The Office of Today and Tomorrow

By Paul Ferro, CEO, Form4 Architecture

This year there has been a great deal of press interest in design solutions that address health concerns raised by COVID-19.  Form4 Architecture worked on a design guide for workplaces that explores how our clients in and around the Silicon Valley can future-proof their offices from the effects of pandemics. 

The world’s leading on-line architecture magazine Dezeen took interest in our approach. They published an article describing how many of the recent spatial practices for making the workplace increasingly social were at odds with new measures required to maintain safe distances between staff.

At the same time, we know that homeworking will increase even after the pandemic is behind us, so we anticipate that the way offices are used will change. At home, focused work can be highly productive, but perhaps focus spaces at the office can tap into our need for social settings and people watching and take cues from coffee shops that are sought by laptop users who prefer access to food, background music, and the buzz of nearby people. The Shelter-In-Place COVID Experiment has perhaps laid the groundwork for the new workplace where focus work can occur at home and in more lively communal environments at the office.

But more is needed than focused work. The Big Idea sought by tech companies eventually comes from trading ideas until they solidify into a coherent innovation. There is need for regular learning both in training rooms and from incidental exposure to what others are producing. The exchange and creation of ideas is best served by in person interaction and the energy and motivation that come from being with others. There is an intangible power in body language, a gesture, a pat on the back, which are all missing through the screen. Offices will need to refocus as spaces and places for getting together when face-to-face encounters really matter. Certain types of meetings and briefings will require this as well, for example, the training of staff, especially when getting to know new recruits.

Employers will no doubt think carefully about focused events facilitating cohesion and camaraderie amongst both those who work mostly from home and those who are more office based. This will see a demand for interiors conducive to large gatherings of people coming together and perhaps celebratory spaces as well.

Interest in semi-external spaces is also likely to grow especially as these have the advantage of abundant fresh air and natural light. In closing the office at a scale and timeframe unheard of, COVID allowed us to look at the alternative to being in the office forty or more hours a week. Now our workdays can occur anywhere. Many have temporarily moved, and some permanently, to other cities and states. We can more easily break up our days with personal activities. We can walk out the front door and enjoy a midday hike. Taking our laptops to the porch, we can benefit from fresh air and sunlight. With the outdoors being the healthiest choice for interaction, eating and socializing outside was the first step in getting us back together. Perhaps the natural world can be a greater part of our post-COVID workdays.

Britain’s leading weekly current affairs journal, The Spectator, was intrigued by the theme of the COVID-era workplace and interviewed us about the need for partitions and the return of the cubicle office for their article “The Rise of The Blocked-Off Design”. It made us think that some of these issues have been in the air well before COVID shut down the office. Open plan offices have long compromised people’s ability to concentrate due to increased proximity and noise, and some have even found them isolating with growing numbers of people resorting to headphones to avoid unwanted interruption.

This fall, we addressed these issues as part of our submission for the World Architecture Festival competition “Isolation Transformed”.  The competition is based around a Pecha Kucha format and challenges entrants to think how architects can tackle the problem of loneliness. 

We thought of how people missed seeing their colleagues, access to the broader company, and the social aspects of the office, but also enjoyed the lack of commuting and the extra time at home and with their families. And yet, for many people working from home has been hugely disruptive due to a lack of appropriate space, furniture and equipment or young children needing attention.

With all these new experiences informing our understanding of what this overnight shift in the ways we work, we saw that the office is, in fact, the very vehicle that combats isolation. The future office will need to support a new type of coming together of colleagues and in ways that are memorable and make the most of moments employees spend together.

For more on this topical subject, watch our 6-minute Pecha Kucha presentation.

Late Summer Reading III: “Rethinking Silicon Valley”

02_06_38-002-officeparks-e1538462180251.jpgIn our series of extracts from The Absurdity of Beauty – Rebalancing the Modernist narrative we wanted to include an excerpt from writer Sam Lubell and his essay “Rethinking Silicon Valley”.  Sam edited the California edition of The Architects’ Newspaper over many years and is currently a staff writer at Wired magazine.  His interests and knowledge of the Bay Area thus made him uniquely placed to write about Silicon Valley in The Absurdity of Beauty.  His essay on the architecture of the Silicon Valley is an insightful description of the urbanistic challenges office developments for high-tech industries continue to face as they are built ever further afield.

As architects at Form4 Architecture, we are particularly interested in this discourse having worked with many high-tech companies in the area. Over the years, we have sought ways in which to improve a sense of placemaking and the relationship of our buildings with their neighbours. We have tried to match the enthusiasm and interest our clients have for creating uniquely forward-looking office interiors to the exteriors of these buildings.

01_2. GlassWallOffices15
Example of Silicon Valleys’s generic office types that blur and coalesce into a featureless urban tableau

It is a curious phenomenon that in terms of progressive design thinking Silicon Valley excels at space planning and fit-out but less so at genius loci. As Sam suggests, change is taking place and we are excited to be part of a movement that hopes to see the Silicon Valley as a place that people will not only go to work but one in which they will want to live.

“Rethinking Silicon Valley” by Sam Lubell – Extract:

So while today’s glamorous tech entities have brought a welcome emphasis on design with a capital D to the area, they haven’t transformed what remains a placeless place. Collaboration here is internal, not with the community; offices are open – and often they’re arranged with their own internal streets – but that’s as far as their urbanism reaches. Their elaborate contortions and urban simulacra haven’t reached beyond their corporate boundaries; and they’re not ready to rethink the larger social fabric.

Urban change, though, is slowly seeping into this anti-urban culture. Albeit via baby steps. Santa Clara is exploring mixed-use development around its new stadium. San Jose’s Santana Row, while hardly authentic, has developed into a true centre of human activity. Companies such as Adobe are going vertical in San Jose’s downtown core. And downtown Palo Alto, the most walkable and vibrant of Silicon Valley’s places, now demands higher rents than San Francisco.


CREDITS: Grid of building images by Mark Luthringer
Silicon Valley Aerials by Steve Proehl  


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