On September 13, Interior Design hosted the penultimate Workplace Roundtable of 2018, an industry-focused discussion on the latest trends in office design. In an intimate gathering at the magazine’s New York City headquarters, 28 designers and manufacturers discussed design solutions that positively impacted inclusivity either at their own firm or in a project, the ability of free-addressing to democratize the office, and the struggles the industry still faces in recruiting diverse talent. Interior Design managing editor Helene Oberman and contributing editor Jen Renzi moderated the conversation.
The conversation about free-addressing proved to be the meatiest, with some designers seeing it as a much-needed means of democratizing the workplace and more accurately reflecting the way business is conducted today. On a practical level, pro-free-addressing designers argued, private offices are wastes of expensive square-footage in the workplace and there are many new, better options for doing tasks that require privacy (e.g. using an in-office phone booth to conduct private calls). From a social perspective, free-addressing has the ability to elevate company culture through the breakdown of corporate hierarchy—essentially, it creates a feeling of “we’re all in this together”, they maintained.
But not everyone bought these arguments. Some attendees felt that free-addressing would make it easier for cliques to form and actually harm company culture. Others felt that not having an assigned seat at work, where people spend the vast majority of their daily lives, could lead to an employee experiencing depersonalization. Also, if the technology is not adequate at all of the desks, some people may not be able to do their job at all. The greatest problem with free-addressing, all of the participants said, was that clients don’t always know how to correctly implement it. Designers need to be the ones to spearhead this change and make sure that it is running smoothly, something a post-occupancy study could certainly elucidate.
On the topic of inclusivity and diversity, many of the designer-participants have no trouble implementing inventive strategies that make the physical space more accommodating to a wide variety of people. But when it comes to making the industry more diverse, many were mystified. Some thought it was an exposure problem and advocated more reach-out to primary and secondary schools. Others were franker in their diagnosis of the problem: the design lifestyle and income are just not attractive to young people. Whatever it is, everyone agreed, designers need to figure it out and fix it quickly. The pressure is on from within and without to make design more representative of the real world.
The final Workplace Roundtable of the year will take place in December.