28 April 2016

Cologne Discusses the Office 4.0:
Does Tomorrow’s Working World Need New Architecture?

Text: Kathrin Spohr

Everybody is talking about Industry 4.0, of IoT (Internet of Things), of co-working spaces and a work-life balance – the digital transformation is creating major revolutions in our life and our working worlds.

Technical developments, like interactive tables and walls, new mobile devices, apps or the no-longer visible technology, termed “zero UI”, could make the offices of tomorrow to look quite different. The boundaries between leisure and work are becoming ever more fluid: workers have different expectations of their workplace than before, emotional aspects are playing a more important role. And so the need is growing in companies to place themselves differently in order to remain attractive and capable of innovation in the future. Town and urban planners, and investors are also challenged to offer contemporary concepts.


Unusual Co-operations


What do room structures in old and new buildings look like so that they suit the working world 4.0? And how can you create an atmosphere, a “work spirit”, where workers feel comfortable and yet inspired? The seminar “Bauen 4.0: Welche Architektur braucht die Arbeitswelt von morgen?” [Building 4.0: What Kind of Architecture Does the Future Working World Need?], that took place in February 2016 in Cologne, brought this theme to the podium and sought to have a to-date rare, but very meaningful dialogue with many participants: designers, architects, urban planners and representatives from the property and building industries. And the initiator of the event, Andreas Grosz, from Cologne’s KAP-Forum said: “We must learn to look beyond the end of our noses. To do this we need an architecture that is open and flexible and has creative, communicative space.”

In specialist jargon, this sounds like this: “We must create multi-purpose-use buildings while forgetting square meterage thinking and space per head,” says Elmar Schütz, project development manager at Aurelis Real Estate. The future corporate property, he states, needs more “agility through flexiblity”. Just how flexible this way of thinking can actually be is demonstrated in a current concept. Amongst other things, Aurelis is currently focusing on the young, booming “financial tech” scene due to move to the area around the Frankfurt stock exchange. This area lacks suitable properties at the moment, however. What can be done when your own ideas for the dot-com generation hit barriers? Up-and-coming designers in the same age group are developing office and space solutions for these start-ups’ special requirements in agreement with Aurelis and the architects, Meyer Schmitz-Morkramer.


Careful Handling with Restructuring


Working 4.0 means integrating the culture of constant change, because new business models come and go, sometimes companies grow and shrink incrediby quickly. Reacting “smartly” to these situations is a huge challenge for the property industry. The “neue balan” project presented by Maximilian Freiherr von der Leyen, chairman at the property investment company Allgemeine Südboden, sounds promising. The company restructured an 84,000-square metre site in Munich that had been a production site for Infineon a few years ago and whose ensemble of buildings had originated in the middle of the 20th century. Allgemeine Südboden decided on so-called contextually sensitive use, or more simply “tried to keep the original industrial tone with a 1950s atmosphere” within the new. Much time was invested to achieve this.

Now, a heterogenous space, also known as the “campus of ideas” has evolved, consisting of offices for companies of different sizes and industries, multi-functional workshops and modern service offerings, production, recreational and social areas. Participation by the tenants and coincidence should contribute decisively to the design and fill the premises with life. Flexible shaping of the areas is also an important concern for the investor. Because of the diverse options for use, the “neue balan” has already developed into a type of “town within a town”. Small-scale structures and places would also be here to support networking and exchanges of ideas. 


Modular Space to Move


But what are the specific visions for the interior of office 4.0? Bureaucracy and department logic have become obsolete. “Our brains are our best network. Optimal brain activity for developing new things is possible when we are in a relaxed state. Therefore, we should create environments to encourage creativity,” explains Anja Osswald. She is head of business development at Triad Berlin, a creative agency that develops new “thinking and experience spaces”. Osswald supports her statement on the theory of the American writer, Steven Johnson, who sees towns as creative milieux based on networks. In her opinion, the “work” ecosystem must be open and create modular room for manoeuvre. She calls this “hubs with lounge character”. As positive examples, she cites the Innovation Factory of Wittenstein AG and the Factory in Berlin, a start-up campus for digital natives, where the tenants benefit from positive synergy effects. The digital world also creates quite new working locations. And the car also provides lots of space for innovative ideas as a new working place of the future based on the fact that the technology for self-driving vehicles is becoming ever closer.


Learning from Silicon Valley


The Cologne-based architect, Caspar Schmitz-Morkramer, presented an example of what working on the road looks like at this stage. He had just made a trip to the cradle of global innovation, Silicon Valley in California. There, he visited the headquarters of Airbnb, Google, Facebook and others to experience trends and successful work culture 4.0 live. At Google, there are company-owned buses equipped with all kinds of technology to ferry employees to work in the Valley and back home again, meaning that the journey can easily be used as working time. Also, at “the mother of search engines” there are meeting bikes offering space for up to six people. Is the outcome of the meeting somewhat different if everyone is pedalling together when negotiating? “Service offerings for workers are very important in Silicon Valley,” says Schmitz-Morkramer. “There is a mix of densely populated work places, “break” zones, staff rooms and micro-kitchens where food is available free of charge. The idea is that employees move around the office.” Cinemas, restaurants and fitness centres round off the offer on the campuses of Google and Facebook. This observation was also interesting: the room design itself was often not a superlative interior. And the concept of having flexible workspace on which we place such great importance is not an issue with the Silicon Valley trendsetters at all.


Action Office, Dot-com Office


It is naturally very fruitful to discuss cross-disciplinary issues concerning the construction of offices of the future. “The fact that the property industry is picking up on developments and was represented there in the flesh is great. It would have been unimaginable in the past,” explains Andreas Grosz. However, the design of open offices was thought about already back in the 1960s. The “Action Office” by Robert Probst and George Nelson for Hermann Miller is one of the most important concepts: it provides modular furniture systems that integrate modular walls in order to be able to adapt office design to specific needs as flexibly as possible. These basic ideas have been considered for a long time. Also the fact that the balance between “private and interaction” is an important cornerstone for well-designed offices is not an insight of the digitalised 21st century but recognition made by Probst as part of his research for Hermann Miller.

He also recognised that the office layout had an effect on workers’ performance. At that time we used to talk of functionality. Now we say that employees must feel at ease in order to work with motivation and looking towards the future.


The seminar showed how great the desire is to create working places that are as modern as possible. But one wonders, too, where the basic developments since Action Office have been. The uncertainties that arise as a result of the digital future are clear. Often, in the case of newly implemented office concepts, actionism appears to be involved to show that all is set for the new working environment. Unlimited fruit, cool library with easy chairs and the play area for children all contribute towards the feel-good work spirit, but only when not every absence from the workstation has to be logged or is viewed askance by those in the boardroom. Trying to force the dot-com approach does not work. Well-running “hubs with lounge character” in office 4.0 are a company’s modern approach. Alongside flexibility, openness and networking, generosity and trust should be part of employees’ working lives.


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