Nº 268

Third Places

Neue Arbeitsräume

In the 1990’s the zeitgeist was all about the flexible office with desk sharing and teleworking. The main result was that employees stored their personal documents in a kind of roll container and then docked this at a desk of their choice when starting work, or worked in the so-called virtual office from any desired location. It turned out that these concepts didn’t function well in practice, because they destroyed all sense of social cohesion. The sociologist Richard Sennett refers to this as the non-territorial office in which – as a consequence of globalisation – people come together for only a short period of time and relationships are subject to rapid change.

Today, the main aim is to design workplace environments that support collaboration and communication and inspire both creative and experimental work. Or in a nutshell: promote innovation. With regard to this, ex manager Thomas Sattelberger stated that companies need to become more democratic. The trend is moving in this direction. One essential factor in developing new ideas is diversity, meaning the incorporation of different approaches, spheres of experience, and ways of thinking. The most important thing here is to enable a creative and iterative process in interdisciplinary teams. So what do these new design strategies and spatial concepts for the workplace of the future actually involve?

Third Places


One format intended to strengthen a sense of well-being and social interaction is the Work Café – a so-called third place. This is a term coined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg, alongside the first place (the home) and the second place (the office) it refers to the public place, where you meet other people, gain inspiration, reflect or relax. People with different jobs, abilities, and talents come together here. Steelcase, a global company for office furnishings and interiors, has transferred these properties to the field of work by creating the Work Café. The Work Café offers refreshments, a hearthside, a library, lounge furniture for working or for conversation as well as bright indoor and outdoor areas, and it becomes first port of call for mobile employees and a meeting point for management staff, colleagues from other locations, visitors or customers. Personal communication, mutual trust, and interpersonal relationships are key aspects here. This improves internal communication and a sense of identification with the company and its philosophy, emphasises Steelcase.

Networked structures and collaborative forms of organisation are important in a mobile, global, and fast-changing world of work. It’s no coincidence that SAP inaugurated the Hana Haus in Palo Alto (US) in 2015. Open to all, the “who’s who” of Silicon Valley rubs shoulders here with newcomers in a relaxed work and coffee house atmosphere. The work desk costs three US dollars an hour in the co-working space and at the Tech Desk you can learn all about the latest technologies. This was the brainchild of Hasso Plattner. His Potsdam-based institute bearing his name has a major focus on processes of innovation and the framework conditions to enable these. So it wasn’t just about well-being, but above all about the rapid creation of networks and the exchange of important information to accelerate innovation and increase productivity.

“Innovation can arise through spontaneous contacts, not behind closed doors,” says John Small, director of design at Steelcase, who heads the new Learning and Innovation Center in Munich. The central element here is a wide staircase that connects the four levels like a diagonal axis and is intended to facilitate the flow of communication and spontaneous encounters among staff. “Everybody should move freely,” he declares.

The World’s Largest Open Room Plan


The huge roof terrace of the new Facebook complex of buildings by architect Frank Gehry could also be described as a third place. It accommodates a three-and-a-half hectare park with trees, catering points, and relaxation facilities. 2,800 people work in this “world’s largest open room plan,” as founder Mark Zuckerberg stresses. Even if the trend is shifting towards being able to work everywhere – be this the third place or the home office – the office space itself has not become superfluous to requirements. The office may be changing, but it is certainly not about to disappear. People need a space where they feel included, where they can meet, and where they can work in a focused manner. However, the workplace of the future is much more than the extended living room of the start-up and creative scene or the smart open-plan office with its customary loud ambience. It is a complex ecosystem comprising areas for diverse activities and working styles. As early as 2013, the Innovation Center of Steelcase in Grand Rapids (US) was equipped as a creative campus with areas for concentrated work, working in teams, social interaction, and also for learning or leisure. The mix of open spaces and protected or closed areas allows each person to decide for him- or herself on the degree of privacy or interaction. The restructuring from permanently assigned desks to diverse working environments not only allows a building to be used more efficiently but also brings together various departments, which previously had little to do with each other. It seems that the personalised workplace, as well as the executive office, is finally coming to an end. “Breaking down silos” is the new credo.

The new office furniture systems and interiors are designed above all in response to the needs of the staff. Interactive screens are integrated in a way that they are hardly noticeable. Wall-sized whiteboards support project-related teamwork. Colleagues at other locations can be patched in digitally at any time. Table systems are adjustable in height as to enable interaction or boundary-setting, as required. The furniture encourages users to adopt various postures and positions, such as standing, sitting or lying. Other aspects that could still be considered in these new work biotopes are options for children, meeting the wish for compatibility of work and family.

The idea of equipping and furnishing areas for specific functions has been around for some time. But the consistency of the application, with free movement being applicable to all and on a larger scale, is indeed new. The world of work has become so mobile and flexible, and the working environment so changeable, that the dividing line between private life and work is becoming ever more blurred. There is a flowing boundary between the digital and analogue world. Not everyone manages to immerse themselves in the “world’s largest open room plan” without losing themselves in the process.

Work on Wheels


And what comes next? The design and innovation consultancy Ideo is well-known for its astute visions. One result of its concept study “The Future of Automobility” was Work on Wheels. The self-driving transparent office bus not only makes it possible to work at different locations, but also in transit. Perhaps this intensifies the notion of being able to move freely and to work everywhere. Interestingly, the office on wheels means that only the surroundings change – the workplace remains the same. Despite all issues of mobility and constant change, a spatially defined framework still seems to be important. So now we just need to know where, in the future, we can still find space for the obligatory family picture.

Sarah Dorkenwald completed her design education at the HfG Offenbach. She worked as an art director for form (1999–2002) and for Bruce Mau Design in Toronto before co-founding the designer duo Dorkenwald and Spitzer. Dorkenwald develops new formats at the interface of design, industry, science, and art. She curates exhibitions, writes for design magazines, and works as a lecturer. In form 264 Dorkenwald most recently reviewed John Thackara’s publication “How to Thrive in the Next Economy”.


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