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To Trend or Not to Trend?


Follow these new shifts in office décor or risk being left behind, says Michael Harrison.
The evolution of office space. The evolution of office space.

From the advent of Taylorism in the early 1900s, when American engineer Frederick Taylor introduced the concept of the hierarchical office where bosses looked down from their offices onto their clerks crowded in desks below, to the rise of middle management that saw the emergence of the cubicle in the 1980s, offices have long been a bellwether for societal shifts.

Today, the digital age has seen the employee increasingly less office bound, thanks to the enabling power of the smartphone allowing him or her the ease of carrying virtually all their tools of trade with them. Thus, the networked office, where cubicles are dropped for more modular, pod-like work stations, is increasingly becoming part of the office landscape.

And in this new connected world, the boardroom has become a conduit for action, no longer constrained by distance, with video conferencing and other technological advances enabling decision makers to have access to information and communication with stakeholders far beyond its four walls.

While elements of the traditional office continue to remain, here are five key trends in corporate-interior architecture that will transform the office as we know it today:

Trend 1: Untangling the wires

Technology has enabled us to do things simpler and better – and with lightning speed. But, in the connected world, these devices need to be connected to other devices and to power sources, which has seen hundreds of metres of cabling encroaching on office space.

Cabling is a huge cause of visual mess and can be particularly distracting in the boardroom.

Not only are wires unsightly when not properly stored – they can also be unsafe.

And as new technological innovations manifest in the workplace, cabling is bound to become even more prevalent.

With the pursuit of more modern, clean and simplistic lines in the office environment, there is undoubtedly a pressing need to remove the clutter of cabling.

We have seen a noticeable increase in requests to modernise, clean up and address cable management, to create more minimalist office interiors that are not dogged down by unsightly cabling for laptops, docking stations and other devices. And in the boardroom, in particular, uncovered wires can be distracting.

Many companies are opting to move towards wireless-conferencing solutions for their boardrooms – but beyond technical solutions, interior design is playing a role by introducing innovative solutions such as compartments built into tables and pop-up interfaces.

Trend 2: Nature moves inside

With the rise of the urban sprawl in business nodes such as the Sandton business district, open parkland areas to relax, unwind and recharge are increasingly scarce. And with workers spending more and more time at the office, there are even less opportunities to take time out and breathe in the fresh air.

In fact, a British/Dutch 2014 study found that enriching the office with plants can actually increase productivity by 15%.

Notwithstanding outdoor decks and plant features, well-positioned and well-maintained indoor plants add warmth to office spaces, while other materials such as raw wood, stone and bamboo flooring are also reflective of this theme to bring nature indoors.

Cork, which is currently experiencing a resurgence, is another material reflecting this trend – and it is not only eco-friendly, but also boasts acoustic properties.

Introducing other design elements such as skylights and atriums contributes to this design aesthetic and enables your employees to increase their much-needed vitamin D.

Take a longer-term approach when greening your workplace, though. While green walls or hanging gardens are quite trendy at the moment (and do have a role to play in greening environments), they tend to be overdone and could make your office look dated in the years to come.

And it’s a good idea to exercise greening restraint – remember, not every corner needs a pot plant.

Trend 3: More fluid and multipurpose workspaces

Back in 1994, Jay Chiat introduced the concept of the virtual office – a Frank Gehry-designed office of the future where offices, desks and personal items were banned. The great advertising guru, though, proved to be a little too ahead of his time – productivity plummeted at the Los Angeles-based TBWA\Chiat\Day agency, with disoriented employees fleeing the office.

Fast-forward to 2016, though, and the traditional single-person-occupied desk is a thing of the past. We are no longer sitting at a desk, we are comfortable working in an open-plan area, in a coffee shop or anywhere we can find a table to plonk down our devices.

While not suitable for every company (law practices, for instance, require closed-off, cellular work spaces due to discretion and confidentiality requirements), the rise of the activity-based, non-assigned work station takes its cue from the old hot-desk concept. While this is a largely open-plan office, the design needs to lend itself to enclaves such as closed-off quieter spaces or small interview-type rooms, if the need arises.

Furnishings such as plush, upholstered chairs with enveloping backs allow for conversations without distracting other nearby colleagues, while telephone pods allow you to make that call discreetly and quietly.

Trend 4: The smaller and more intimate, the better

As mentioned in the previous trend, there is still a need for a cellular office environment for certain professions, such as the legal fraternity. And where traditional-style offices continue to be required, they are now being reshaped to reflect the individual company’s DNA and approach to work.

Art, interiors that take their cue from the home, beautifully fitted-out spaces and bespoke furnishings are some of the means in which interior design can enhance a company’s brand in a multidimensional way.

Space is also becoming an increasingly valuable commodity, and so innovative concepts that maximise vertical storage and horizontal work spaces are sought after.

In one family business we recently worked on, the kitchen area doubles as a more personalised staff-meeting room.

What is crucial, though, is for a company to enlist space planners at the onset of a new project, to ensure these innovations are effectively implemented. The planner is able to do an extensive assessment of the client’s current and future needs and filter this intel down to the developers and architects, effectively designing the building from the inside out.

Trend 5: Breaking the norm with breakaway areas

Breakaway spaces are becoming more comfortable, relaxing, lounge-like areas to encourage office workers to not spend up to eight hours stuck behind a desk all day. We want people to move around, interact, mingle and share ideas.

We also like to strategically place these breakaway areas in spaces connecting divergent parts of the company, so that you can interact with people from other departments you might not ordinarily come across. This collaborative environment can trigger new ideas, uncover synergies, and harness new opportunities for the company.

Trend 6: Goodbye canteen, hello fine dining

Google is legendary for serving up to 40 000 free gourmet feasts – everything from vegan truffles to Indian cuisine – to employees at its California HQ. And companies are following the internet-search behemoth in understanding the quickest way to an employee’s loyalty is through their stomach.

High-end food services, proffered in carefully designed environs, are giving employees an opportunity for plated meal services a short walk away from their work stations.

While not necessarily a free meal, this restaurant-style experience is seeing companies dropping the instant coffee for good-quality brews, while healthier, fresher food and health drinks are also on offer.

Served in breakaway areas to enable people from all parts of the company to eat, mix and share ideas, furnishings and aesthetics are reflecting this new work-dining experience.

Invariably leading onto patios where you can have your coffee while taking in a relaxing view, these areas also need to be intuitive of the work cycle of employees – where staff often work longer hours, what is a busy lunch-time location needs to be able to morph into a quieter, more intimate staff and client dining area at night.

Tips for picking the perfect office furnishings

Do your homework. Consider each purchase as an investment in the future of your company, and as your company grows and expands, items such as desks and chairs will need to be reordered. That is why it is important to make sure that the range you’re looking at has guaranteed continuity for a minimum of 15 years, so that you will be able to reorder new furnishings as your needs change.

Be timeless. Trends come and go, and if you follow them, your office could feel dated after only a few seasons. Designs should be modern and simple – that way you can rest assured your office will feel contemporary for years to come.

Credentials are key. Make sure your supplier is reputable with a good track record.

Heavy duty. Select materials that are hard wearing, and will not scratch or mark.

Keep moving. Opt for modular furniture that is easy to move, reorient and interchange – that way you can reconfigure your office space without needing to accommodate un-budgeted expenses.

Your chair is your ergonomic throne. The single most important investment in your office is your chair. Make sure it is comfortable, yet supportive.

Be tech savvy. Make sure your furniture caters to the technology you are going to use, and includes details such as hidden panels to hide unsightly cabling.

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