Insights

The meaning of the office has evolved, but here’s what remains unchanged

The form of the office continues to evolve. But the core of a workplace and the very reason for its existence remain strong. Read more.

2021-05-21

By Lawrence Lok
Director – Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Shenzhen

and Jason Chiang
Associate Director, Workplace Strategy – Shanghai

and Sophie Guo
Senior Strategist – Shenzhen

and Keyan Guo
Workplace Strategist – Hong Kong

The meaning of the office has continued to change, ever since the word was coined. So has its form and function.

In a world where people have long been arguing which is more superior –  the open plan or cubicles – it’s important to think about why offices exist, and what purpose they serve.

No matter what, the workplace will remain a tool in itself. It serves a mix of users: individuals, teams and the corporate entity they work for. These three types of users are closely connected with an inseparable influence that ultimately determines the DNA of a company. To understand the evolving direction of the future workplace, we must look at the changes taking place for these three user types.

This article is based on a talk at the 2021 Shenzhen Creative Week, and a professional workshop at our Shenzhen living lab.

Modes of team collaboration have changed

The factory is one of the earliest forms of workplace, designed for work as part of an assembly line.

As elevators were invented and skyscrapers were built, the industrial revolution continued and workers walked into the steel jungle of the city, starting everyday work life in their cubicles. Modern workplaces have since unleashed worker creativity and performance by providing diverse work settings, waving goodbye to the linear collaboration of the assembly line.

The way people collaborate has changed enormously. Technology gave rise to increased flexibility. What once required face-to-face meetings could now be achieved with cameras turned on. Moveable, modular furniture has made layouts more fluid and agile, which in turn has increased innovation.

M Moser Shenzhen living lab

M Moser Shenzhen living lab

As designers, we must pay close attention to how teams collaborate in different conditions, bringing external innovations (furniture, products or technology) to support people’s performance needs. Technology is becoming increasingly powerful to collective efficiency. From integrating technology into different workplace touchpoints to improve the digital experience, to allowing teams to work from wherever they can do best.

We can only be truly creative and agile when we design for individuals, teams and their behaviours.

Enterprises must transform

With competition increasing, enterprises need to take a more proactive approach to attracting talent. The workplace is one of the many attractions. It has a direct impact on how people understand a company’s values and culture.

Reflecting PwC’s innovative spirit in an open, agile workplace called the “PlayLab”

Reflecting PwC’s innovative spirit in an open, agile workplace called the “PlayLab”

In the discovery phase of many of our projects, staff are often unfamiliar with their company’s DNA. As designers, we must address this challenge. This goes beyond aesthetic appeal to layout and function. Is the work environment providing choice? Is it embracing diversity? Is it inclusive of all?

For companies that are transforming, workplace renovation is an opportunity to communicate a progressive culture.

A research-informed relaxation area to support the need for focus work and napping at Roche’s office

A research-informed relaxation area to support the need for focus work and napping at Roche’s office

Gen-Z personalisation

The Gen-Z workforce values individuality. While they crave personal expression, they also long for community bonding. Their ideal workplace needs to provide sense of belonging and freedom of choice.

This generation aspires to a very high quality of life – living is as important as working. They desire professional recognition, career growth and skills advancement. They care about who they work with as much as they care about who they work for. They favour companies that share their values and whose work environments make them feel liberated.

Designing a health-oriented workplace to support wellbeing needs at Pernod Ricard

Designing a health-oriented workplace to support wellbeing needs at Pernod Ricard

It may not be realistic for all these expectations to be met. However, there are a few opportunities for companies looking to improve the experience of a young workforce. Renovation or relocation projects can help engage people to share their ideas, honouring creativity and participation to increase a sense of belonging.

Covestro staff have been engaged to share ideas relating to the strategy and design process of their office relocation

Covestro staff have been engaged to share ideas relating to the strategy and design process of their office relocation

Companies need to understand that the future workplace is not just space in which to get things done, but a place for learning, unwinding, bonding and healing. None of these things can exist without an inspired, happy and connected workforce.

A fully-equipped fitness floor for Lilith Games helps staff relax and regain energy

A fully-equipped fitness floor for Lilith Games helps staff relax and regain energy

By focusing on enterprise-level objectives and the needs of individuals and teams, companies can build a detailed understanding of what drives performance. This helps attract and retain talent, while supporting health, happiness and sustainable growth.

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