A/D/O by MINI | The Future of Work

Out Of Office – The Future of Work

Will the office of tomorrow be a “pastoral technotopia” or more akin to a “kindergarten classroom”?

The Out Of Office exhibition at A/D/O explores the past, present and future of the workplace

It’s no secret that the way we work has changed dramatically over the past decade. Technology has completely upturned the way we communicate, interact and do business with colleagues and clients. And this has had a dramatic impact on where we work, which, nowadays, can really be anywhere with a Wi-Fi connection.

“The current technological moment has dispersed our work, and blurred the boundaries between work and leisure, play and labor,” Lexi Tsien, co-founder of design studio Soft-Firm, told The Journal. “The gig and sharing economy begs the question and fundamental necessity of the office space.”

But the office as a spatial and societal typology has been evolving ever since its inception, and will continue to mutate as the digital realm becomes ever-more encompassing. These developments – past, present and future – are explored in the Out Of Office exhibition opening at A/D/O this month. Created in partnership with Soft-Firm, Tortuga Living and Alex Gilbert, the show examines the design of offices over a period spanning 1950-2050. The curatorial team undertook extensive research into the development of workplace design, and its potential trajectory in the future, resulting in a timeline graphic that tracks the changes, overlaps and patterns they discovered. And based on their findings, the days of the “office” as we know it could be numbered.

Elements include Water Cooler Talk, combining physical and digital sides of office socializing

“Today there is nothing requiring any of us to come work in an office anymore,” said design specialist Gilbert. “I am interested to understand why we continue to choose each other’s company. How and why does human proximity increase our productivity and pleasure? What has historically been lacking in our tools to connect digitally, and how should the future ‘office’ be designed?”

What’s next for office design, the team agreed, is difficult to predict. But based on current trends, and continued advances in tech and AI, they had several suggestions for how the world of work might look in three decade’s time.

“The exhibition envisions many aspects of a physical office to become obsolete by 2050,” said Andrea Hill, founder of furniture company Tortuga Living. “We project that most workers will utilize mobile office kits, wearables or even implants that enable work to happen anywhere.”

Another possibility is the idea of a “virtual pastoral” lifestyle, where employees connect with each other solely in digital VR environments, and spend the rest of their time immersed in rural environments. “The virtual workspace will allow us to unplug, and be out in nature where pollution and carbon footprints are low,” said Tsien. “A pastoral technotopia.” This phenomenon is already occurring to some degree, according to trend forecaster Karen Rozenkranz, who has profiled creatives that are running their businesses from rural areas in her book City Quitters.

The Supply Closet contains nostalgic office equipment

The promise of VR as a tool for transforming work habits – allowing users to congregate digitally without leaving their individual personal spaces – is certainly seductive. What’s more, the opportunity to shape these virtual workspaces offers potentially unlimited creativity for designers. But recent technologies provide a precedent that VR offices might not live up to expectations, said Tsien: “In a world with professional avatars, everyone can get a corner office. And yet, the teleconferencing movement never took off and never rivaled an in-person meeting.”

Therefore, the requirement for physical spaces that people can use to come together, socialize and collaborate – even if not primarily for work – is likely to remain, the curators noted.

“Dystopian ideas are fun, but I think it’s hard to escape our needing a physical space where there are other bodies and interactions that are real, haptic, and tangible,” Tsien said. “The office as a physical space for communing will not go away. If anything, as we become more virtual, people may want more human connection that is away from their spaces of leisure and domesticity.”

“Functionally, the future office could be minimized to a room with community spaces and various configurations for solo or collaborative work – like a kindergarten classroom,” added Hill.

The development of office design is displayed through a graphic and physical objects

The concept of the office as a place for recreation and play is not novel. Think of the Google campuses and other Silicon Valley startup spaces filled with slides and ping-pong tables, which became the poster-children for productivity during the first half of this decade (but were later discredited as detrimental to work). A more recent variation is the incorporation of “wellness” spaces and initiatives into work environments, in which employees are encouraged to take time out during work hours. As our tools get smarter and more efficient, this could pave the way for increased periods of human down-time.

“Reports predict that we will move away from tangible, tactile benefits like yoga, spas, gyms and medical practitioners, towards data and app-based systems like calming technologies, predictive testing, smart monitoring, and data companies,” Hill said. “We speculate that this total integration of wellness with technology could also happen within the worksphere, where wellness rooms and centers are built into future office design.”

One of the most significant outcomes of the team’s research is that, at least in terms of design, offices are caught in a perpetual loop that involves experimentation, then a return to ideas that previously proved successful. “The problem of the office is a cyclical one,” said Tsien. “We seem to repeat ourselves – from the open office to the cubicle farm; from the Googleplex to WeWork – with slight mutations based upon social trends and technologies. New ways of working are not new, but often the same product or idea packaged differently.”

The exhibition also speculates on the next 30 years of office design

"I was super inspired by the relationship between the birth of cybernetics and the landscape layouts of Modern offices of the 1950’s," said Tal Liu, Soft-Firm's other co-founder, "how technological concepts can completely re-contextualize the way we think about our physical environments. To not just think about technology as the new device, but a design metaphor that informs our relationships with each other and the environment."

Even as technology continues to develop exponentially, the next incarnation of the office will need to take into account our fundamental need for human interaction. Because, as the team discovered, our reasons for coming into work are socially driven, rather than dictated by necessity. So if we do end up working virtually, we’ll need to find alternatives to fill the void left by the workplace’s facilitation of personal exchanges. We might end up permanently “out of office”, but we can’t be entirely without each other.

Out Of Office exhibition curators (left to right): Alex Gilbert, Lexi Tsien, Tal Liu and Andrea Hill

Out Of Office opens at A/D/O on July 18, 2019. The exhibition was created in partnership with Soft-Firm, TORTUGA Living and Alex Gilbert. 

Text by Dan Howarth.

Photos by Justin Ryan Kim.