However, those who think they can commission architects to design offices with rows of identical desks on acres of beige carpet, illuminated by flat and boring lighting, could have problems finding tenants when these buildings are completed in two or three years. This is because we are on the verge of a technologically driven revolution in the way we work. People will no longer have to trail miles to a drab office in the middle of town, as they can use a wireless-enabled laptop to access their email and corporate files. Here, we take a look at some of these new technologies, what they are used for and what this means for office design.
The first part of the revolution, the internet, is well established, but the second part, wireless communication, is just warming up. "We are at the beginning of a trend," says Philip Ross, director of consultant the Cordless Group. "It's like mobile phones at the beginning. Ten years ago they were huge and cost a fortune. Now there are a billion of them worldwide." Wireless hotspots are springing up in public spaces and it won't be long before people will be able to access corporate information on trains and aeroplanes. Wireless will extend – and already is extending – into the office, with wireless intranets becoming commonplace. The crux of this is that workers no longer need to be tethered to their desks.
These new possibilities present a special challenge to building designers. Despina Katsikakis, group chairman of DEGW, a design consultancy specialising in the organisation of the workplace, sums it up: "This creates a much more demanding role for designers as you have to create the buildings people want to come to," she says. "If you don't need to be somewhere, why would you go there?"
To attract people into offices, designers will have to create spaces that encourage interaction and collaboration between workers. People will still need to meet to discuss ideas and collaborate on projects. "
The value of face-to-face communication won't go away. The more we use technology, the more important face-to-face communication becomes for collaboration," says Katsikakis. "The idea of the 18th-century club is coming back. You go into the office to meet colleagues and discuss ideas and culture. This is very important."
As a result, offices will have more informal meeting areas, such as cafes, where people can meet and talk over ideas. And meeting rooms will be designed for a range of specific purposes such as presentations or project meetings. There will still be desks that will be arranged so teams can work together, but the members of the team will come and go as a project progresses.
If you don’t need to be somewhere, why would you go there?
Despina Katsikakis, DEGW
The large centralised office will disappear. Instead, a network of smaller satellite offices will spring up nearer to where people live. This will cut down on commuting time and satisfy the desire for a better work–life balance. Companies will retain a centrally located head office in a prestigious location for clients, and for employees to touch down periodically. This building will be designed as a flagship and will project a company's corporate identity to clients and employees.
Developers who scoff at these projections and say only trendy media companies want to work in this way should think again. Katsikakis says the need for stimulating environments is extending to more traditional, conservative sectors such as financial services. "What we are seeing when we talk to financial services organisations is the question of how to develop new financial products," she explains. "They need to be quite creative in the products they bring to the market and a lot of it is about creating the right conditions for creativity."
She says there is less emphasis on efficiency, as standardised tasks can be outsourced abroad, leaving UK-based workers to generate ideas.
Young people brought up on a diet of computer games, text messaging and working exclusively with laptops will drive these new ways of working. But this does not exclude older workers who will become increasingly important as they become more numerous. Older people will adapt to new technologies if it has something to offer them – as the "silver surfers" proved. Also, as the pensions crisis forces people to retire later, they will welcome the opportunity to work flexibly from or near home at hours that suit them.