Embracing Firmly the In-Between!

The Office as a Space of Possibilities

At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, it looked as if working from home would be a triumph. The areas surrounding major cities also seemed to be in demand again. Living where life is still healthy, close to nature and affordable, and having your finger on the pulse remotely in the world's business centers - a beautiful dream that was seen as one of the opportunities arising from the coronavirus pandemic. However, the switch from the office desk to the home office is not quite so easy after all.

At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, it seemed as if remote work would conquer the world. Even the surrounding areas of the cities appeared to be in demand again. Living where housing is still healthy, close to nature, and affordable, while staying connected to the business centers of the world remotely, was a beautiful dream that was considered one of the opportunities arising from the pandemic. However, the transition from the office desk to the home workspace is not as smooth as it may seem.

Despite many concerns, working from home has proven to be productive. We have recognized its potential and its limitations. The contradiction is already embedded in the term “home office” when you think about working between the edge of the bed and the kitchen table, between homeschooling and housework. While it’s possible to work effectively from a spacious home with a dedicated office, it becomes challenging to find breathing space and foster creativity in an 80-square-meter apartment with a family. Therefore, we need to rethink the concept of a workspace at home.

Designing the new working environment is not about repeating what we have done for decades. One question regarding the home office is: How do we integrate remote work, or what we should actually call “home office”, into real floor plans? How can we create typologies at home that enable a seamless and noticeable transition between living, working, and leisure? Working from home is indeed valuable, for example, there is no time lost on the way to work, no working in office compartments, and no rushing home at the end of the day. However, it poses challenges and requires artful solutions, especially in small apartments, to integrate work while keeping it as invisible as possible.

The Workplace as a Place of Identification

On the other hand, there is the office. Nowadays, offices are primarily places for organizing communication rather than desks. They are places where company culture is negotiated. In today’s increasingly permeable working world, the identity of a company, the location and anchoring of its employees in a central hub that consolidates energy and functions as the center of company culture, is immensely important. The question becomes: How can we bring people together who believe in something, an idea, and a culture? How can we create a framework where innovation and creativity can thrive? The design approaches vary from client to client, as different decision-making psychologies, ambivalent visions, and forms of participation lead to different spatial typologies. Stereotypes are not the norm, just as there is no standard result. The office should become a place where employees don’t have to be but want to be – in short, a transition from facility to identity, from a workplace to a place of identification.

The office of the future is a space where values and the meaningfulness of the work done there are negotiated. When looking at photographs of new office projects, you rarely see individual workstations but mostly lounges, cafeterias, and communication rooms. This vividly reflects how the perception of work has changed. While certain processes still need to be carried out, the focus is shifting to more communication, creative conversations, idea exchange, and new approaches to thinking. This freer form of work is made possible by changing conditions, such as the miniaturization of tools or the diminishing need to be fixed to a desk in the digital and online world. Let’s call it a shift from desk to collaboration.

The Office as a Space of Possibilities

But collaboration is only one aspect. Concentration, communication, and contemplation are also essential elements in the new sense of purpose within the office. These spaces offer open-concept environments for various everyday office situations: quiet work, lively discussions, retreat or exchange, group meetings, and focused work. Beyond planned processes, they provide room for the unexpected and unplanned, becoming places where creative friction and innovation occur. Thus, the office becomes a place where employees want to be, not just have to be.

The office of the future is a space of possibilities that constantly adapts to changing needs. Instead of one-dimensional attributions, it invites us to continually redefine buildings and their uses. They allow for hybrid utilization and can evolve with changing demands. This constant change must be considered in all planning processes because it is ongoing and accelerating. As architects, this poses a challenge. We can no longer think of projects as reaching a final point, from alpha to beta. While companies commit to certain factors such as real estate or interior design, the office itself will never be finished – it will always change and evolve. Additionally, as the economy is in flux, tools evolve, and new requirements emerge, none of our clients truly know how they will be working in five years. Therefore, the challenge lies in working systemically without making the system visible, as no employee wants to feel replaceable. We must be agile and simultaneously contribute to creating an identity.

The Tip of the Iceberg

Das Büro der Zukunft mit seinen Zwischen-Räumen kann aber immer nur ein Teil eines umfassenden New-Work-Ansatzes sein. Es reicht nicht, ein neues Headquarter mit neuen Lounge-Möbeln einzurichten oder die Sehnsuchtsbilder von alten Backsteinhallen, Werkstätten oder umgenutzten Räumen mit viel Charakter und Geschichte zu reproduzieren. Es geht immer um einen ganzheitlichen Prozess: Identität, Management- und Kommunikationskultur, die dafür benötigten Werkzeuge und Prozesse eines Unternehmens führen in einem alles verbindendem Denkansatz zusammen mit der Gestaltung der Räume zu einer konsistenten und damit glaubwürdigen Haltung zur Arbeit, mit der sich die Mitarbeiter identifizieren können. Stellen wir uns zur Illustration einen Eisberg vor. Der fertig gestaltete Workspace liegt für alle sichtbar über der Wasserlinie. Doch zu „New Work“ gehören genauso Führungs- und Unternehmenskultur, Organisationsentwicklung und die Zukunftsvisionen eines Unternehmens. Alles gleichwertige Bausteine des New Work, die aber weniger sichtbar sind – und sich auch nicht fotografieren lassen. Ohne umfassende Gestaltung der Prozesse, das berühmte Change-Management, bleibt der Raum immer nur eine Ansammlung von Objekten. Es ist für uns als Designer aufregend, sich dieses neuen Gestaltungsfeldes anzunehmen: from functional design to cultural design.

Like an Onion: Appropriation Processes

The office of the future must provide answers to user needs. Employees want to be part of a social context and feel a sense of belonging to the company they work for. Let’s call the path to achieving this transition from a place to work to a place of belonging. We see the office as a space where employees can directly experience the values and culture of a company together with their colleagues. In the future, the office will undoubtedly contribute more to communal aspects than to individually location-independent work forms. On the other hand, organizational structures within companies are also becoming more fluid. Traditional departments are transforming into matrix structures, where employees move between different poles. When a project requires it, colleagues from various areas are brought together. The boundaries are becoming more permeable, and this should also be reflected in the physical environment. Thus, two things are happening simultaneously: the blurring of workspaces between the office and the possibility of working remotely from home, airports, trains, or coworking spaces, as well as the transformation of internal company structures. However, this makes it even more challenging for employees: Where is my identification and sense of belonging if I no longer have a personal desk?

Creating a sense of belonging to a company culture for their employees is a crucial aspect when designing workspaces. In terms of appropriation, we can compare it to a layered onion model: “I belong to this company, I belong in this building, on this floor, in this department, in this team, and this is my workspace.” Each of these layers has its own mechanism of appropriation, which must be addressed by the company itself, its structures, and its leadership culture. However, architecture can also support these processes. Without involving the entire team in the design process, the result will not be sustainable and excellent. The space alone will never fully meet the desired expectations. Only with genuine connectivity does the office eventually become a place of belonging. These appreciation processes need to be tailored for each company and client, allowing the office to embrace individuals → shifting from being table-centric to user-centric.

Inspiring Landscapes Instead of Linear Working Landscapes

The beauty lies in the fact that we can now design spaces that have a strong visual impact while remaining invisibly flexible, providing adaptable and changeable environments within a robust framework. If we genuinely want to realize all of this, it is clear that offices require different architectural approaches: adaptability, hybrid utilization concepts, and inspiring landscapes instead of linear work galley systems. Spaces can evolve continuously and adjust to different team compositions. By utilizing the openness of available systems, we can create extremely flexible work environments. These spaces should always be an integral part of each company’s culture. Although the typologies may be related, the translation is always different. We move from linear space machines to inspiring working landscapes, from routine to imagination.

As designers, we encounter clients who are all unique and exciting in their own way. We do not approach them with preconceived ideas but rather work with them to develop individual solutions. At the core of our approach is always the user with their diverse needs.

The realization that designing spaces without addressing the underlying processes is unlikely to lead to the desired success, along with the understanding that our work is not an endpoint but a starting point for change, fundamentally expands the concept of our work. We should perceive the time during the COVID-19 pandemic as a wake-up call, not only for our industry but for society as a whole. We should break free from entrenched patterns, not only in the workplace. Let’s explore the potential of the in-between spaces, those open spaces that can unleash incredible energy when we reevaluate existing structures with a fresh perspective.

Peter Ippolito