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For The Office Of 2050, Think Adaptation, Not Revolution

A flexible office with space for nomads

The evolution of the modern workplace, from fluorescent lights and cold tiles to floor lamps and carpeted lounge spaces, has been well-documented. But as tools like augmented reality, ultra-high-speed internet and video conferencing continue to push the boundaries of what is possible in office design, more office designers and leasing decision-makers have started to envision what the office of 2050 might look like

Instead of the image of a cold, shiny and metallic future coated in glass, DLR Group principal Jeremy Reding envisions a blend of high-tech tools with natural materials, tactile fabrics and a warm atmosphere. 

“What you are going to get is this dichotomy where you are able to communicate with technology in a very natural way, yet the space itself might feel less tech-focused and more visceral,” Reding said. “Lots of wood and steel, but also lots of high-tech tools embedded into it. There will be lounges where there is a place to escape that technology.”

Reding’s vision of the office of the near future, and the one DLR Group encourages among its clients, is one of balance. The integrated design firm aims to blend the tools needed for productivity with the increased demand for employee wellness and amenities, bridging the gap between work and play.

Resident vs. Nomad

The rise of remote work has been a catalyst for the evolution in office design. With many companies enacting bring-your-own-device policies where employees use their own laptops, smartphones and mobile devices, many employees no longer need to work at a dedicated desk. About 43% of employed Americans spent some time working remotely in 2016. The result has been a reduced need for fixed desk seating and a preference toward ancillary furniture systems like couches and lounge chairs.

“Work doesn’t just happen at work; it can be wherever you are,” Reding said. “People thought that cellphones and laptops would let working at home happen more often, but the reality is that because it is so easy to travel with these devices, people are likely to travel more often. Because it is easier. I can work in a hotel or at an airport.”

A resulting dichotomy has also emerged between two types of employees: residents and nomads. Residents still need a dedicated desk for heads-down, independent work, and nomads can leverage mobile technology to work wherever they are most comfortable. While traditional office spaces like cubicles and private rooms cater to resident-type employees, nomads prefer lounges and coffee bars that encourage collaboration and blur the line between work and home. 

“Everyone likes working in a Starbucks,” Reding said. “But the reason why that is easier than working in an office for a lot of people is that the conversations happening around you are not relevant and so they are easy to ignore. In the office, you know what people are talking about. It’s finding that balance that is key.”

A 'no tech' lounge serves as a social magnet for the office

Redefining open office 

Finding the balance between private and communal space is a criticism of open-office plans, the most current design trend. To encourage collaboration, and to maximize floor space, many companies have torn down the walls and placed staff at clusters of desks. But increasing density without accounting for issues of privacy and acoustics has led many employees and potential recruits to frown on open-office setups

“It used to be a trade-off that you would have more breakout spaces and media rooms and phone rooms and if you had these alternatives designed for a specific purpose, you wouldn’t have to do everything around your desk,” Reding said. “What happened is that companies saw the picture of the open office and just copied the density without adding those additional spaces, which led to inefficiency and the backlash you are seeing now.” 

The office of the future adds back those ancillary spaces, giving employees a greater say in where and how they work. 

A mixed reality 

One of the more futuristic office design features Reding has started to explore is the use of augmented and virtual reality to improve not only the office design experience but also video conferencing. While VR headsets like Oculus and Google Cardboard were initially developed for the gaming industry, architects and designers have started to experiment with using the technology to better present plans to clients. Rather than stare at a 2D drawing, clients can use VR to understand the volume of the space and explore how light travels through it, as well as how the flow of furniture could impact productivity and employee comfort. 

Beyond its use as a design tool, an augmented reality headset could soon elevate long-distance calls and video meetings. At DLR Group, a current collaboration between its design, research and technology groups is developing the idea of "digital tethers" that could break communication barriers in a global business environment.   

“It won’t be far off that people are having a conversation in AR and see someone across the table having a conversation," Reding said. "The idea of a phone call will go away. It will feel more personal."

DLR Group testing virtual collaboration with the Oculus Rift headset

A future where one size doesn’t fit all 

While it is easy for companies and office owners to follow the latest design trends and rush to implement the newest technology, Reding recommends designing and upgrading a space around specific employee needs. Over time, these small transitions and upgrades will create an office that is both modern and complementary to the company’s culture. Major tech companies like Apple and Google have embraced this philosophy, choosing to build custom offices and spaces rather than lease out cookie-cutter workspaces. 

"If you want to move to an open office, you have to have technology aligned with the way you work. If your work is collaborative, then you need to be able to use tablets, you need to be on laptops, they need to be plugged in wherever they are. Some might want more private offices than common spaces because it fits their work style because they do independent work.”

It is the focus on employee needs that sets apart offices in a competitive leasing landscape. At a time when mobile devices allow employees to work from the comfort of their homes or enjoy the sights and sounds of a coffee shop, office amenities need to become the gathering spaces and communal hubs where people want to spend time.

“Offices will always be where people come together,” Reding said. “But they have to be so much better than working at home because you want to come in and be a part of that energy.”

While the office of 2050 is still a few decades in the making, one thing is certain: it will be a workspace that is not only equipped with the latest technology but also an amenities package designed from the ground up to complement the tenant's culture, work philosophy and vision. 

This feature was produced in collaboration between Bisnow Branded Content and DLR Group. Bisnow news staff was not involved in the production of this content.