Flexible-friendly Berlin lives up to reputation for disruption

Berlin has been at the epicentre of artistic, social and political disruption in the past. Now its workplace culture is set for transformation, according to the WORKTECH Berlin 2022 conference

As a city, Berlin has a well-deserved reputation for disruption – artistic, cultural, social, economic and political. So where better to host the first face-to-face WORKTECH conference in Germany since the pandemic?

WORKTECH Berlin 2022 – held at the award-winning Edge Grand Central building on 25 May – didn’t disappoint, demonstrating that the disruptive forces that have shifted the workplace scenery elsewhere are now shaking the foundations of the traditionally stable German workplace.

The country that gave us Bürolandschaft in the 1950s and 60s, retreated from it to the enclosed two-and-three person offices of the Mittlestand in the 70s and 80s, experimented with the Combi-office in the 1990s, and explored agile and activity-based working with Neue Arbeit in the early 2000s, is now embarked on a new journey.

That journey is towards the flexible office in the hybrid era, as a WORKTECH Academy study with The Office Group (TOG) of the five phases of German design revealed. It involves much adaptation of office space, the introduction of new tracking technologies and the growing provision of flexible workspaces. TOG has already opened flexible venues in Berlin, Hamburg and Frankfurt, and a conversation onstage with Charlie Green, co-founder of The Office Group, gave an insight into what Germany’s new trajectory might be.

Why we want offices

Conference chair Dr Sandra Breuer of Loop set a tone of challenge right from the start. ‘We don’t need horses but still love to ride them’, she said. ‘We don’t need offices but we still want to go to them.’

When those offices are as imaginative and inspiring as Lego’s brand new Danish headquarters in Billund, then the great office return is not a problem. A presentation of the project by Timothy Ahrensbach, Lego’s head of workplace experience, was one of the high points of the entire conference. The division of space into three equal segments – desk/focus space, collaboration/ meeting space and social space – showcased how a new office development can be directly relevant to the hybrid model.

Elsewhere, however, speakers suggested that German companies are struggling to bring their people back to the office when there is a choice to work elsewhere. ‘Do you dream of canteen food? Do you want to walk across that bridge in the rain?’ These were the plaintive questions asked in a video made by energy company Uniper to promote its ‘New Normal’ programme which has got rid of a third of its desks and expanded its collaboration zones.

Innovative ideas

An occupier panel chaired by Peter Stueck of Gensler Germany put its finger on the root of the problem – current offices are just not built for hybrid. But at least WORKTECH Berlin offered us plenty of innovative ideas to make the switch – from Accenture’s exploration of low code development technologies to a report by Vecos into the role of smart storage in dynamic working. There were also some pitches by disruptive start-ups – NorNorm’s subscription model for furniture and Farmie’s plug-and-play vertical farming units particularly caught the eye.

Closing keynote speaker Elizabeth Nelson described a ‘healthy office revolution’ in which people would return to the workplace for wellness. This is a world of biophilic design, natural materials and circadian lighting. Lack of control and lack of sleep are key determinants of employee burnout, she explained. We sleep an hour less a night on average than a decade ago (seven hours instead of eight). Berlin’s restless energy in the face of workplace change is not about to change that.

View the WORKTECH Berlin 22 review site here
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