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The Future of Workspaces

At the latest Milano Digital Week edition, Sketchin and Progetto Design & Build promoted a debate to discuss the upcoming transformations of workspaces driven by technological and behavioural evolutions of workers and businesses.


31.03.21 - 6 min read

A whole year has gone by since the SARS-COV-2 virus made havoc on our normality. One of the most visible effects has been the upheaval in each of us's relationship with workspaces. Offices and stores deserted or inhabited by just a few people at a time, private homes transformed into offices, companies and cities finding themselves dealing with a whole new complexity, perhaps glimpsed among the reflections of a possible future, and now suddenly become urgent. 

Let's be honest; not everything is a consequence of Covid. All in all, it is convenient to blame it for all this uncertainty and confusion: it allows us to postpone the reckoning with a reality that was already in transformation, only more slowly. Our relationship with the places where we practice our profession was already changing; we as people had already changed our expectations of the offices we inhabit. The technology we use every day facilitated this change in perspective.

We all like welcoming offices that host other functions and services besides commercial value production - sociability, entertainment, and spaces to develop personal inclinations. Honestly, the rhythms and modes of contemporary work lead to a collapse between personal and professional spheres that mean workplaces often coincide with people's living space. Technology, on the other hand - and this is a consideration devoid of value judgments, mind you - makes us all interconnected, close in intentions, even if not necessarily physically close. 

All these considerations make it highly urgent to think about workspaces: after all, their future is not in ten or twenty years, but hopefully, next year, when this new normal we talk about less and less will no longer be just a disillusion, but eventually a reality. 

For this reason, on the occasion of the Milano Digital Week, we organized a debate around this theme, gathering experts in the field of design - designers and architects - but also technologists, public administrators and representatives of companies, subjects who live the change on their skin and shape it with their decisions. The full recording of the event is available at the bottom of this article.

What do we do with all the available space?

To frame the problem, it's perhaps worth determining its magnitude. Progetto Design & Build, led by Massimiliano Notarbartolo, has set up a permanent global observatory to understand the pandemic's effects on the workplace, and the data obtained makes your head spin. 

In Europe, between 10 and 25% of the workforce will never step into an office again, freeing up 49 to 122 million square meters. Italy will have to rethink up to 10 million square meters, and the city of Milan alone will have to decide what to do with its 3 million.

A significant challenge for companies and cities. What will become of the cathedrals or towers of large corporate headquarters? And what about the delicate relationship between the urban fabric and places of production? 

Gabriella Pisanò, a business developer at Progetto Design & Build, tells us how her relationship with clients has changed profoundly during this year: "We design workspaces. The clients' requests allow us to gauge how companies are experiencing this change. Now the projects that we have to deal with are very different from the past. Before, not many companies focused on collaboration and exchange spaces to the detriment of production spaces: now the trend has been reversed, and projects of this type are the majority. It's an interesting signal: workspaces are changing identity, becoming places for the production of collective meanings, not only of goods and services". 

We need to rethink the relationship between space, citizenship and workers in an ecosystem interconnected and distributed in the urban fabric.

Filippo Barberis, Councilor - Comune di Milano

On the other hand, the city of Milan has to come to terms with the space available. It is not a matter of "reigniting the engines" or "southworking is nonsense", which were somewhat the buzzwords at the beginning of the pandemic. Still, it is a structural dimension that requires precise strategies. Filippo Barberis, city councillor, talks about how cities have always been a sort of innovation laboratory, where new ways of relating found spaces and ways to consolidate themselves (Henri Pirenne's The Cities of the Middle Ages is a classic that focuses on this specific aspect). "We need to rethink the relationship between space, citizenship and workers in an interconnected and distributed ecosystem within the city - continues Barberis -. The Municipality of Milan is already advancing experiments in this sense: we want to ensure that public administration employees can cohabit with those of companies in a network of distributed and proximity spaces, that is, in the neighbourhood. There is already a pilot project of nearby municipal offices working in collaboration with the companies that are part of Assolombarda. Starting from next month will make spaces available to thousands of public employees free of charge, thus creating a porous network of functions that brings the market closer to the polis". 

Meanwhile, the companies...

People and companies are divided between those who can't wait to go back to the office from 9 am to 6 pm every day and those who have discovered that different forms of workforce distribution aren't so bad if you learn how to manage them.

Spotify From a centralized venue to a distributed ecosystem of workspaces. Employees can choose to always work from home or the office or both and choose from which country and city. If they can't count on a corporate office near them, they will be provided with a coworking space subscription.

Project Design & Build's observatory classified companies into four major types:  

  • Laggard: defence of position rent, belief that innovation is a short-term choice. They are essentially sceptical of workplace change and hope that, once the pandemic has passed, everything will go back to the same way it was before. 
  • Early Adopters: these are the opportunistic companies that wait for an innovation's market success to make it their own and take it to premium markets. They are the sceptics, those who wait to see how things go before initiating change.
  • Explorers: These are the daring companies, potentially able to revolutionize the market; they often rely on intuition. In some way, they anticipate phenomena and transform themselves accordingly, but they know significant failure rates.
  • Believers: these are the companies with a widespread culture of innovation that embrace change and are already transforming their way of conceiving workspaces by intelligently reading the signals coming from the surrounding world.

And the representatives of the companies we involved in the event belong to this last group: Fabio Troiani, CEO of BIP, and Ruggero Forni, CTO and Head of Customer Operations Italy - Assicurazioni Generali, who, with different nuances, affirm that offices will be much more than places where production takes place.

The office becomes the place to build meanings and values together and strengthen the company's sense of belonging.

Ruggero Forni, CTO and Head of Customer Operations Italy - Assicurazioni Generali

Ruggero Forni says that when Generali decided to move its headquarters to the tower designed by Zaha Hadid, it had already implemented a change of perspective, encouraging creating spaces for co-design and exchange to foster creativity and satisfaction of its employees. "The office becomes the place to build meanings and values together and reinforce belonging to the company. It is the beating heart of the organization's culture," said Forni. "The distance to which this situation has forced us may have helped increase productivity, but it is harmful to the corporate culture, which risks being damaged: if we don't meet, the sense of belonging, the adherence to the company's purpose, threatens fraying.

01. R/GA Headquarters, New York According to Forbes, R/GA's New York headquarters is one of the world's most connected offices. Thirty LED walls feed information about teams and projects back to the entire company in real-time.

02. Microsoft Modern Workplace With Microsoft Modern Workplace solutions, workers can create more fluid communications and collaboration across locations and platforms while maintaining systems and data's security and integrity.

Fabio Troiani agrees: "We must overturn the perspective: the offices are no longer the places of work, that can also be done from home or in a place of our choice, but they will become agora, meeting places, where knowledge is created and exchanged, among colleagues and with our customers."

Throughout the speeches, the theme of corporate culture came back with force. "Rethinking workspaces - Notarbartolo stated at the end of his speech - ipso facto means rethinking relationship models, people's life habits and the very identity of companies. We are witnessing a planetary experiment. The most impressive Office Stress Test that man could ever imagine!"

Dilemmas for a changing environment

So what will workplaces look like? What signs of change can we already glimpse, and how can we interpret them

Alessandro Di Benedetto, Executive Design Director at Sketchin, pointed out the role of design: "The role of design is to project probabilities forward, building scenarios that can be understood and thus be able to imagine the future impacts of today's choices". 

Luca Mascaro, CEO and Head of Design at Sketchin, outlined the new workspaces' characteristics, starting from some stimulus questions and accompanying each answer with a series of signs. 

What if we won't be free to go to the office?

Last year we weren't free to go. Things certainly won't change when the emergency is over: the 5G network will be widely deployed as early as next year, providing high-performance connections in urban, rural and strategic infrastructure areas. Cloud adoption will grow, and hybrid working will become an established practice, enabled by distributed and flexible enterprise infrastructures.

Workplace regulation will also need to embrace these changes and provide a regulatory framework for remote work and the right to disconnect. 

Spaces will become flexible according to functional and business needs; they will be modulable and adaptable according to the times and places in which the profession is exercised along a plurality of contexts between home, office, clients and other shared outdoor spaces. 

Going to the office will no longer be a duty but a choice and collective responsibility exercise. 

Microsoft Mesh — Enables presence and shared experiences from anywhere, on any device, via mixed reality applications.

What if data influences the workspace?

The digitization process is now underway and will be completed about ten years from now. Dematerialization will also be accompanied by a shift towards working models measured by objectives.

New technological potentials will change our relationship with work environments and the tools we use to do it. Augmented Reality will fully enter the offices and see an increase in adoption in many sectors, and artificial intelligence tools will have a significant diffusion.

The protection of data held by companies and individuals' privacy is fundamental to ensure that trust levels between parties are protected. 

The dimension of cybersecurity was also deepened by Claudio De Paoli, Head of Cybersec at BIP. "Security in the workplace will no longer be limited to the protection of data or the protection of computer systems, but following the hybrid nature of places, it will also extend to the protection of physical space."

What if offices were living ecosystems?

In 2030 Europe will complete its Agenda for Sustainable Development, putting - at last! - sustainability at the heart of every social and economic initiative. As a result, workers' physical, psychological and social balance will become increasingly central, as will the congruence between personal and corporate values.

Automation enables a focus on what matters: the relationships between people and organizations and the perceived value and release.

The workforce and the planet demand dedication to people, communities and the environment.

Over time, the office will become the hub of a network of globalized, distributed and asynchronous professional relationships. Buildings themselves will be part of a virtuous exchange relationship with the environment around them. Environments will be progressively equipped with AIs in constant communication with the external environment and with people to observe and learn their behaviours and habits to prepare the most suitable environment for their preferences and suggest actions for their well-being.

01. Ori — Digitally managed, robotic furniture offers the ability to transform a space quickly and easily, maximizing the use of rooms that then become multi-functional. The trend could be extended to work environments.

02. Powerhouse Telemark, Snøhetta — A new standard for environmentally sustainable building construction: it reduces net annual energy consumption by 70 per cent compared to similar new office buildings. It produces more energy than the building will consume in its entire lifecycle.

The future of workspaces is not a given but a dynamic perspective: it will depend on the relationship model that each company will decide to develop with its employees, according to its industry's specificities and the individual and business needs. 

This article summarizes the concepts that emerged during a debate held on March 18 during the Milan Digital Week. If you want to know more, here is the complete recording of the event (in italian).