Workplaces have always evolved and will carry on doing so to reflect the changing needs of the people inside them, Iain Parker writes


Much has been written about the future of the workplace in recent weeks, so I am slightly reluctant to put my own thoughts out there. But the need for offices – and their design – is a big talking point. Lots of businesses are going to have to make some important decisions about them.

Let’s start with a quick reminder of how the office has evolved. Those in the 18th and 19th centuries were very formal buildings, with grand state rooms designed to reflect authority and power. The Old Admiralty Building in Westminster and East India House in the City are two of London’s early prominent workplaces.

The 20th century saw the birth of the open-plan arrangement, credited to Frank Lloyd Wright and the Larkin Building, which opened in 1906 in New York. It was regarded as an open-plan factory for office workers, a term more recently marketed as a white-collar factory.

Fast forward to the 1960s, which saw a less regimented organisation of people and the introduction of “office landscaping”, using plants and furniture to create organic patterns of people.

It is clear that the office is a fluid space greatly influenced by the requirements, values, technology and culture of the time

The 1980s saw a rise in middle-management workers who were given their own office or cubicle, but then the 21st century has witnessed a return to open-plan arrangements, where collaboration, wellbeing and flexible working are key.

Given this brief history, it is clear that the office is a fluid space greatly influenced by the requirements, values, technology and culture of the time. Office design does not happen “by chance”. Research into work-psychology, developments in technology and other cultural factors have given shape to the office of today, and in my view it will continue to evolve.

For those who say that we do not need an office in the future, let’s start with some evidence gathered by a leading research consultant who asked 50,000 employees across a diverse demographic to provide feedback on their experience while working from home over the past few months:

While not in the office, 50% of people said they struggled to connect to company culture; 54% had a sense of wellbeing but many reported low levels of energy; 70% of millennials and those in Generation Z struggled with learning and an inadequate workspace; 73% said they would like to see remote working policies expanded beyond the pre-covid arrangement.

This hardly supports the view that working from home is the only way forward, but rather suggests that we are likely to see another evolution of working patterns, office design and operational maintenance.

Working arrangements will, inevitably, involve more freedom and flexibility between time spent in the office, at home and at a third place (a coffee shop, for example), all enabled by advances in technology.

There will be more amenity spaces, including even larger areas for bicycle storage and showers

Office design is already evolving and can be split between the base building and fit-out designs. Base building developments will include a continuing increase in the use of sustainable materials, careful consideration of occupancy levels, breathable facades, enhanced fresh-air supplies, increased automation and smart-phone control in communal areas to reduce the touching of surfaces. There will be more amenity spaces, including even larger areas for bicycle storage and showers.

Fit-out designs will give careful consideration to spatial layouts and desking arrangements, occupancy of meeting rooms, flexibility and the ability to facilitate effective cleaning regimes.

When considering the future of the office as a workplace, it will be important to consider the difference between short-term measures and those that should become  permanent. Next year will mark the 20th anniversary of 9/11, a tragic event that led to the industry convincing itself that the future of tall buildings was over. But it didn’t pan out like that – far from it.

Tall buildings have endured, but they did go through a series of design reviews and some permanent adaptations were made to the design as well as to operational matters. I suspect we are on the cusp of the same concept, but for different reasons. 

So the workplace will evolve once more over the next stage of our history, but offices will absolutely be needed in order to attract and retain the best talent for business, to build a company culture, to allow people to be creative and to learn – not to mention the need to nurture our natural tendency towards being social animals.

Iain Parker is a partner in Alinea