Kuba Granicki, Alessio Lacovig and Mike Rassmann, the three partners behind Johannesburg-based Architects Of Justice, sat down to have a discussion on how the workplace, and the architect’s role in its design, has evolved over the past few decades and point out areas where they feel it can be improved.
How do you see office spaces having changed over the years?
Mike Rassmann: From our experience, the office space has changed dramatically, and it is continuing to evolve. Just as an example, with the trend of people working from home, spaces like the study are disappearing. Your office is becoming the dining room table, your bed or a coffee shop – your office is a bag and a laptop and you can literally fold it open and fold it shut. Yet we are seeing this played out in offices spaces as well. We are currently proposing offices for a medical company and they want us to include a number of hot desks; they don’t want designated spaces for people because the staff will come and go as they please. Due to the nature of work of staff in many businesses today, they do not have to sit at the same place all the time, so they don’t even need their own stuff there. Just somewhere to sit, plug-in, and work. Obviously some people still like to have pictures of their kids floating around, but for a lot of people, that’s not the way they work anymore.
Kuba Granicki: Twenty years ago you had a pool of secretaries and you had office space for them and you would send stuff via fax, but now you have industry disruptors throughout. Something was sold one way before, but somebody is going to come along and remove the need for that sales office, because it’s all being done digitally now, so the entire office structure and system that used to work, has disappeared, and that’s one reason why commercial space is changing so much. Companies need to be fluid to be able to move up and down with the market, and so does the office space.
In the past, the sales department was typically open plan, sitting at a desk with a landline and a computer – it was all about pushing emails and talking to people on the phone. But technology has interrupted the traditional commercial space. There are issues with open plan offices; you have different departments who hear things that they don’t need to hear; you have open plan offices where CEO’s and managers have to have phone booths because occasionally they need to make sensitive phone calls which other staff should not overhear.So not all the change is for the better, as almost overnight an entire department can become irrelevant. A process which used to take eight staff members can now be done by one and I think that’s the biggest disruptor in commercial space.
So workspaces have changed due to technology, has the design of them followed suit?
Rassmann: I think in some ways.
Granicki: But not quick enough maybe.
Alessio Lacovig: At the end of the day, people still need a space to work in. Ergonomically speaking, a person is a person; you need somewhere to sit, somewhere to stand, somewhere to put your things, so those smaller elements of an office space don’t change. The change is how that office space is defined. Is it an amalgamation of lots of little desks or is it a flexible environment to allow you to have a meeting here, a conference call there, a boardroom table in that space? The furniture is a big part of that as well.
Granicki: We recently saw an example of a small office where a table came down from chains so that the staff can eat their lunch, and then it goes back up into the ceiling and it’s a light fitting on the other side.
If you look at what Google has done compared to the rest of the corporate world, they have changed the game. They feed you, they take care of your washing, they have people to take care of your every need. When you are at Google they get the best out of you because they make you comfortable in your work environment. I think that a lot of other companies want to claim that they are like Google, but they haven’t restructured their entire company to work that way. A third of the staff that come to us these days ask us if they can work flexitime or remotely.
Do you find that South African companies are trying to get closer to Google’s level?
Rassmann: I think that a lot of them are trying. Especially the big corporates who try get you to remain in your office space for as long as possible by offering you gyms and somewhere to eat at the office.
Granicki: If you have a big company, you have to take care of your staff.
Lacovig: It’s a strategy. What is going to benefit the staff? Because at the end of the day, if they are working well and working hard, it’s going to benefit the company. If you look at something like the new Discovery Place in Sandton, you go into that building and it has different canteens on ground level which are accessible for the public so that you can meet people there who are not from the building. They have retail in the building, so as an employee of Discovery, it’s convenient for you not to leave your office environment. Companieds like Discovery can do this, but smaller entities can’t because they don’t have the resources.
So what can the smaller businesses do at their own scale?
Rassmann: They can located themselves close to these amenities, or share their space with other smaller entities. What we have been seeing a lot lately are co-working spaces. So if you are a smaller company of four or five people, one of those becomes very viable for you. You get all your meeting rooms, all your desks – often as part of a fully furnished packages – a canteen, maybe a barista making coffee for you and your clients, and you are sharing it with a bunch of other small companies who you have an opportunity to network with. I think these are the next big thing, but what we think is missing is that once you get slightly bigger than that, to say 10 people, that segment of the market is being left out of the entire equation. It’s too expensive to be in the co-working space and too expensive to have your own office space which offers the same amenities to your staff.
Granicki: Google have set a precedent for staff members to happy. People look around at how cool other work environment are and measure theirs against them. Many companies have identified in the last five years that their brand and look have stagnated, and that the old office no longer meets the requirements of the new staff. Even a company that set up ten years ago is different now – the laptops, the phones, scanners – there’s so much tech that has changed commerce and industry in the last decade, and architecture for the spaces in which they operate hasn’t. The millennial workforce expects more.
Lacovig: The millennial ‘thing’ is huge – it’s something which is starting to affect companies and I think the effects of this will only be seen in the next decade.
Granicki: You see offices these days with slides to get you downstairs!
Yet how much of it is gimmicky and doesn’t really add value?
Granicki: When would you ever get tired of going down a slide? (Laughs)
Rassmann: There are gimmicks we have seen which backfire in buildings. Morphosis did a building in San Francisco and they thought it would be great to have the elevator only stop at every second floor to encourage people to use the stairs – you’d almost always have to walk a flight of stairs. All of a sudden the service lift started to become oversubscribed because that went to every floor and nobody wanted to walk the extra flight of stairs!
Lacovig: Or your productivity drops because everybody just wants to go down the slide! There are things you just cannot predict, but that’s part of design. Sometimes you want to throw some gimmicky things in there – you want to have an edge and you want to attract the right kind of people to your office. I think the advertising agencies get it right; they call it ‘the nest’. They want you to be comfortable at work and want you to be happy working late into the night – why should you go home, it’s more comfortable there?
Granicki: I have seen local law firms which have pods fitted with gel packs, so you go in and the gel packs cover you to make sure that your suit doesn’t get creased while you have a 10 minute nap. “Don’t go home because you are tired, go have a power nap in the pod then come back and work.” That particular tech was adopted from airports for the business class travellers.
These days in open plan offices you’ll see meeting pods which create acoustic separations. Open plan is cool, but people are now a lot more aware about acoustics and partitions. In our own offices, on the directive of transparency, we have removed the many offices and created zones, almost like you’d see in open plan offices. Glass partitions have been used which help to deal with the acoustics, theft and lighting, yet the transparency remains and different departments each have their own place. Transparency is key, but that doesn’t mean that open plan will work for every office environment. In terms of the evolution of the office, it went from everybody having their own office, to cubicles, then open plan, and now I think you are going to see a bit of ‘this and that’, a mix of all of the above. You need separation for certain staff and departments.
Lacovig: A lot of it is driven by cost and economy, because you go from everybody getting their own office, which is obviously more demanding in terms of space, to the cubicle scenario where you are trying to cram more people into your building, but with everyone in the mind-set of having their own space. It then moves away from that and the partitions are removed and you jam more people in there, but then you start to realise that open plan doesn’t work so well because you have these acoustic problems, staff have no privacy and they don’t feel like they have their own space anymore. So office environments need to be flexible to accommodate a number of scenarios.
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