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The future is agile 

Tailored Thinking


The future is agile 

Jeremy Myerson
Author, academic and activist in design for morethan 40 years. He co-founded the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design in 1999, which pioneered new practices in inclusive design for ageing populations. Today he is the Helen Hamlyn Chair of Design at the Royal College of Art and co-founder of WorktechAcademy. He is also a Visiting Professorial Fellow at the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing, Oxford University.

The evolution of the working environment and how it will look in 10 or 20 years’ time is not a new subject. But with a global pandemic came an enforced and unexpected need to work from home for millions of people. For some, it was a huge wake-up call; for others, it has proven to be far more efficient than they could ever have imagined.  

One man who is better equipped than most to share their thoughts on the future of the office – post-Covid and beyond – is professor Jeremy Myerson. An academic, writer, curator and activist on the subject of design within the working environment, Myerson has been studying everything to do with the office for more than four decades. He is also the founder of the global knowledge network Worktech Academy, which shares insight from various minds including architects, designers, academics and tech writers on “How we’ll work tomorrow”. 

In a recent self-penned article published on the site, Myerson quoted research by the New London Architecture report that found that only 9% of office workers intend to return to the office full-time once the crisis is over, with 77% of respondents favouring ‘a hybrid model with two to three days a week in the office’. The report surmised, however, that ‘the office is not dead, but it will surely evolve.” 

The office is not dead, but it will surely evolve

‘I think the long-term effects of Covid will be a bigger return to the office than some people imagine,’ Myerson says.‘There are limitations to home working. I think what’s going to happen is we’re going to go into multi-channel working or what we call “omnichannel working”.

The Box, an office within the office for private calls, conversations and video conferencing

‘These channels, he explains, are similar to the way we shop today, an activity that isn’t restricted to one single option: we can buy online, use click-and-collect or shop in-person. With the office, it will be a mixture of “different channels”, such as home or office working, cafés, lounges, or co-working spaces. And the design will play a major role in the success of these channels.   

Work channels will be similar to the way we shop today, an activity that isn’t restricted to one single option

‘Design in the workplace operates on a number of levels,’ Myerson explains. ‘I think we’re in a period where, when companies say they’re rethinking the design of their workplace, they’re not just rethinking furniture and lighting, they’re rethinking where they put people from an operational point of view.’ 

The design ultimately functions on both an aesthetic and “human requirements” levels – meaning organization, strategy, and planning. And one can’t fully succeed without the others. We’ve come a long way from the rigid cubicle office design of the 1960s, and Myerson notes that for several years pre-pandemic, many businesses were ‘moving to an activity-based model, with companies ‘experimenting with more agile workplaces’. 

The Create setting allows people to come together for workshops and group projects

 ‘I think that whole sector is going to expand rapidly and it’s really a new horizon,’ he says. ‘In the hybrid world of work, where we’re not going to have these very high-density workplaces and daily attendance for long hours, people will probably only come into the office two or three days a week for interaction with others – for training, ideation, and social activity. So what’s really interesting is the opportunity to use space in a new way, and I think the companies that have already experimented with activity-based working, they’re the ones that will have a head start in this new world of work. The others will struggle.’  

There’s an opportunity to use space in a new way, and the companies that have already experimented with activity-based working, they’re the ones that will have a head start

As well as designing spaces around the way people work and interact, infallible technology and tighter security and safety guidelines should be a top priority for businesses wanting to entice their workers back. Many are therefore investing in meeting-scheduling technology to ensure that, when people do come into the office, they are with the right people and get the most out of their day.

Socializing with co-workers is a huge part of office life, and one of the main things people miss about working 9-5. Some reports have noted a rise in feelings of isolation among people working from home, with research by UK job board Totaljobs citing almost half of Britain’s working population (46%) experiencing loneliness. Myerson also highlights learning and innovation’ as difficult aspects of working life to tackle virtually, giving the example of the ‘informal learning’ a junior lawyer would have in simply observing the in-real-life behaviour of a senior partner. The future, therefore, is a flexible approach to work around people’s professional and personal needs. And when it comes to the design of the office, it isn’t rows of static desks, but smarter spaces within the office environment that respond to different requirements. 

 

The Share setting is designed to facilitate presentations

‘People will go back to the office [post-Covid]but they won’t be high-density desk environments. Meeting rooms won’t be glass boxes; they’ll be big and expansive and be the purpose of the office. You’ll go in for a meeting and the space will be more architecturally interesting with better technology and air filtration. It’s the same with training and innovation spaces.’  

People will go back to the office [post-Covid] but they won’t be high-density desk environments. Meeting rooms won’t be glass boxes; they’ll be big and expansive

In the financial crash of 2008, there was, according to Myerson, ‘a lot of soul searching’ as business owners had to scale back and battle through. In the aftermath, he says, many of them ‘realized they needed to be more agile and therefore activity-based working was part of that agility.’ The Covid-19 pandemic is another milestone moment for businesses who will have to reassess how they work and what the future holds.    

‘Offices have always been evolving and they’ll keep evolving,’ says Myerson. ‘I think the next twist will be towards a more healthy building; more human, more biophilic, better natural lighting and air quality. But there’s no doubt that the future is flexible. And if the future is flexible then flexible space is part of it. I think it’s going to be a very interesting time for that sector – and very exciting.’ 


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