Madrid muses on what we’ll really require from the future office

From robot plants to biophilic design, WORKTECH Madrid cut a path through the undergrowth of workplace design as several competing visions of the future tussled for attention

More than 200 workplace professionals were drawn to the old Banco de Bilbao tower in the heart of Madrid’s business district on 10 October to gain inspiration from 20 speakers leading the way in workplace innovation at WORKTECH Madrid 2017.

In uncharacteristically hothouse October weather, Martha Thorne, Executive Director of the Pritzker Prize and Dean of Madrid’s IE School of Architecture and Design, started the day with a workplace-through-the-ages approach to understanding where future workplace design is heading.

Thorne drew examples from the first office building built in 1891 in St Louis to the game-changing Larkin Building of 1904, through 20th century cubicle working and into 21st century collaborative and community working.

But despite having more than 100 years of history to learn from, do we have a clear idea of what we really want from an office?

New life into old buildings

One thing we do want is to breathe new life into old, neglected and under-used buildings.

According to Colin McGadie and Irene Guerra Gomez of BDG Architects, which has a strong portfolio in this area, ‘doing little can be powerful’. From its home in London’s Sea Containers building, to Brewhouse Yard in Leeds and, most recently, the ex-Telefonica building in Madrid, BDG takes a less-is-more approach to workplace architecture.

‘Risk taking from clients and developers is what we need to produce creativity’- Colin McGadie, BDG

While BDG searches for the art of the possible in disused spaces, Ulrich Blum of Zaha Hadid Architects is making waves at the other end of the architectural spectrum by using data from past projects to learn how to develop future buildings. With particular reference to groundscaper projects in China, Blum identified that light, visibility and communication are the key concepts in office design.

Clearly, another thing we want is for technology to serve human needs at work.

This is why Marco Pedrazzo of Carlo Ratti Associati was clearly onto a good thing when he demonstrated how technology could be used to better connect us to nature, with reference to Fondazione Agnelli in Italy.

Pedrazzo showed that in a space where there are strict building constraints and direct access to nature is not possible, technology could be an invisible enabler. Robot plants in the building are automated to regulate temperature and air quality, but employees do not see the technology influencing their environment.

Apps for experience

A better workplace experience is now on most people’s wishlist.

Accordingly, workplace apps are becoming the glue that will connect every aspect of working life in the future, according to UnGroup’s Philip Ross, who talked about how the app-centric workplace will revolutionise connectivity in the workplace – from sparking serendipitous encounters among colleagues to wayfinding inside the office.

The app is all about experience, giving employees control of their environment and providing them with new opportunities within the organisation.

Enterprise City UK’s Daisey Barnes and Tim Gee exclusively revealed its new workplace app, Dot.The app, made in partnership with Happi, a new venture from UnGroup. This will provide connectivity and wayfinding functions within the biggest corporate floorplate in North England in the St Johns district development in Manchester.

Knowing your occupants

Some visions of the future are all encompassing.

‘The office should be your partner, butler, and mother all in one,’ argued Juan Antonio Casado of Liquid Squat at Accenture Design. By this, he meant the workspace should always know what the needs of the occupant are and adapt the space accordingly. For this to happen, Casado identified three key factors: user-centric experience, adaptable physical space and technology that works end-to-end.

Luis Martin, CEO of Barrabés Biz, built on this by saying that technology, people, and culture are inter-linked as people use technology, which in turn changes their habits and behaviour, which changes the culture of an organisation.

The natural work world

Other visions of the future are focused less on tech than on nature, wellbeing and community.

Biophilic design expert Oliver Heath presented the fundamentals of the subject – to survive, thrive and flourish. His research focuses on people’s innate desire to be near nature and natural processes. He revealed that 85 per cent of workplaces are in urban environments, of which 47 per cent have no natural light and 58 per cent have no plants, despite a 15 per cent increase in productivity when plants are introduced into a building.

Susana Saiz of Arup discussed the WELL Community Standard, which incorporates air and water quality, nourishment, natural light, fitness, comfort, mental health, temperature, sound, materials and community. Corporates should aim to tick these boxes to become WELL Community certified.

Sandra Romain of Aguirre Newman said that we need more than mindfulness – we need to start preaching ‘kindfulness’. This is a people-centric approach that practices active listening to grow the organisation.

Monica Torres Fernandez of Santander Bank stated three key principles of successful change management: participation and listening, changing ways of communication, and a constant change management to support new ways of working.

And Key Portilla Kuramura of Studio Banana described how the new McCann Worldgroup HQ in Madrid was created with cluster ‘villages’ to enable employees to quickly form strong bonds with each other.

The hothouse conditions merely let a thousand flowers bloom…

While data and technology are constantly encouraging new ways of working, stronger cultures and better employee experience appear to be the over-arching goals for organisations today.

According to WORKTECH Madrid, what we really want from our future workplace is to hold several competing visions in the same frame of mind.

The hothouse conditions of the conference merely let a thousand flowers bloom.

Speaker Interviews

Oliver Heath, Oliver Heath Designs

View exclusive WORKTECH Academy interviews from the event in the INNOVATION ZONE
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