSA Student Design Awards. takes the opposite approach. In this office, work is clearly work, and as someone moves through the space, each area is also clearly designed to support a different type of work.
“The space naturally suggests the kind of work that could happen in each zone,” says Dublin-based industrial design student James Donnellan, who created the conceptual design with Kevin Glynn as part of the design awards. “We wanted to create five different spaces that made each kind of work more efficient, without forcing it.”
The office is deliberately spread over two floors. “The downstairs is all about open space that encourages people to bump into each other; upstairs is about doing the work,” says Donnellan.
On the second floor, a ring of solo desks around the edge gives people a place to concentrate, while an inner circle has spaces for collaboration. The areas are connected and open, but as noise levels rise, they automatically separate.
“As the sound level goes above 75 decibels, a membrane wall unravels to form a kind of squishy boundary to act as a sound periphery,” Donnellan explains. “It’s also kind of a cognitive cue for the brain so you know you’re moving from different work spaces to do different kinds of work.”
Anyone who wants to take a break can step into a plant-filled glass pod for some alone time. The idea was partially inspired by office visits around Dublin; some workers told the designers they envied smokers, who had an excuse to take regular breaks throughout the day.
The glass pods were designed to make breaks feel more legitimate. They were also intended to help support learning, based on research that says quiet reflection is a necessary part of processing new information. Being around a little bit of nature–like plants and trees–can help the process by engaging the brain differently.
“We really wanted to provide a space like that in the office of the future,” Donnellan says. “We know we don’t go into our jobs these days knowing everything we’ll do straight out of college. There’s a continuous learning period.”
Downstairs, informal gathering spaces outside of the conference rooms are designed to encourage people to keep talking about ideas after meetings end. The whole floor is designed to allow people run into each other as much as possible. Despite the backlash against open offices, the designers wanted to encourage as many serendipitous meetings as possible.
“We found that regardless of profession, people in isolated ‘pods’ sent more emails, and overloaded each other with email junk rather than speaking to colleagues, even when they acknowledge that talking is far more efficient,” says Donnellan. “One person said to us, ‘If I had met a colleague for 10 minutes in the morning, it would have saved me three hours of my afternoon.'”
The whole office tries to balance the benefits of open office design with plenty of space for solitude. “We went back to the past to see how the office had evolved over time, and why,” Donnellan says. “We found that workplace design had focused entirely on making workers more productive, but had failed to overcome some of their biggest barriers to better working–isolation when you need collaboration; distractions when you need to be productive.”