Breaking out of the cubicle culture

9th May 2014

Helen Berresford, head of ID:SR, was asked by CA magazine (published by the Cambridge Association of Architects to write article, below, about the evolution of the modern office.

For decades, office design suffered from grey ‘cubicle culture’ and standardisation, with workplaces often creating bland, uninspiring spaces for staff where desks resemble a factory assembly line and encourage monotonous styles of working. However, the last ten years has been an incredibly exciting time for the design of the places we work, with a move away from industrialising these spaces we spend a large proportion of our lives in.

The most publicised examples of the 21st Century office has been the Google-generation of media companies taking informal offices to their extremes. Some may think the shifts in office culture are just about style and looking cool but in fact it is rooted in substance, helping businesses attract and retain their most important asset - their staff. The aim is to create stimulating conditions for people to excel, fostering a broad range of activities from collaboration to creative thinking.

Activity driven approach

Psychologically, we are used to having variation in our working life but bland office culture has meant that we stay in a fixed position for most of the day, typing away whilst eating our lunch at our desks. To challenge this, designers need to look past a default answer to office interiors that just imagines the workplace as desks and meeting rooms. When working on the major BBC North project we did significant research, consultation and observation to establish how they work. The project involved the relocation of many members of the BBC team so the data we collected was essential in identifying exactly what was needed and how design can support this, noting how technological advances could further shift working patterns.

Our research showed that in some departments of the BBC, up to 80% of the content is commissioned and created by external organisations which were not permanently based in the office space we were designing; therefore, we had to create flexible areas where the BBC team could collaborate and interact with other companies. This activity driven approach examines corporate culture and individual requirements, recognising that offices are complex social spaces that affect both personal lives and corporations.

Offices are social, living things

A social dimension to the grey office culture used to equate to chats by the water cooler. Now, progressive companies are realising the potential for creating more social environments that create vital ‘glue’. This includes blurring the boundaries between residential and commercial design, bringing the kitchen table or the living room into the workplace and creating more relaxed informal spaces for alternative ways of working and collaboration.

Recognising that offices are social and complex entities, workplaces – particularly in cities like Cambridge - should be seen as incubators for intellectual and commercial collaboration. For this to be truly successful, office design needs to look past the colour of carpets to think on a much broader community scale. Large offices can have the same population as a small town and like a town these spaces require masterplanning to create a sense of place and a variety of spaces that revolve around an “activity driven” approach.

Linking education and the corporate world

Cambridge has extraordinary educational resources. A key issue at the moment is how workplace design can be used to bring the academic and corporate worlds together.

In many ways education is leading the way. The recently completed Alan Gilbert Learning Commons for the University of Manchester moves away from just giving students a formal library environment. Instead, it provides more than a 1,000 flexible study spaces in a vibrant 24/7 study centre. The response from students to this new facility has been overwhelmingly positive and, as they move from education into the corporate world, students will expect their offices to be equally as sophisticated. A grey office culture could put companies at the bottom of the pecking order in terms of graduate recruitment, with this having major implications for the future success of their businesses.

Cambridge needs variety

With numerous developments recently completed and more planned for the future, there may be enough square metres of workplace to cater for Cambridge’s needs, but it’s also important to ask whether the city has the variation of affordable workplaces for smaller companies who do not want corporate offices and their large floors plates.

Advances in technology mean you can now work from pretty much anywhere. People may think working from a cafe is a new trend but coffee houses have acted as a corporate meeting place for over 200 years. In the City of London, before formal offices were established, individual groups of traders would set up in the well-known Jerusalem Coffee House. It was a place where you weren’t constrained; instead businessman could meet, work and interact, displaying all the characteristics of what a modern office should be. This informal, varied and social environment for business is essential. However, if a small business outgrows their local café, what next?

In London you are seeing serviced offices becoming more sophisticated, affordable and flexible. Some are more like members’ club for people who need a professional environment for meetings or for a conference call. This moves away from the often very dull and corporate shared offices and gives young start-ups an affordable option to working from home. There are also co-working offices, where the tenure is often on an economic day rate. Some of these spaces are sponsored by larger corporations keen to support and generate fresh ideas.

If you look at areas like Shoreditch in London, warehouse and factories have been converted into hugely popular offices spaces for tech start-ups and young media business- these have far out-performed many of the huge new developments in the City. The unpretentious industrial interiors really resonate with this generation of entrepreneurs and perhaps Cambridge should be catering for this demand instead of just building more of the same.

Working with existing buildings

In relation to Cambridge’s current office stock, this people-focused approach can be retrofitted to create more lively working environments. For example, with our BBC North project at MediaCity we thought very carefully about how to use innovative furniture ideas to change the character of the space. Perhaps the most evident example of this approach is the circular pods we designed for the building’s atrium. This has successfully created an iconic image for the offices whilst transforming dead space at the edge of the atrium - too narrow for desks or rooms - to create spaces for both focused work and collaboration. BBC editor John Jacobs summed it up when he described his experience of working in the pods as “comfy, secluded but still connected.” This furniture helped reinvent conventional footplates into an office that clearly communicates flexible working, exciting design and a sense of fun.

However, informal environments must be created following analysis and research into how a company operates and how an office design can best support the culture of their business. Some may think a scattering of bean bags and multi coloured furniture may create an informal environment but it involves a lot more rigour than this. It includes master-planning people’s working lives and an acute understanding of what people do and spaces people actually enjoy working in.

As new developments are planned for Cambridge, the market should not be just analysed in terms of lettable space. Space alone will not get the next big brand excited about investing heavily in the city; however the right interior space – that fits their brand and helps them attract the next generation of brilliant minds – will.

Helen Berresford RIBA

Partner, Head of ID:SR