Peter Arkle

The architect’s office of the future will need to support an impressive range of collaborative pursuits, offering spaces where designers can trade creative new ideas, young employees can learn new skills and technologies, and team members can interact socially and professionally. But architects will also need quiet spaces to pursue solo projects.

The midcentury office model, with private offices in a ring around the perimeter of the building, served this need very well—providing secluded spaces where workers could focus. In today’s office, as one architect might be quietly developing plans for the next great industry innovation, two colleagues may need space to work together and perfect a drawing.

Whether they’re designing an office for a client or for their own practice, architects must meet the different needs of every firm employee, says Lisa Bottom, Assoc. AIA, a workplace designer and principal in Gensler’s San Francisco office. “The big challenge now is understanding how to support the individual while still allowing the team to have access to each other for collaboration,” she says. “We’re starting to look at the office in a more holistic way, and looking at ways we can create lively zones and quiet zones and spaces in between.”

It takes a combination of data and intuition to design an effective workspace. Scientific measures of productivity, however, can often be difficult to pin down. Pre- and post-occupancy surveys, as well as academic studies measuring the impact of features such as daylighting or acoustic barriers, generally rely on self-reported satisfaction measures. Such studies can still be helpful—if employees like a space, they’re more likely to spend time there doing their jobs.

But architects also must design spaces that support the ways that their employees work. To provide for easier communication and collaboration between team members, for instance, firms have started to design workspaces in a more open environment, featuring benches or workstations with low barriers so that workers can see their colleagues.

Firms are also focusing more on designing community space, such as lounges or cafés, where staff can sit in casual chairs and set up laptops on sidetables for impromptu meetings. The idea, says Elisa Garcia, senior project manager and operations director at San Francisco–based Garcia Architects & Advisors, is “to create traffic routes or spaces where people are forced to come together to learn or share information.”

As the collaborative workplace becomes more prevalent, the need for spaces where workers can focus grows more important. Architects say that many offices are beginning to incorporate smaller concentration rooms in areas close to open workspaces, so that workers can review plans without distractions. Incubator spaces—areas where architects can meet with product developers, say—will help fuel research initiatives.

The ultimate goal will be to make the office into a compelling space, where the commute to work is worthwhile because of the opportunity to connect with colleagues—not just because that’s where your computer is located. With the workforce of the future becoming more mobile, able to work from home or the road, the office will become the central hub and gathering place that helps shape a firm’s identity. Ultimately, Garcia says, “the office space needs to make people feel like they’re a part of something bigger.”