Office of the Future

19th February, 2021

Our workplaces are facing a series of challenges in a rapidly changing future and the design and creation of new workplaces needs to be radically different from the past. Ed Hayden, Director at architects Scott Brownrigg, highlights some of many the challenges and solutions available.

Some of the key challenges we face in new office design can be considered under three general headings: the pandemic impact and the transformation of our ways of working, responding to infection by creating healthy working environments and climate change and designing for net zero carbon. The way in which we work has changed nearly overnight, with the pandemic transforming large parts of the centralised office-based workforce to a dispersed homeworking society, and the effects of this are likely to last.  What does this mean for the structure of companies, and what they require from offices in the future?

Technology offers autonomy, allowing anyone to work remotely anywhere, and the implementation of 5G technology will reinforce this. Individual 'computer based' focused working may well take place in the home setting, so we must consider what becomes of the traditional commercial office building. Whilst homeworking offers many benefits it also has some major disadvantages, dependent on your circumstances and if you have the space it can be great for focused tasks. You can work without interruption, surrounded by all the comforts of a home office tailored to your specific requirements. This shift to a homeworking lifestyle has been embraced by the majority of those who can do it, so what becomes of our offices and what do we need from them in the future?

Collaboration, face-to-face contact and human social interaction are awkward and limited over the computer or phone screen. Fluid meetings where multiple items can be discussed in a freeform manner, splitting away from the primary topic and rejoining with new ideas, can be very difficult over networking software. Our buildings need to fulfil that role and become places for human co-operation and forums for creative collaboration.

Responding to the challenges of the current (and future) pandemics the design of offices will need to limit the risk of infection spread. To rebuild acceptance of the 'office' we need to provide healthy environments, and to create these will require fundamental changes, which will be reflected in the offices we design for the future.  The office of the future will need to mitigate against the spread of future contagious diseases and allow the office to continue running effectively through any future pandemics, this has a number of fundamental effects on office design. 

The prevalent use of air-conditioning has meant that in general 90% of the air in offices is recycled, and this is supplemented by 10% fresh air. This may no longer be acceptable given the perceived risk of airborne infection spread. We anticipate a reversal, with 90% of fresh air being a new requirement, with possible changes to the design guidance such as the Well Building Standards and Building Regulations. Whether or not this risk has been proven there is still the issue of the building occupants' perception – knowing that the air is recirculated and not filtered may well create anxiety and discourage occupants from using the space.

A move to a natural or displacement ventilation solution with increased fresh air and avoidance of recycled air is a solution: the office of the future uses the atrium stack-effect to draw fresh air in through the façade and vent stale air out through the roof avoiding cross-contamination risks. During the winter, stale air is collected at the top of the atrium and used to preheat fresh air using a plate heat exchanger, again avoiding contamination. The heating and cooling of the space is implemented using radiant panels which can radiate heat (or cool) to adjust the internal temperature. Reduced occupation densities, carefully planned layouts, and limited contact with surfaces (such as door handles) are all matters that may become normal design considerations in the new generation of workplace design.

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