The spatial organization in workplaces has seen some relatively stable trends, but the aftermath of 2020 still lingers. With the perception of spaces and our interactions with them irrevocably changed, how does the office of the future forge its path ahead?
Cognitive science, behavioural psychology, organizational structure, and real-estate trends have long dictated office design. Overriding the norm, health practices now define the dos and don’ts of how workspaces must function. The pandemic leaves us with a slim chance of going back to the office we once knew. A collective action problem, it demands we change as a society.
Collaborative professions, in particular, have faced the biggest challenge. When they once thrived on hierarchical interactions within and outside the organization, today they try to find solace in the singular. Design studios are an excellent example. Their spatial planning has always reflected, in some form, their inherently collaborative nature – a necessity of the industry. Studios of the 1900s featured expansive drafting rooms, lined with rows of large drawing tables. Though strictly efficient, their structure allowed for social interfaces. The work culture was at its peak, and the creative spirit of the studio never once dimmed.
The advent of AutoCAD shrank the space required per person, bringing down the studio’s investment in real estate. As corporate attitudes shaped the studios, they organized workstations inside low-walled cubicles, but also left room for collaborative work areas and shared spaces. Though the studio underwent a metamorphosis, its essence persevered. The open plan office, though contested, was the studio’s backbone. Today, studios have taken this idea further. They cater to a level of flexibility and emotional cognizance previously unseen, allowing interactions to find its rightful place between performance and creativity.
The pandemic has upturned this model in an instant, making physical space a costly affair, in more ways than one. Working remotely has left designers isolated, detached from the creative ecosystem that binds them. Digital tools cannot entirely replicate in-person dialogue. Design, especially in the conceptual stages, requires constant rework and multiple heads on the problem at hand. This aspect of the studio has entirely been lost. The collaborative component has crumbled, often extending to performance and creativity. Though many studios are now trying to achieve some semblance of normalcy – meeting safety thresholds, staggered shifts, designing over screen-share and sketching digitally, how sustainable are these methods in the longer run? Is there an alternative, or is it time we found a midway and switched entirely to the other side of the open-office spectrum?