Out of Office? Discussing the Future of Workplace at A/D/O
As part of the opening celebration for their new Out Of Office exhibit at A/D/O, A+I Principal Kate Thatcher was asked to discuss the future of the office. Spanning the period 1950-2050, the Out Of Office exhibit explores how the office is evolving from an analog, hierarchical, factory-inspired center of pooled physical resources to a network of virtual and data-driven interactions, posing the question: “If the office is no longer spatial, what has it become? Where work and life are conflated, what is the relationship between the office and identity?”
Below, we’re sharing some of what Kate discussed.
At A+I, we have long been invested in the practice of designing the spaces where work happens and the experiences within those spaces. The majority of our practice over the last 23 years has been focused on workspace. The company really cut its teeth, so to speak, working with companies in New York and on the west coast during the dot com boom of the mid to late 90s, when technology really started to change attitudes about the design of the office. We’ve continued to work with major individual companies across the tech, media, finance, fashion, and lifestyle industries on their headquarters as well as with landlords and building owners on the ever-increasing workspaces that exist outside of the traditional office space.
In an era where technological tools have made it possible for people to work from anywhere, why choose to work from somewhere? And yet, people continue to choose to work in the office, and I would argue, more so today than in the recent past. I believe we are past the peak of working remotely, and people are returning to working in the office in greater numbers. And working in the office persists despite the fact that the design and architecture of offices is doing a worse job at supporting the individual job of work.
I’m sure most of us have personally experienced the challenges of trying to get work done in an open office – walk through nearly any office today and you’ll see everyone with their headphones on, because the design of the office space isn’t supporting what it takes to get your individual work done. I would argue it’s not really the point of offices today, or in the future, to be the best place to get your individual work done. People continue to work in the office because it’s human nature, as social beings, to be part of a community and to engage in a culture and collective cultural activities.
The photo above at right is of our office, and the record player is obviously not an important object in the execution of our design work, but is an incredibly important object in the collective experience of our office. And we’ve found with our clients that the most successful offices are those that support collective experiences, build a strong culture in which people can engage, and clearly communicate that culture.
There’s lots of ways an organization can communicate its culture and values, just as there are many ways that one can represent a bull in drawing, as the famous Picasso sketch shows. For Anthony Casalena, the CEO of Squarespace, who’s space is on the right, he could communicate Squarespace’s values and culture of design in some mission statement on his website, or through a tweet, or he could give a lecture and ask his employees to come, or he could build a space for his employees to inhabit every day and is the full embodiment of those values and that culture, the same values that guide the product they put out in the world. And for us, that’s really what is at stake in designing office spaces today.
It used to be a given that every company had an office, and every office had desks. Now those aren’t necessarily givens, they are a choice that is made deliberately.
Identity is hugely important in the experience of work. You know, we spend so much of our day and our lives working, or at work, and the workplace has taken on a broader role in our lives beyond just the place where we perform labor. We live in an era of identity politics and Instagram influencers and others capitalizing on their social media identities. And I think people are choosing, in many ways, what organizations they align themselves with. People are careful where they shop, where they eat, who they donate money to, and where they work to make sure that an organizations values reflect their own.
For our clients, and within our engagements with clients, the organization’s identity, values, goals, culture, and aspirations are behind every design decision and the crafting of every experience. Look at the experience of entry, of entering a space, to see how identity and culture and values are expressed in the built environment. Whether you are greeted by a concierge or an iPad or security guard instantly tells you a lot about the culture and values of a place. And that’s just the start of it.
Kate Thatcher is a principal at A+I and generally a superior human being.