Last autumn, Frame and Orgatec challenged today’s leading designers to devise a workplace that was truly agile – one in which workers would have unprecedented control over how their environment looks, feels and functions. The teams shortlisted during our Frame Awards festival in February have now been invited to take part in a series of #FrameLive virtual workshops where they can road test their concepts against a panel of industry experts. Our second event featured finalists HOK, the global design, architecture and engineering firm. Their selected panel of experts consisted of Brian Collins, senior manager, change management, real estate & facilities for Microsoft, Jeffrey Saunders, foresight expert and partner at management consultant Behavioural Strategy, and Aiden Walker, programme director of Design Shanghai and Design China.

HOK’s Director of Design Bill Bouchey kicked off the session by arguing that we need to radically expand our perception of inclusivity in office design. ‘We believe it's important to leverage the superpowers of the neuro-diverse community through design science and raise awareness around this community for the future of workplace environments.’ HOK’s Orgatec proposal builds on the company’s extensive experience in office design at scale and understanding client needs for multinational brands. The project outlines six spatial modalities that the modern workplace should afford: communing, concentrating, creating, congregating, contemplating and socializing. Crucially, they suggest, these modalities need to be able materialize differently depending on whether the user is hypo or hypersensitive. ‘One in eight people we know are considered to be neuro-diverse, but fewer than 50 per cent know it,’ said HOK’s Senior Interior Designer Mary Kate Cassidy, arguing that most office environments don’t ‘help these employees show their strengths . . . it’s basically like putting a saltwater fish into freshwater, it just doesn't work.’

Header and above: Japanese architecture firm DDAA’s design for Mistletoe in Tokyo is one example of a project redefining how we think about the concept of both the agile office and the client-architect relationship. Read more here.

Microsoft’s Collins, who had been invited specially to give his perspective on what ‘agile work’ actually means, pointed out how the concept is often poorly interpreted by employers and architects. ‘It isn't as simple as putting someone in a quiet environment or taking away all the distractions or interruptions.’ Instead he countered that the key is to offer choices and help staff explore how they might use the office space: ‘within our work employees have the autonomy to self-organize desk positions and orientations . . . we really want people to identify the best locations for their work success.’

Behaviour expert Saunders wanted to dig deep into the six modalities that HOK had outlined. He was keen to stress how the mix would need to shift depending on what type of organization was implementing them. He also wanted to highlight the manner in which technology is already fostering new types of interaction – especially with regard to mixed-reality, voice interfaces and AI – that are hard to anticipate spatially. However Saunders disagreed with those predicting that the COVID-19 crisis means that the central office will take on a primarily social function, and thus ‘that the need to provide tools to maximize modalities like focus might fall out of the picture.’ That goes against the agile mindset – ‘the expectation to work from wherever we're at’ – and so HOK’s dynamic proposal makes a lot of sense in its ability to truly capitalize on ‘serendipitous moments’.

Walker was concerned that, without a more ‘compassionate’ management culture, it will be hard to realize a workplace that really services the full diversity of its workforce. ‘Are we asking employers to invest in increasingly diverse interiors, which will answer an ever increasing array of personal needs, but with less commercial incentive to do so?’ He was therefore encouraged by HOK’s proposed ‘multi-sensory zones’, which can offer highly personalized experiences within a fixed footprint. But the first step, he reiterated, is still to develop a generation of employers who regard their job as being ‘to look after their people before almost anything else.’