The Office Revolution.

Not unlike that which the BMW i Series has done for motoring, a new concept, as well as efficiency and innovation have all changed the way we work. The office is dead. Long live the office.

Published: July 2015
Video/Photos: SUPPLIED

If you worked at the Alexander Forbes headquarters in the Sandton CBD in Johannesburg, and you arrived in a BMW i8 (or any other hybrid vehicle) you’d sail past the 1 800 parking bays spread over six basement levels to some of the best parking spots in the building. If you pitched up on your bicycle, you’d find 140 bicycle bays (and shower facilities, so you can freshen up if you do choose to ride). And if you started a car pool and travelled to work with colleagues (thus saving on fuel and helping reduce traffic congestion in the area), you’d also get preferential parking.

 

In this revolutionary new office building, a lot of things are decided by status – green status. The building, designed by leading South African firm Paragon Architects, won top honours at the AfriSam-South African Institute of Architects Awards for Sustainable Architecture last year. It has a 4-star green rating from the Green Building Council of South Africa, with optimised use of energy and resources – from extensive grey-water systems and passive heating and cooling systems to high-performance glazing. After two years of occupation, Alexander Forbes reduced its water consumption by 70 per cent, waste generation by 50 per cent and energy consumption by 40 per cent.

After two years of occupation, Alexander Forbes reduced its water consumption by 70 per cent, waste generation by 50 per cent and energy consumption by 40 per cent.
After two years of occupation, Alexander Forbes reduced its water consumption by 70 per cent, waste generation by 50 per cent and energy consumption by 40 per cent.

A beacon of efficiency, the Alexander Forbes offices point the way to the future of our buildings, already accommodating the vehicles of the future and encouraging the behaviours of the future – but it also faces the challenges of the economy of the future.

 

The way we work has changed and the demands that companies and employees alike place on offices have changed. To start with, workplaces need to be designed to enhance productivity and employee wellness. The happiness and health of employees affects the bottom line, so these factors are considered throughout the Alexander Forbes building. From the fact that 64 per cent of office areas have exterior views and there is natural light everywhere to indoor park-like atria with six-metre-high Ficus benjamina trees that turn the sculptural pedestrian bridges into treetop walks, wellbeing is considered everywhere.

 

Walking is encouraged rather than taking lifts, and there are a gym and a health studio as well as a beauty parlour among the bouquet of facilities to make life better for the building’s inhabitants. Throughout the building, in the provision of recycling facilities, for example, subtle prompts encourage more environmentally friendly behaviour that may very well form good habits beyond the office space, too.

 

Put simply, it’s an office for the future right now. But the question mark that looms over a billion-rand project like this building is whether the office of the future is an office at all. The wireless worker is no longer tethered to their desk, or even to a traditional office space at all. Office buildings have had to rethink their entire interior layouts and furniture to cater to the needs of workers now, and the way people work.

The building was designed to accommodate 2 500 people and includes 1 800 parking bays spread over six basement levels, with preferred bays for car pooling and hybrid vehicles. Provision is also made for 140 bicycle bays, with shower and change facilities.
The new building for Alexander Forbes’ Sandton headquarters was completed in late 2012, and was awarded a 4-star Green Star rating. Its distinctive design is one of the first things visitors to the Sandton CBD see as they exit the Sandton Gautrain Station.
Distinctive Rheinzink scallops are designed to capture north and south light and protect the inhabitants from east and west light.
The voluminous interior atria maximises natural light, which floods in from the windows and from 12 giant cone-shaped skylights. They were designed to create a park-like environment with the introduction of six metre-high Ficus benjamina trees sunken into the floor.
Colourful break-out spaces are included on every floor to encourage staff to relax and recharge, and to create informal spaces for the exchange of ideas.

Dedicated offices with desks, chairs, filing cabinets, telephones and desktop computers have, in many cases, become redundant. People now require booths and lounges, pods and huddle areas, and soundproof private areas where they can have conversations on their cellphones. With changes in technology, such as the advent of the tablet (remember, the iPad was launched in 2010, only five years ago!), even our posture at work has changed. We sit differently, and office furniture would have to evolve accordingly to cater for these new needs.

 

But perhaps the biggest change is the advent of the wireless worker. People don’t have to come into an office to work anymore. They can get their cup of java, free Wi-Fi and a stimulating, buzzing environment at a coffee shop.

Or they can do what they need to at home (which is increasingly becoming a productive space), at the airport, in a bookshop, or almost anywhere.

 

As the economy, and the way people’s careers develop, continues to change, more and more people work independently, or have several income-generating streams, and work for decentralised global organisations where you don’t ever see your colleagues in other countries – and you don’t really need to.

 

It poses the question: do we need offices at all? Is even the most modern, futuristic building a white elephant? There are many advocates for this view, but there are some central characteristics of both modern economy and human nature that suggest the age of the office might not be over just yet.

 

Is the most modern, futuristic building a white elephant?

German office furniture manufacturer Steelcase has carried out considerable research and has discovered that, in what we call a creative economy – where the success of a company depends on its ability to innovate and constantly generate new ideas – one of the best ways to harness people’s creative potential is to get them into a building and allow chance encounters and exchanges. For the most modern version of the economy to succeed, people need a place to go to, together, and nothing yet trumps an office or a campus for face-to-face, real-time, human interaction.

 

When the head of Pixar animation studios and legendary founder and CEO of multinational technology company Apple, Steve Jobs, designed its main building and famously put the only bathrooms downstairs in the centre of an atrium so that employees would be forced to walk through the office space, crossing paths with people from other departments, this was a deliberate way of creating spontaneous interactions between employees. This encouraged cross-pollination and the exchange of ideas – ultimately a way of engendering creativity.

 

The other thing that suggests that the days of going to the office might not be over is a close look at where wireless nomadic workers go to work. Sure, they go to cafés, but look at what else is springing up – shared office spaces. In all the hippest urban centres, from Braamfontein in Johannesburg to Cape Town’s Woodstock, shared workspaces for roaming workers are springing up everywhere. The citizens of the creative economy, freed from their offices and desks and the need to book meeting rooms, have created just that – offices with desks and meeting rooms.

 

They are, however, characterised by a different look and feel from the traditional office space: they’re homely, welcoming, serve great coffee and, above all, allow people from different fields to have chance encounters and exchange ideas. The overwhelming message is that people still want offices. The office of the future is indeed a central space in the economy of the future – and if you drive the car of the future, you don’t necessarily have to be the CEO to get the best parking spot.