David Hills is an architect and Partner at Purcell, a practice specialising in the conservation and creative adaptation of historic buildings of all ages.

From co-working spaces with meditation classes to tech offices with slides and climbing walls, the office seems to be changing. But how much is really new?

A lot of guff is talked about modern workspaces and how these promote “new” ways of working, but exactly how much of it is really new and how much marketing myth? Does the modern workspace reflect fundamental changes in working behaviour? And how might London plan for the kind of spaces we will need to work in the future, providing spaces for businesses to grow into as they develop? A quick trawl through websites promoting “modern” workspaces seems to focus on the following offers:

  • Coffee
  • Co-worker spaces
  • Quick communications
  • Multiple types of environment: communal areas, chillout zones etc
  • Availability of food
  • Classes, workshops and gymnasiums
  • Dog-friendly

These seem a good place to start…

Coffee

The website of workspace provider WeWork talks of micro-roasted coffee as if it were a new thing. Good coffee may well be, but the combination of work and coffee in London go back to 1652, when the first coffee shop opened, and coffee houses doubling as workspaces have an even longer history elsewhere in Europe and in the Middle East. By 1675 there were 3000 coffee houses in London, with different establishments taking on different specialisms. In 1698, Jonathan’s Coffee House listed stock and commodity prices on a chalkboard that evolved into the London Stock Exchange, while Edward Lloyd’s coffee shop grew into Lloyd’s and created the insurance industry.

Co-worker spaces

London’s coffee shops were the original co-worker spaces – places where like-minded individuals could meet, network, talk about current issues (coffee shops were rampant hives of political dissent) and, crucially, do business. They had it all: hotdesks, private booths, conference facilities in the rear stockroom and, of course, refreshments.

Quick communications

Modern workspaces boast of hardwired (Ethernet) connections and access to wifi – yet the workplace has always been at the forefront of technology. The telegraph, developed in the 1830s and 1840s by Samuel Morse and others, revolutionised long-distance communication by transmitting electric signals over a wire laid between stations. Sound familiar?

How important is it, in any case, to be available every second of the day? Human beings can only cope with a certain amount of information before they reach saturation point; the backlash against communication overload is already apparent. It isn’t unusual nowadays for people to have thousands of unread emails.

The recent French legal “right to disconnect” clarifies the right to switch off and is an attempt to tackle the modern-day scourge of compulsive email checking – because it’s not uncommon for employees to be uneasy about when they are allowed to switch off, while overuse of digital devices has been blamed for everything from burnout to sleeplessness and relationship problems.

Multiple environments

The apparently modern need for a variety of workspaces to facilitate different kinds of working activity has been given its own term: Open Office Systems. These include “team workspaces, shared workspaces, alternative work areas, spaces for large meetings / training, huddle rooms, activity spaces and focused workspaces… [with] the use of benching applications”, according to US-based office planners bauhaus. Other workspace providers speak of private booths, open-plan benches, hot desks, conference rooms in multiple sizes, and “spacious and unique” common areas.

In 1968, the designer Robert Propst invented the Action Office II, with the intention of creating a workstation that gave people autonomy to work in a variety of settings. The compartment was supposed to have walls angled at 120° rather than at right angles (when viewed from above), to offer workers the option of easy communication as well as privacy. Inside, the Action Office II had pinboard walls for personalisation, shelving, space for both standing and sitting desks, and was designed to provide a flexible space, allowing movement between individual and collaborative tasks. Propst’s invention was marketed by his employers, Herman Miller, and morphed into the modern cubicle system, which was quickly taken up by employers keen to save space. Its original intentions, however, predated the current trend for a variety of working environments in one setting by some 50 years.

Open-plan offices as we know them were the product of a German movement in the 1960s called Burolandschaft, but their origins go back much earlier. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Larkin Building of 1906 was notable for many innovations, including motivational slogans carved into the walls (another “recent” trend), air conditioning, built-in desks, suspended toilet bowls – and open‑plan layouts.

What we now know as “spacious and unique common areas” used to be called canteens. They were places where people could meet and interact over that great vehicle for social bonding, food. As canteens have gradually disappeared, so their values are being recognised and reintroduced. When I first started work in the 1990s for a large construction company, we still had the benefit of the staff canteen, a throwback to the 1960s and 70s. The possibilities it offered for social interaction and serendipitous encounters were exemplified when a colleague asked a fellow diner what department they worked in, only to be told: “I’m the Managing Director”.

Provision of food

Around two-thirds of office workers are estimated to eat lunch at their desks, perhaps due both to the demise of the office canteen, and the effects of modern technology in making us feel that we have to be available at all times. Eating at your desk is actually very bad for you – studies cite it as a contributing factor to obesity, due to distracted overeating, poor food choices and inactivity – which is of course bad for productivity.

Just as spaces for eating are now coming to be appreciated once more, so is the food consumed in them. The sharing and communal consumption of food is increasingly offered as a tool of social cohesion in the workspace, as though that’s a new idea, although the history of the office canteen reminds us it isn’t. The crucial difference today is that employers have realised the opportunity to “leverage” the real-estate potential of the canteen by doubling up on the use of the space, extending its hours of usefulness in a way that should hopefully secure its future.

Being part of a community: classes, workshops and gymnasiums

The workspace provider WeWork states: “We wanted to build more than just beautiful shared office spaces. We wanted to build a community. A place where you join as an individual, ‘me’, but where you become part of a greater ‘we’”. Shared workspace companies offer networking, talks, happy hours, classes, communal fitness and workshops. One provider, The Office Group, offers a gymnasium in some of its locations.

My father worked for the construction firm Taylor Woodrow during the halcyon days of the office, in the 1970s and 80s. Here, the very essence of the place was about being part of a greater whole: the company logo was even a tug-of-war team. This meant an outstanding number of benefits: my father had his own office and parking space; a canteen; leisure facilities, including playing fields; swimming pool; team shop; social club and bar; there were pantomime trips for kids and the use of company holiday apartments. It was an effort to construct a community based around an office. The site, in Southall, was sold off for housing in the noughties.

Dog-friendly

The latest must-have workspace accessory is a dog. According to studies, dogs promote a calmer atmosphere in offices, making for a more sociable and less stressful environment.

But even this is not that new. Dogs have always been allowed in the offices of the pet charity Blue Cross, formed in 1897; and a dog called Owney became the office dog for the New York Post Office in 1888 after wandering in through a back door and deciding to stay.

So what really is new in the modern workspace?

On the evidence of the above, not much. What we are experiencing appears to be a series of old ideas, reinvented and repackaged in a slightly different way.

But what I think is new this time around is that these features are now more or less ubiquitous: everybody wants them, and they are employee-driven, as opposed to paternalistically endowed by a handful of more or less altruistic employers.

An acquaintance of mine who works for a multinational software company told me recently that they were refurbishing their premises to provide precisely the kind of environment we have been taking about – and the acknowledged reason was to keep pace with their competitors and attract the best people. Nowadays, the workspace environment is seen as a business imperative rather than a nice-to-have, and it’s the workers who are driving the change.

What does London need from the workspaces of the future?

Despite the same-old overtones of all this, things are actually going in the right direction. London’s workspaces are now more diverse and interesting than they have ever been. As we face a future in which the pace of technological change means we cannot be sure what work will look like, the main focus has to be on designing spaces that allow for variety and flexibility wherever possible.

A truly eclectic and flexible planning policy has a crucial role to play here, by encouraging diversity and enabling seemingly disparate businesses to exist cheek by jowl. Only in this way will we encourage the serendipitous encounters that provide a creative spark, avoiding business ghettos that can sterilise an area and stifle creativity, a sea of steel and glass.

A good supply of buildings coming onto the market at the right price is essential. What is required are buildings that have some existing character or quality that can be harnessed to catalyse creative use of space and lend the businesses that occupy them some identity. The days of the long-term multi-floor let are severely diminished. What is needed in their place is building stock with flexible space to enable rapid growth and contraction to suit changing needs. Technology is part of this: workspace providers need to supply the best possible infrastructure to support business activities.

Last, but perhaps most important, modern workspaces need to be affordable. The recent furore over business rates has highlighted just what a delicate balance exists in these uncertain times, and of course any cost to providers inevitably gets passed on to the user. At an average of £400 per month for a dedicated desk in a shared workspace, office space is not exactly cheap, and it wouldn’t take much to price many out of the market altogether. Co-working began with ideals of inclusiveness, support and collaboration; it would be easy for workspace provision to become formulaic, with “community” a figleaf for profiteering.

So how might we expect to work spatially in the future? The jury is out: workplace design is moving at such a pace that it’s impossible to predict. What we can say with some confidence is that we’ve probably seen something quite like it before in one form or another…