Oct 30 2020

Past and future: a small office-time travel

The coronavirus crisis has changed the world of work in a very short space of time, but even before the pandemic, office design was constantly changing. In our interview, Albert Denz, owner of DenzDesign GmbH and www.officebase.info, takes us on a personal journey through time – from the 1960s and into the future.

Mr Denz, with your many years of experience, can you take us on a short journey through time? The market for office furniture has always faced the task of catering for the latest trends in work organisation and developing them. If someone wanted to furnish an office 50 years ago, what was important then? 

Before we start our journey through time, it is worth stating clearly that design was not valued as highly back then as it is today. People focused on quality, price, personal advice and, to a degree, on ergonomics. Genuinely professional office design was still in its infancy back then.

When I launched my company in 1968, office furniture manufacturers and specialist retailers focused on selling products above all else. And you could see that from the exhibitions at trade fairs: rows and rows of desks and chairs lined up alongside each other. Trying to imagine the office of the future based on those sober product presentations was no easy thing.

A small exception at the time was USM Haller. It presented its modular storage system – which is still well known today – on the rooftop of the Hannover Messe exhibition in 1967 and caught everyone’s attention as the highlight of the trade fair.  Even back then as a 23-year-old Swiss representative for companies like WEKO and Hund Büromöbel, I found that approach exciting and tried to simulate the idea of vibrant work environments in Switzerland.   

Then in the 1970s, the first era of the computer in the workplace, Voko caused a big surprise with a revolutionary concept: On one hand, it was a system formed of modular components based on a classic uniform construction.

But the special thing about it was the interlinked Voko MEP workstation system, which connected typing and computer desks with each other. That was revolutionary at the time. The only downside: The idea took up lots of floor space – at a time when ergonomics courses were already teaching people about the ideal positioning of screens and furniture. 

Despite this, Voko was our role model in office planning with its revolutionary concept, especially as we weren’t the only company working in the field of modern office concepts and sound absorption in large rooms.

Let’s fast-forward to 25 years ago. We’re now in the mid-1990s. What were the priorities in office interior design? What were the challenges at that time? After all, the first e-mails had been sent in the meantime ...

The office world already looked very different in the mid-1990s. The company TJCA – which was formed of Laurent Willimann and Richard Harri from Geneva – collaborated with DEC, Digital Equipment Corporation (which is now HP), to develop a new office concept that is now known as the open-plan office or New Work.  

Desk sharing meant that each employee no longer had their own workstation. The break rooms were already surprisingly modern back then with a bar that had connections for laptops and relaxation zones. 

At that time, we at Denz AG, which I sold to Lista Office in 2002, won the DEC contract and furnished its offices with the D3 system, which was adapted further to meet the requirements of the project. It was a concept that had a future first and foremost in large corporations and one that also struck a chord with our competitor Vitra. 

Vitra developed a highly design-oriented concept in collaboration with Sevil Peach, if not before. The company realised it in its corporate office in Weil with its seating furniture collections. It also served as the basis for furnishing the first open-plan offices at Novartis. 

And it is precisely this idea from the 1990s that is still being constantly developed and refined today. Part of this included replacing the interlinked workplaces of the time with individual desks. One reason for this is that today people work almost exclusively only with computers, but it was also a way to reduce the space required for individual workstations. Another reason was the growing demand for general areas for concentration zones and quiet rooms. 

Flexible working models such as desk sharing and home working and digitalisation processes have driven office cupboards out of the modern office in recent years. For office furniture manufacturers, that means that sales per workstation may have fallen, but innovative office interior design consultants used the opportunity to make up for those losses in the areas that have grown. 

When we think in terms of eras today, we often think in terms of before and after corona, or during the outbreak. What office trends were you seeing at the start of this year, before corona?

The number of permanent workstations in many large companies was already declining in recent years. At the same time, more and more co-working spaces were appearing on the scene – which raised the question of whether these flexible workplaces weren’t preferable to an expensive permanent office. Many start-ups have already answered this question with a clear “yes” and are benefiting from both the available infrastructure and the vibrant exchange of ideas. 

Has this changed as a result of the pandemic? Or has the trend intensified instead?

If the coronavirus has taught us one thing, it is that you can’t predict the future. On the one hand, the home office will remain a major issue. But many companies are also looking at it with a long-term view and asking whether home working could be a model for the future. 

Even before the pandemic, there was a lot of talk about smart working, or working smart. That will continue to be one of the big issues in the industry because this model of work employs new technologies and approaches that foster both performance and job satisfaction, and it improves the carbon balance as a side effect.  

At the moment, there is probably hardly any other sphere that is undergoing such radical change as the world of work. Within just a few days, companies had to activate new processes because of the lockdowns and get new workstations up and running. What kinds of issues are the office furniture manufacturers that are represented on officebase.info facing?

Above all, almost all manufacturers, specialist retailers and planners are undoubtedly having to deal with a short-term market downturn. Whether they sell affordable or high-end products, they are all having to adjust to the job cutbacks in very many industries and hence reduce their budgets. This will probably be inevitable. Processes and sales concepts also need to be reviewed, and new markets that have benefited from the corona era need to be developed. But this won’t compensate for the losses in the short term.

What opportunities do you see in the transformation?

It’s not just with Amazon and other e-commerce retailers that you can see many businesses supporting themselves online, in particular smaller companies. However, consultants and planners will still be needed for medium-sized and large commercial properties. On our platform officebase.info, for instance, which has focused on office interior design, we’re seeing that enquiries are increasing simply because more people are searching for information online first before they contact a specialist retailer or a manufacturer. 

Office furniture companies should invest in their planning expertise on the one hand, but also in online marketing and their presence on their own platform. During this challenging time, the world has undergone a rapid change, one that would normally have happened gradually – and online formats are already among the big winners of the crisis.

Let’s end our journey through time in the future: 2025. We’ll assume that COVID-19 is under control thanks to medication and vaccines. What do you think the market for office furniture and workplace interior design will look like?

I normally prefer to focus on the here and now. We’ve seen how badly wrong plans can be during the coronavirus outbreak. Alongside very practical considerations that will contribute to making work environments fit for the future, the industry has to ask itself a more general question: Can unlimited growth be the goal? 

It is also crucial to have a dialogue with all the members of the industry and to keep your ears open in all directions so that you can better identify your customers’ and your partners’ needs at an early stage.      

And above all you shouldn’t think that you can expand your business endlessly without any risks on cheap credit. What you need instead is a solid financial foundation that can survive other crises. You owe this sense of responsibility not least to your employees so that new foundations can be laid for the future.

© Albert DenzAlbert Denz, owner of DenzDesign GmbH and www.officebase.info. Owner of the office furniture manufacturer Denz AG from 1968 to 2002 and President of the Swiss association for office interior design bueroszene.ch from 2004 to 2019.

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