When Google opened its first offices back in the late 1990s, their interiors were like playgrounds. The facilities included climbing walls, ping-pong tables and hammocks. Meetings and video conferences might be held in converted camper vans or beach huts. Other firms followed suit: Innocent, a drinks company, had fake-grass floors and bunting; Red Bull had skate ramps and swings. Employees, these companies thought, would be happier, more stimulated and more productive in offices with wacky amenities rather than ranks of identical cubicles.
But visit Google’s recently revamped office in the King’s Cross neighbourhood of London, or the buildings it is redeveloping in Berlin and India, and you’ll find that the company has grown up. In the London workspace, there are geometric cream-and-red rugs, oversized floor lamps and double-sided sofas in subtle rose pink. An area dedicated to relaxation features an alluring mix of rocking chairs, wingbacks and slouchy sofas occupying discrete spaces separated by perforated metal curtains. It feels like a combination of an elegant library, a swanky private members’ club and a cool contemporary living room, and it exemplifies two trends that are transforming office design: domesticity and adaptability.
Wacky interiors caused as many problems as they solved. “You can over-design a space to the point that it becomes an irritant,” says Ceri Davies of Allford Hall Monaghan Morris (AHMM), the architects who revamped the interior at Google’s headquarters in London. The frustrations were twofold. Staff complained about noise, bad lighting and discomfort – “you actually want to be able to work,” Davies says – and “themed” interiors proved unwieldy. Like many tech companies, Google grew fast – between 2012 and 2016 alone its head count increased by almost 20,000 – and its teams would expand overnight as new projects were conceived. But you can fit only so many people into a beach hut.
A new generation of offices is being designed to flex and expand with its occupants. For Google, AHMM designed Jack, a pop-up meeting room made from spruce plywood that can be assembled or disassembled, enlarged or shrunk, in a matter of hours. The company has installed Jack in London and California, and will do so in Berlin and India. The same thinking lies behind a range of modular furniture designed by Joe Gebbia, co-founder of Airbnb, which was launched in May at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York. “Every six months every year the company’s at a different size,” he has said. “What we need is a physical environment that could change as quickly as our company.” His chairs, tables and sofas can be taken apart and reconfigured, and their felt surfaces absorb sound to quieten a busy office.
“The only constant now is this state of flux,” says Simon Jordan, co-founder of Jump Studios, an architecture and design practice. While that is true of tech companies above all, he is seeing an increasing number of non-tech businesses adopting the same approach. When he was creating new offices for Rapha, a brand of luxury cycle-wear, he saw that the company encouraged its employees to form their own ad-hoc teams to develop new strategies and product ideas. So he made a furniture system consisting of metal cages that could accommodate shelves, writable surfaces, pinboards or hanging rails, and could be moved around and adapted for any department, from marketing to design. He also put the tables on wheels. He is now working with Allen & Overy, an international law firm, on a series of adaptable spaces called Fuse, to encourage collaboration between the company’s own employees and people from legal-technology startups.
As they are becoming more flexible, offices are becoming less distinct from homes and hotels. The trend is driven by both health and technology. Cloud computing and communication tools like Slack mean that employees can be just as effective away from a desk as at one, which allows companies to think more freely about how they configure their buildings. But as much as businesses are changing to accommodate new ways of working, they are also focusing more on wellbeing. “We have slowly come to realise that people spend more time awake in the office than they often do in their homes,” says Matthew Kobylar, director of interiors and workplace strategy at Arney Fender Katsalidis, an architecture firm. “So the question is, how can work be more nurturing?” Answering that question will improve your employees’ performance. In 2015, researchers at Harvard found that people who work in “green” offices – those with high levels of natural light and ventilation and low levels of the toxins often found in paint and office furniture – were better at responding to crises, thinking strategically and managing information than those in conventional spaces.
The answer comes in three forms. First, office designers are introducing home comforts. At Deloitte’s new headquarters in Toronto there are side rooms with sofas, armchairs and walls hung with nattily arranged artwork. At the offices it has designed for companies like Nike and Cisco, Studio O+A in San Francisco has introduced domestic touches like planters and vintage leather chests, and focused on natural materials like exposed wood. Second, designers are introducing more diversity. In the Deloitte building, Kobylar created 18 different kinds of “work setting”, including sound-proofed quiet rooms and brainstorming spaces, distributed throughout the building. “It enables people to get into the right frame of mind to do different tasks,” he says. “These things help with mental wellbeing.” Simon Jordan has even worked on projects where he has created music rooms where people bang drums to unwind. Third, there’s an increasing interest in “biophilic” office design – incorporating nature into the workplace. Among the most alluring expressions is at Second Home in Lisbon, a co-working space designed by SelgasCano, a Spanish studio. Every chair and lamp is different – after all, no two natural objects are identical – and it contains around 1,000 pot plants.
“These spaces operate more or less 24/7, 365,” says Primo Orpilla of Studio O+A. “I’m staring at a screen all day, and the space becomes a respite from that. We’re going to talk in these spaces, we’re going to drink in these spaces, we’re going to break bread in these spaces.”