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Transforming the Office

Interview with Günter Osterhaus, Head of Planning and Project Management at ASSMANN OFFICE FURNITURE

The world of work is facing a revolution. Modern workspaces which prioritise the individual needs of each and every employee are replacing the traditional office concept. In future, employees will decide for themselves when and where they work. This will increase productivity. How exactly should we imagine the office of the future? We asked Günter Osterhaus.

What does Office 4.0 mean, Mr. Osterhaus?

We could talk about that topic for hours. An important idea is certainly the “Internet of Things”: Everything is becoming connected, data is exchanged automatically. Industry 4.0 has already come some way and is successfully established in businesses, at least to a certain extent. The transformation here was comparatively easy, because machinery learns quickly. However, Office 4.0 is focused on people, who are highly individual. Teaching them to break old habits is considerably more difficult. Large companies and banks who were looking to be ahead of their time, and tried early on to implement elements that will be important to the office of the future, have already been forced to back-pedal. They realised that it would take generations before Office 4.0 can become a reality. Even goals which they say should be reached by 2025, I think are unrealistic.

Why is the office we know today changing?

Agility plays an important role. Communication and interaction are changing. People now expect a quick response to emails. The flood of information will increase even further in future. Machines will take over standard tasks. However, creative services will remain in the hands of humans.

Although the generational switch also plays an important role in transforming the office as we know it. A different approach to aspects such as data security is not necessarily a question of certain age groups, but is encountered quite often among the younger generation. They have another perception, as young employees grew up differently. However, it’s not just the technological expectations of work that are changing, but also spatial expectations.

The individual workspace will become less important?

Not quite. It has become apparent that the idea of accommodating more employees in a smaller space is wrong. Instead it is necessary to create space for communication, as well as space for concentration.

When will the office as you have described it become a reality?

I often receive requests for an Office 4.0 template. Unfortunately, I can only ever answer: “If somebody finds a template, please send it to me. I’ll even pay you for it!”, as there is no Standard Office 4.0, but rather individual concepts. The planning process will remain the same in the future, it will just become more comprehensive and modern, and there will be different considerations.

What needs to change in our way of thinking in order to make the Office 4.0 a reality? 

There needs to be “change management”. A company’s leadership must change and become more open and flexible. It doesn't say very much about the productivity of an employee if they take frequent smoking breaks. If colleagues bring their laptops share a coffee together, it doesn’t automatically mean that they are not working effectively. Just because an employee has accumulated a lot of overtime, it doesn't mean they have managed to do more work. This is where our way of thinking needs to change. 

In addition, a study by the Bertelsmann Foundation has shown another dilemma obstructing any fast transformation of offices: Around 50 percent of employees always welcome new ideas. By the same token, though, there is another 50 percent who say that things are fine as they are and should stay that way. Unfortunately, it is impossible to get all employees excited about changes in their professional routines. Therefore, if there are any upcoming changes planned, the HR department should pay attention to an employee’s openness to change as early as during the recruitment process.

What will remain of today's offices?

The people. And the social interaction that we need. Even though working from home is currently experiencing a revival, we will continue to need social contact. Until recently, working from home was rare. The fact that it is now more popular is primarily due to faster Internet connections, which are an important requirement to work effectively from outside the office.

Flexible working hours, flexible workspaces, and home office are keywords that are all associated with Work 4.0. If the employees don’t have assigned desks any more, how can workspaces be adapted to suit individual needs in the future? 

Companies that have already tried out the idea of working without set workspaces have seen that it doesn’t necessarily make sense. It wastes time if you introduce a scheme in which the employees arriving at the building in the morning first have to reserve a desk where they will work. Setting up your workspace every morning wastes a few valuable minutes. However, so-called work benches might make sense. Each employee can choose between different workspaces in one area. Therefore, everybody knows where individual employees are found, but the office itself can still accommodate the employees’ varying needs.

How will office furniture change in future?

Technology is becoming an integral part of our office furniture. Cabinet fronts will be magnetic boards to write on, while tables will include visible or invisible inductive charging stations. Docking stations will be just as much an important part of the furniture. Central zones in office spaces as a meeting area for discussions are increasingly popular.

A problem frequently associated with the planning of the offices is that the building grid does not allow much width in the rooms. Here, it would actually make sense to pay attention to the office furniture as early as during the planning stage, or even to collaborate with the architect during construction if possible.