Office architecture and its visual cues

During a working lifetime, an office worker will probably spend between 80-100,000 hours under some form of office roof or ceiling. So it’s safe to assume working environments will have an influence on the workforce and on visitors and customers. With almost all businesses hoping to present their brand as tidy, honest, friendly and much else besides, it’s virtually a given that the ‘shop-front’ must look attractive. However, the same standards don’t always seem to apply in the ‘back-office’, which can often look quite rundown by comparison. 

Nevertheless, with modern office employers vying to capture the best talent, the way a business office interior looks is a golden opportunity for any business to relay a powerful statement: Look how much we care about all of you.

Workplaces reflect the dominant culture

A generation or so ago, office blocks were functional spaces with an inbuilt hierarchy. The boss and his senior managers were located upstairs with the rest of the workforce down below. Most office space was then split into separate departments, often sited well away from each other in different parts of the building. Within a department, the department head and deputy occupied the best offices – usually a corner office with extra windows, which was considered to be a prestige position. Teamwork, as it is practised today, was almost unheard of, with workers expected to stick rigidly to their roles and tasks throughout their time at work. 

Of course, times have changed and a modern office is very different. A ‘flat’ hierarchy means a boss is just as likely to be found among the workers as anywhere else. Separate offices are not so common, and those with management responsibilities usually try to keep their office door open as much as possible. People often share desks and other equipment, a feature often used to break down barriers even further. Much office space is open-plan, well-lit and designed to feel spacious. Many offices are quite well-furnished as well as functional, often featuring paintings, plants and decorative objects to create additional ‘warmth’ within the workspace. Workers tend to move around much more freely. 

Work spaces for natural human beings 

Today’s architects and interior designers seem to be listening to what modern workers want a workplace to be. When asked, most people who work in offices say they appreciate good air quality; prefer as much daylight as possible, or at least lighting that is easy on the eyes; and value a natural, warm acoustic resonance – or at least something that doesn’t feel like working in a submarine.

Ceiling designs are a good example of this trend. A high ceiling contributes much to a sense of freedom and space. It’s no accident that a generation so attached to healthy activity and quality time spent outdoors should feel inspired by a well-crafted ceiling with a ‘big-sky’ feel. Indeed this echoes the inspirational ceilings great medieval designers created in churches and important public buildings to cause people to look upwards to experience a sense of awe and wonder. 

This is not the only feature modern offices share with antiquity. Today’s workers are often to be found working on-the-go in local cafés. So it is understandable that these same workers feel most relaxed and comfortable in an office environment which blends and reflects aspects of this café culture. In response, many company designers have worked hard to develop this ambiance within the modern workplace too. When city coffee houses first appeared in the 17th century, they soon became places where people would work and transact business. So today’s ‘café-bar’ office attributes also exemplify a pleasing historical symmetry. 

Taste and practicality

Without doubt, well-designed ceilings and office spaces go a long way towards attracting, motivating and retaining a talented workforce. Nevertheless, high-profile industry experts such as Western Industrial stress the need to carefully align and balance feel-good interiors with practical considerations such as commercial functionality. 

Office refurbishments provide a great opportunity to view how this was done in the past. It’s not unusual to find planned alterations reveal a beautiful ceiling, or an inspired blend of materials, which can be reworked to create both a link with the past as well as a striking focal point. Such finds also challenge modern designers to think carefully about the future of the office buildings they create today. So, for example, a professionally installed suspended ceiling will surely transform the office environment. Yet it’s true legacy may not be revealed until a quarter of a century has passed and future restorers discover just how easily it can be re-purposed to once again inspire new generations of workers and interior designers.