Why the Digital Workplace is Going Back to the Future

01. March 2021

According to Gartner, one of the top technologies driving change in the digital workplace isn’t a technology at all. Alongside things like embedded analytics, virtual PAs and ‘personal clouds’ is a 1950s design concept called “Bürolandschaft”. Yes, you read that right. To understand what new relevance this 60 year old idea has, you have to go back to the beginning.

The First Modern, Fit for Purpose Workspaces

Bürolandschaft (literally, ‘office landscape’) was originated by two brothers, Eberhard and Wolfgang Schnelle, in around 1958 in response to the seismic societal changes happening in post-war West Germany.

People had become suspicious of hierarchies, and the country was suddenly far more equal and egalitarian than ever before. At the same time, West Germany was experiencing rapid economic growth with modern, new, productivity-driven enterprises exporting to the world.

These conditions inspired the brothers to reject the status quo of office design and take a radical new approach. At the time, most European office spaces separated workers behind closed doors. In larger spaces, groups of clerks, typists and other lower-grade admin personnel would sit in rows of desks. These layouts reinforced strict office cultures and protocols.

Bürolandschaft had a revolutionary effect on these spaces, and today represents the dominant approach to planning an office environment. Open-plan offices, pot plants, office cubicles, irregular geometry and informal break areas are all innovations that we continue to see today.

Bürolandschaft’s Relevance Today

According to Gartner, Bürolandschaft “highlights the role of the physical office in the digital workplace. Office space configuration is important, especially when supporting a mobile workforce.”

What Gartner is pointing to is a need to update the basic principles of Bürolandschaft for the 21st century. Its original 1950s–1960s manifestation – the ubiquitous ‘office cubicle’ – was still relevant decades later. But there is new evidence to suggest that the benefits of office cubicles have peaked.

At the very least, they may be no longer fulfilling their purpose: increasing interaction between colleagues. A recent study by researchers at the University of Sydney, Australia concluded that the morale and productivity boosting virtues ascribed to open-plan offices “has no basis in the research literature.” That’s a powerful statement when you consider the size of the study: 42,000 respondents from over 300 office buildings.

Compared to open-plan based workers, the study found that workers based in private offices were far more satisfied with their environment. Not so much due to space, yet because of substantially less unwanted noise and overhead chatter from colleagues.

And rather than open-plan workers enjoying a significantly greater ‘ease of interaction’ with colleagues, the study actually found little difference in experience with those based in private offices. Private office workers were more satisfied with how they could interact with peers, compared to workers based in the bullpen.

How to Create the Modern Digital Workplace

To move forward with Bürolandschaft, Gartner suggests that “CIOs will need to work with the facilities department to enact change. This can also mean developing more ‘smart’ workspaces, leveraging the Internet of Things.”

Smart buildings are those that combine networked sensors and devices with intelligent software and the physical fabric of the building. It’s clear that ‘smart buildings’ will undoubtedly have a major impact on the digital workplaces of the future.

But many organisations may feel they are some years away from achieving the benefits of smart buildings unless they move premises or invest significant sums in retrofitting their environment.

For companies seeking a more evolutionary approach, Bürolandschaft offers some guiding principles to help inform digital workplace design decisions.

1. Encourage employees to collaborate and communicate with each other

This doesn’t mean that people have to be in the same place. Promote the concept of ‘virtual proximity’ by equipping people to work as a team regardless of where they are situated. NFON cloud communications services enable just that, with a host of collaboration capabilities from any device or location.

When workers are in the office, consider creating an activity-based working environment. Instead of giving each employee a dedicated workstation space, set out work zones that are reserved for different kinds of work e.g. collaborating, concentrating or relaxing.

2. Break down barriers to information and other resources

One of the hallmarks of Bürolandschaft is equality – everyone ought to be treated the same, regardless of organisational hierarchy. That means everyone shares the same car parking spaces, cafeterias and restrooms, regardless of seniority. It also means everyone gets the same access to personal space, meeting rooms and other facilities.

You need to make the flow of information as efficient as possible, removing silos and spreading knowledge across the organisation. This has led some businesses to adopt paperless office policies, Wikis and even the idea that nobody has the same fixed desk each day. Find out more about how to communicate most effectively in today’s open workplace.

3. Empower personal freedom and autonomy

The world is a stressful place and offices need to be a sanctuary away from that – places where employees love to be, which in turn makes them more productive.

Some employees will often want, or need, to be someplace else. So don’t make them feel removed, whether they’re at home or on the road.

People respond differently to different environments. Some get a buzz from a raucous bullpen, others need a place to think. Different tasks that crop up during the working day (if that concept even exists anymore!) also demand different environments. The creative brainstorm meeting, the confidential interview, the fact-finding mission. Create an environment with variety and let your people find their own way, with the freedom to communicate however they choose.

Bürolandschaft is still the right concept. It just needs rebooting to address the virtual and mobile opportunities of the digital age. It needs technological innovation to achieve its purpose.