The Great Inversion: why the workplace feels upside down
Standard practices and long-held assumptions about the future of work are being overturned, according to an array of speakers and projects at the WORKTECH Berlin conference 2023
In terms of its art, history, politics and culture, Berlin as a city has made a habit of standing the world on its head. So it should be no surprise that when it come comes to the future of work and workplace, things should be upside down too.
Designer Philip Tidd, Gensler’s principal and managing director in Germany, describes this trend as ‘The Great Inversion’. As a keynote speaker at the WORKTECH Berlin conference, held at Edge Grand Central on 25 May 2023, he suggested that the big question asked by employees before the pandemic – ‘why can’t I work remotely?’ – has been replaced by a new one after it – ‘why should I go to the office?’
Gensler has carried out a survey of more than 2,000 office workers across Germany, revealing that in 2023 just 48 per cent are working at a company site compared to 82 per cent in 2019. It’s a big turnaround in the traditionally office-centric German market – 22 per cent of Germans are working from home and 30 per cent from other spaces such as parks, libraries, cafés and coworking spaces. It clearly took the coronavirus crisis to open minds to flexible working.
When they come into the office, German workers primarily want to sit with their teams, although Gensler’s research revealed that a mix of spaces is ideal for the wide range of tasks to be undertaken in a hybrid work environment. Tidd pointed out that Germany’s enduring attachment to providing small, enclosed, two- and three-person offices down long corridors is ironically a ready solution for hybrid work which could see the Germans finally get ahead of the workplace curve, having been behind it for years. A great inversion, indeed.
Elsewhere at the Berlin conference, this topsy-turvy theme reverberated. We used to design workspaces for a neurotypical workforce but now we should design them for a neurodiverse one, according to Kay Sargent of architects HOK. Sargent, who introduced a lively session on workplace inclusion in partnership with Arup, explained that everyone can benefit from a neurodiverse design approach that accounts for both the hyper-sensitive (who can’t take a lot of stimulation) and the hypno-sensitive (who need more stimulation).
Eidin Majidpour and Anjula Manamperi of Gallop introduced research which showed how workplace expectations are being inverted. Instead of a paycheck and a boss, people now want a purpose and a coach. A panel discussion featuring German occupiers, including Sparda Bank and publishing company Axel Springer, revealed that office designers are now placing elements that were once on the periphery of the plan (such as kitchens and social spaces) right at the centre.
Closing keynote Andreea Visan of Carlo Ratti Associati suggested that, when it comes to company innovation, ‘strong ties’ within the organisation need to be balanced by ‘weak ties’ which act as a bridge between disparate parts of the organisational network. Weak ties are what suffered most during the pandemic.
Data always utilised
Inversion theory was not universally applicable. In an entertaining discourse on the history of data in office buildings, author and consultant Juriaan van Meel explained how data has always been used to ‘sell new workplace concepts’ – this has been the case going right back to Thomas Allen and his Allen Curve in 1973.
In a discussion about psychological safety, Lucile Kamar of British broadcaster ITN stuck to some well-informed, unchanging principles about removing the stigma around mental health. Some of WORKTECH Berlin’s excellent case studies reflected time-honoured design attributes related to light, space and flow, in particular Henn’s city-like HQ for Europe’s largest communications firm Service Plan.
However, the sense of a sudden and radical upending of perspective was never far away from the conference proceedings. Even the workplace tours that were a key element of WORKTECH Berlin 2023 felt counter-intuitive.
Edge Suedkreuz Berlin, which hosts energy company Vattenfall in Germany’s largest timber-hybrid office building, and Edge East Side Berlin both confound expectations in terms of health and sustainability. The heavy monumentalism of Helmut Jahn’s soon-to-be-renamed Sony Center at Potsdamer Platz is being scaled back with a light touch by architects Kinzo as part of a major remodelling by Oxford Properties Group. And Nike One Central, another Kinzi project, turns the standard US multinational corporate HQ on its head with a clever, low-profile insertion in the residential Berlin neighbourhood of Friedrichshain.
‘The sense of a sudden and radical upending of perspective was never far away…’
The great American designer Paul Rand, who designed IBM’s iconic corporate identity, once explained that you should be able to spot the IBM office building effortlessly from the air as you flew into any city, so standard, fixed and recognisable was its global branding. Nike has pivoted entirely in the opposite direction in Berlin with a largely hidden location, extensive use of local artists and suppliers, and flexible spaces.
It’s not idle speculation to suggest that many long-held workplace practices will be capsized for some time to come. Are we ready for ‘The Great Inversion’? On the evidence of WORKTECH Berlin 2023, we’re already standing on our heads.
Access the WORKTECH Berlin 2023 event hub here.