The Un-Office: Not Just a Faster Horse

Everyone is asking for the workplace of the future, but a better starting point would be to imagine the work of the future.

Callison unoffice

Offices originally supported the repetitive job of clerks, as astutely described by Nikil Saval in his book, Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace. Even the lovely Johnson Wax HQ or the Larkin building only lessened the uncomfortable and dehumanizing boredom of menial tasks. Sorting, filing, and documentation have dominated office work since offices proliferated during the industrial era.

Rapid technological advances cause trepidation. Technology changes where people work, how they work, and even what it means to work. Many uninspiring tasks that were the cornerstone of previous generations’ work have been taken over by technology. Managing tedious tasks without significant human involvement could allow the concept of work to evolve. People fear change and becoming irrelevant. Perhaps the most effective and courageous way to counter the fear of AI is to embrace and accentuate distinctly human characteristics.

Discussing the workplace of the future, people often trap themselves within the offices they have experienced. Henry Ford said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” People don’t need a faster horse; they need a whole new model.

The office of the future may not be an office at all. Clerical tasks no longer dominate the world of white-collar work. I conducted interviews with Seattleites in multiple sectors on the evolving nature of work. 4 themes emerged: interpersonal connection, connection with the environment and nature, desire to express and create, and a longing to engage the senses. The overall unifying concept is simple, connection.

People crave a meaningful connection with other people. People need each other to feel their lives have value and purpose, and virtual connection, while useful, cannot replace in-person connection. Workplaces of the future will reflect a deeper understanding of users’ psychological and emotional needs. The spaces themselves will support better interpersonal interactions and wellbeing.

People long to reconnect with nature and the environment. Workplaces will increasingly connect with nature and the outdoors. Workplaces of the future will have accessible green roofs, balconies, gardens, and at the very least, operable windows. Incorporating elements of water and fire can help pull people out of a fight or flight mode. Allowing people to bring their pets to work, while somewhat controversial, will likely continue.

The creators of Candy Crush, Z King, have a park-like corner in their breakroom with astroturf and picnic tables. The Knowledge and Human Development Authority in Dubai dedicates their ground floor to an indoor park where meetings are held under trees, and birds fly freely. A Seattle tech company has planned treehouse meeting rooms, taking advantage of their suburban setting. And Amazon’s biospheres are nearing completion. Organizations will continue to explore creative ways to foster a stronger connection with nature and the environment.

Unfortunately, many people view work as a place to plug in and check out. It’s often not considered inspiring, revitalizing, or even safe. For the best ideas to surface, people need freedom and permission to express themselves without fear of being diminished or ridiculed. Workplaces of the future will nurture the innate human instinct to create and express. Perhaps workplaces will have multi-purpose spaces where a variety of activities can be supported. A greater appreciation for and encouragement of the arts is likely coming. Many of my interviewees expressed their love of carefully curated artwork that told powerful stories of place and fostered a sense of belonging.

One Seattle-based financial office houses a century-old collection of Pacific Northwest art. The artifacts, such as a bentwood box and ceremonial masks, convey a deep appreciation for the region. Atlas Coffee Importers adopted a theme of skulls, which it playfully displays in paintings, actual skeletons in meeting rooms and in small details like cabinet knobs. Artwork offers an opportunity for an organization to tell its story, and the more in-depth and thoroughly told, the more people connect with it.

Workplaces of the future will thoughtfully engage the senses. Most office workers rely nearly exclusively on visual input, hoping to block out noisy interruptions. But, people are more than brains and a set of eyes. One interviewee described a strange joy she felt when the wind from the window gently blew papers across her desk. Touch, smell, sound, and movement can help promote presence. Design ideas include consciously changing flooring textures to create a tactile experience when walking through a space. There will be more walking meetings. In one office building, the simple addition of classical music in the elevators adds a new dimension to one’s arrival to work. Workplaces of the future will respond to and engage with their users. Workers will feel recognized and welcomed. Things like kinetic sculptures and interactive design features will increase. There will be more attention to details like the texture of upholstery and the feel of materials.

People often feel overwhelmed in typical open office layouts. Repeatedly, interviewees note audio distraction as an annoyance and cause of lost productivity. One interviewee said her favorite place in the office was the parking garage because she could have a phone call and actually hear the other person. Workplaces of the future must balance sensory input. Spaces could offer some sort of sensory deprivation opportunity that could act as detox chambers for people feeling overwhelmed and needing to re-center. Perhaps a classic library concept could resurface in which dedicated areas of a workplace would have strict rules about talking and sounds.

As technology becomes smaller and more mobile, desks could cease to be the primary driver in the workplace. Workplaces will likely organize around work types, providing a variety of spaces, such as the afore-mentioned library. Three primary archetypes take the form: library, café, and living room. The café offers a social setting where people feel engaged even while alone. Activity and vitality dominate. More controlled and likely enclosed, the living room provides a comfortable environment for groups. The library could be open but should promote a sense of stillness and calm. Without desks as the main element, the workplace could drastically change form.

There is a wealth of untapped creativity and intellectual genius sitting inside dreary office buildings staring at computer screens. At some point, these people give up. They accept that work is not a place where they can be fully alive. They live for weekends and vacations because work is a holding bin where tasks get completed, but life doesn’t happen. The workplace of the future will support a fuller human experience. Work will become a place people go for inspiration, to feel engaged, and to surprise themselves with their own potential.

Meaningful interpersonal interactions, a connection with nature, encouragement to create and express, and engagement of the senses will inform the workplace of the future. The work of the future will be based on synergy, empathy, creativity, playfulness, humor, and kindness because these are uniquely human and will not be replaced by machines. They are also a lot more fun than filing. A new concept of work will guide the spaces designed to support it. And they won’t be offices.

Bonnie Toland

Bonnie Toland, based in CallisonRTKL’s Seattle office, has designed across a variety of sectors both in North America and the Middle East. With complimentary degrees in cultural studies and political science, as well as interior design, she sees design as a reflection of social values, which can be examined, challenged, and expressed to spur positive social change. She aspires to design for the end-user’s emotional, social, and psychological wellbeing, as well as functional needs. In her personal time, she enjoys dance, music, and literature, all of which keep her inspired.

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