In the past, the boss sat in a corner office on a leather chair behind an expensive wooden desk, in splendid isolation from ordinary employees. With the rise of the knowledge economy and the emergence of service society in the 1960s, the traditional order in companies slowly began to crumble. Partition walls gave way to the open-plan office, which was supposed to allow more flexible exchanges. Technology is changing a great deal as well: the dial telephone became the push-button phone and then the smartphone; the ink pad and the typewriter have been replaced by the PC, which now competes with the notebook and tablet. And cloud solutions are making our daily work easier.
Today, digital transformation is vigorously shaking up the workplace as we know it. Digitalization, unlimited mobility and global networking demand new spatial concepts for the digital world – whether in administration buildings, research and development centers or production halls. But what will the workplace of the future look like?
Will we all work in white, sterile glossy offices with floating chairs and holograms instead of displays, as Hollywood science fiction films would like us to believe? Or is it more like start-up romance with a living room atmosphere, lounge furniture and table football? As is so often the case, the answer is probably somewhere in between. It’s crucial that the office of the future be oriented towards the individual needs of people and their specific activities.
The digital workplace
In the digital age, innovation cycles are becoming shorter and our work more knowledge-intensive. The most important resource is information. The activities that determine success are analyzing, interpreting, conceptualizing, creating models. In the future, work will increasingly call for people who are creative, can develop new ideas and take responsibility. The workplace of the future must meet these requirements and ensure variety, exchange and flexibility in order to offer fertile ground for innovative ideas.
Above all, digital information and communication technologies are creating increasingly efficient ways to exchange ideas and share knowledge. The workplace of the future is thus becoming more and more virtual. Mobile user devices, social networks and cloud computing are blurring the boundaries between the physical office and cyberspace. Slowly but surely, this is transforming the workplace into a mobile service that can be accessed everywhere. All the devices, applications and above all data are available everywhere, 24/7. Against this background, digital competencies are becoming more and more important at work and should therefore be furthered early on.
A place for exchange and collaboration
I am certain that the physical workplace will not disappear entirely. People will still need a real physical location, and not just to interact socially. In particular, the future world of work calls for new spatial concepts that put communication and collaboration at the center. The physical workplace will remain a key success factor. It serves as a place to network, to exchange ideas spontaneously and to work together. And from an emotional perspective, it's also important as a “home port” for employees who spend a lot of time traveling for work.
The trend is therefore moving towards open spaces with zones that can be used flexibly and redesigned to suit the particular situation. Strictly assigned workspaces are increasingly being replaced by desks that can be shared by various employees, on an as-needed basis. Modern interior design, pleasant lighting and ventilation, and ergonomic furniture should create an inviting working atmosphere.
At the same time, different work spaces with different degrees of privacy, technical equipment and comfort provide variety. Because in order to be able to develop innovations, people need new impressions time and again. And diversity is important for another reason: Depending on the task, on one day we’ll spend a lot of time working quietly and with great concentration. On another day, however, we’ll need spaces where we can exchange ideas with colleagues or customers.
The fact that this is no longer utopia is impressively demonstrated by our Innovation Center, which we inaugurated in May. The Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany Innovation Center in Darmstadt is an open, integrative and functional place for exchange - not least thanks to our innovative products from Performance Materials.
A key competitive factor
Companies should definitely not leave the design of their workspaces to chance. Unattractive office spaces will not only impede creative processes; they will also scare off young talent, for whom a pleasant working environment is an important argument when looking for a job. Room design is therefore a topic that not just Facility Management, but also Human Resources needs to address. Offices are the business card of a company and should fit in with this identity.
Why? Because there is no workplace of tomorrow. The crucial questions we need to ask are: What kind of a task is it and how can the specific workplace help a person to optimally complete the task? When it comes to the workplace of tomorrow, the magic words are: “Form follows function” the well-known phrase of modern industrial design.