The office through the decades: The 2010s

John Fogarty is our recently retired Director of Design. In an industry career spanning five decades he has witnessed wholesale changes to office life. Drawing on this experience he has created for us a decade-by-decade series on the subject; next the 2010s

The era during which workspace and furniture designers have started to feel their way towards a new language for dealing with the sudden and dramatic change experienced during the previous couple of decades.

While there was patently no organizational or financial case to be made for a return to the nostalgically cosy world of the single assigned workstation for every member of staff, it was also obvious that the depersonalized “bench farm” world that had replaced it was not the long term solution either.

A way had to be found to create a series of interspersed, co-existing workspace typologies that could provide for different types of work to be conducted at different times by an increasingly fluid office population.

It was precisely to address this conundrum that - just before the start of the decade - my design team at Bisley, together over time with various external resources, embarked on the programme that was ultimately released as Be in 2014. The objective was to start with a common structural form, onto and around which the different workspace types could constructed at will.

That the common structural form became a sophisticated, welded and powder-coated steel portal frame will come as no surprise to those who know the company, with its long and illustrious history of investment and innovation in this material and associated technologies. Notwithstanding this fact it was absolutely the single best choice for providing a strong, adaptable and potentially colourful core for the system.

Because, unlike a closed storage box, the portal frame has six addressable faces - four of them potentially fully open - it can be freely filled, expanded and adapted to fulfill all the required workspace types.

It can be a conventional storage unit, with different (and mixed) closures; it can be a split, contra-facing but equally variable storage unit; it can be a single or multiple door locker (with internal power provision for charging personal devices); it can be all of these things with worksurfaces attached or running through; it can host pinboards, dry-wipe boards, interactive screens and (illuminated) signage; it can incorporate a range of magnetically-attached soft seating elements that can be rearranged at will to suit different usage needs and it can support powered and lit acoustic hoods for quiet, contemplative work periods.
The other notable feature of such product programmes is that they are becoming more “domestic” in their forms and use of materials. This reflects the blurring of categorisation as to what constitutes an office.

The office population during this period has balanced out to a heterogeneous mix of Baby Boomers, Gen Xs and Gen Ys, resulting in a highly creative mix of age and experience with youth, enthusiasm and new ideas. Probably just what is needed in these uncertain times?

The other positive change ushered in by the decade has been a wholesale rediscovery of the joys of texture and colour in furnishing. At the BBC Salford Quays, architects Shepherd Robson delivered a veritable explosion of colour on lockers by Bisley and seating by Naughtone, laying to rest with a bang the dull monochrome of the previous decade. Several projects by various architectural practices since have displayed a similar adventurous spirit with colour. Long may it continue.