The Office: The Future’s Green, and Orange for Uncertain

Professor Colin Jones

The office has perhaps always been around as a place of work and administration, whether it be in a Roman palace, a room in a sixteenth century merchant’s house or purpose built buildings from the mid-nineteenth century. And in some ways today’s office is not that different from one in ancient Greece.  There is the fundamental need for a desk and a chair.  But over the last forty years information communication technology (ICT) has transformed how we use an office.  Images of an office with desks piled high with files stuffed with papers and banks of filing cabinets are not perhaps quite yet in the dustbin of history but are not as prevalent as they were even a decade ago. The ‘paperless office’ once seen as a goal to aim for is here today, it just crept up on us (although I still have an untidy desk). The next decade is likely to bring the extensive adoption of the ‘wireless office’.

And the information age is dramatically altering work patterns. Broad band and emails have brought greater opportunities to work at least part of the time from home and the use of Improved mobile technology will enable even more flexibility in work patterns.  It is becoming impossible to avoid your emails.   The fact that you can now do ‘office’ work almost anywhere means that to a degree there is a return to the origin of the office.

office space
ICT has made a massive impact on work practices

ICT has also revolutionised business structures – the electronic transfer of data has contributed to the dramatic growth in self employment.   And while there may be the ubiquitous workstation with pc in every office giving the impression of continuity ICT has seen a massive impact on the reformulation of work practices and the way office space is used.    At its most basic this has meant an evolution to more open plan offices and recently to hot desking, as well as the partial home working noted above.   Flexible working patterns and flexible space is beginning to become the norm for many employees, at least in new offices in western economies.

Predating these changes the hegemony of the traditional central business district as the prime location was challenged. From the 1980s new city centre office submarkets have built from scratch creating more diffuse central office markets, and often substantially reshaping the city centre.  The first out of town office park in the UK was opened in 1981 and over the last thirty years a polycentric pattern to office centres has emerged.   In some cities in the USA decentralised offices are the norm.  These phenomena have been driven by a combination of ICT and the motor age.

It is easy to get carried away with the direction of these trends.  The seemingly inevitable march of ICT innovations with implications for the way we work has the possibilities of rethinking the use of existing offices.  Working from home is the ultimate decentralisation.  It may be on the rise but many employees many will continue to expect their own desk when they come in, if not an individual office as well.  The flexible worker, part working at home, will only apply to a minority class of worker.  The office as a built form is sure to persist partly because there is great resistance to change and partly because work is still a social activity.  Yet research suggests that introducing innovations can reduce the required office space of firms by up to the order of 20%.  Over time with the amount of floor space per worker potentially falling these trends offer the prospect of a long term reduction in the office space required.

ict_in_the_officeSuch a scenario could represent another potential wave of functional obsolescence and replacement (as in the 1980s), albeit perhaps some way off.  It possibly spells the beginning of the end of a long expansion that has seen the office stock of the UK and other western economies) doubling in size since 1970 with the largest expansion during the office building boom of the 1980s. Ironically ICT that stimulated this growth of office space may also be the ultimate author of its decline. The timescale for this future is uncertain, but to some degree it has already arrived. Greater spatial flexibility has meant that, “Location, Location, Location”, is no longer necessarily the key to a successful development.  A further insecurity is created by the green agenda with the expectations of higher standards imposed by government.  The green agenda pushed by legislation could eventually see a requirement to adapt existing buildings, and potentially hasten redevelopment.  Some offices will be unadaptable or too costly to adapt to greener standards, and simply become functionally obsolescent.

There is likely to a period of continuing change in the office market and investment strategies will have to respond to these live, complex and inter-related issues.  For office owners and developers there maybe long term uncertainty but also opportunities to meet new demands.  Employers spurred on by competition or the scope to reduce costs may face the challenge of managing the path to new work patterns. For some workers there may also be some uncomfortable and unwanted loss of personal space.  For others it may be liberating.  This vision of the future arguably looks greener as more people work from home and commute less (although there may be the temptation to live further away) and smaller offices mean less energy consumption – hot desking is greener.

Colin Jones

A fuller discussion of these issues is to be found in Colin’s new book, “Office Markets and Public Policy”, just published by Wiley-Blackwell. 

You may also be interested in Colin’s earlier blog on the effectiveness of UK housing policies