Raphael Gielgen is a trend scout for Vitra, a Swiss design company, where he specialises in the future of work. Each year, he visits over 100 companies, universities and start-ups to discover what tomorrow’s work environment will look like. We sat down with him to learn why offices are increasingly returning to nature and why a desk isn’t the only place to work.
Raphael Gielgen: If I may interrupt you—It would be too simplistic to say I travel the world looking at new offices. Rather, I travel the world to understand the context surrounding our work in future. That includes architecture, but also much more.
Two examples come to mind. The first was both impressive and depressing. I was in Silicon Valley and saw the huge strides the companies there have made in the past few years. And I also realised that even large companies in Europe would never match these standards.
Take the new Google campus, for example, which is currently under construction. When I show pictures of it during presentations, people think it’s a shopping mall or a circus tent. But it's actually an office that looks like a giant umbrella. And this tent-like structure houses creative spaces, each accommodating 30 people who work together in a closely-knit team, like roommates.
You could say these teams make up an individual environment. They’re granted a high degree of autonomy, freely deciding how to work, make decisions and organise themselves. And Google is achieving excellent results using this approach—it’s an attractive workplace. And then it’s like the Champions League in football. Everyone knows that they’re playing with the best teammates in the world. And that’s clearly a strong incentive. That’s where you want to be.
That was in Shenzhen. The focus there was less on the workplace per se as on a mindset. China has
a sort of “beta culture” that I hadn’t experienced quite like that before. Everything is always in the beginning stages; knowledge never achieves the status of fact. That’s how it is with everyone, whether they’re suppliers, producers, engineers or designers. It reminds me of a flock of starlings. Starlings always fly in coordination with the seven other starlings around them. The same principle is applied in Shenzhen, creating a cooperative system that is constantly adapting.
One detail that’s become obvious is that desks now only account for about half of the workspace, whether you’re in Silicon Valley or Shenzhen. The rest is made up of so-called “hospitality areas”. These are open areas that help employees break out of a static work mode, fostering interaction with others so that new knowledge is constantly being generated. It’s an ongoing process, like a river.
That’s a key aspect of it. Google’s plans always include one garden for every four or five teams to share. Each garden is different, so you can deliberately meet with co-workers in various settings. The architectural firm WRNS is currently building a new campus where all the pathways connecting the buildings are designed as a park. And it’s not a highly manicured park, either. They’ve more or less managed to restore the site’s biodiversity from 200 years ago.
It does, unfortunately. And no one in Germany has the budget for it, which is regrettable. It’s possible that we’ll never get to experience such visionary work environments here.
Architecture is experiencing a certain degree of internationalisation. We all use Skype and smartphones, and because of that we also believe we can work in similar environments. But our culture shapes, for example, how we treat customers or our superiors. Offices must match our corporate culture and be authentic. Take auditing firms, for example, which have always emphasised authority and order. You can’t just set up a ball pit there. People can sense when you’re putting up a facade.
They can start with creating a beta space—the exact opposite of what is currently the norm. This generates creative tension. I would, for example, set aside a room designed for iteration, for people to try things out—experiment—together.
You’ve then got both worlds: the old one and something new. And then you begin thinking about the advantages of each one. And then you start pondering their differences. But these new reflections are not achieved through manipulation. Instead, they arise from the inspiration of your employees. That’s a good start.
Business Manager Modern Workplace
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This post was published on Jul 3, 2019.