New office forms

From the office to the office landscape

Flexible working models, mobile working and predominantly project work require new types of offices. In what are known as office landscapes, employees can choose from numerous different workplace scenarios the precise version that fits their current activity. However, ergonomics and the requirements of older employees should not be forgotten.

Claudia Bardola

Business as usual? That belongs to the past! Change is the mantra of the new working world – thanks to mobile terminal devices, cloud computing and flexible working models and times, more and more employees now work how and where they want. So it’s no wonder that the amount of routine desk work is shrinking to a minimum. Office clerks have long since been transformed into knowledge workers who primarily work in projects with distributed and constantly re-forming teams.


It is thus obvious that conventional office forms – above all the often unfriendly open-plan areas and compartmentalised office cubicles – are lagging behind the demands of the new world of work. As part of a large pilot project, more and more Swiss companies, such as SBB, Credit Suisse, UBS, Microsoft and Baloise, are turning to what is known as office landscapes. “This is based on the principle of activity-based working – employees should be able to find the ideal work location for their current task at all times,” explains interior designer Sybille Lembcke from the Kleibrink.Smart in Space interior design office, which has specialised in innovative office concepts.

Innovation through informality

In flexible office landscapes, the office space is divided into various work and break locations – those who want to concentrate on their work or make a phone call go into a focus room, teams meet in project rooms, routine work is simply completed at a free desk and conferences are held using various communication modules, in informal lounges or in meeting zones. As a rule, there are no longer fixed workstations – after all, statistically they are only occupied between 40 and 60 percent of the time. Instead, lounge sofas invite people to creatively spin ideas, quiet rooms are available for a power nap and refreshment stations allow informal exchanges.

And precisely this last point is also one of the declared goals of these non-territorial use strategies. For example, in a study the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found out that four fifths of all the truly innovative ideas are not generated in the development department or an individual office, but through unplanned communication. This fact needs to be accommodated – after all, innovation power and creativity are decisive in global competition.

1/16 Is it an office or a living room? It’s both! In what has been named the BrainGym in the former post office hall at the main site in Bern, Swisscom has set up a creative office environment, where employees are encouraged to do some lateral thinking …

2/16 … and informally exchange ideas. The BrainGym makes it possible for all employees to experience the approach of the Human Centered Design (HCD). This involves ways of thinking and methods that focus without compromise on people and their needs, and in this way unleash their potential for creativity.

3/16 It was Christina Taylor, Head of HCD at Swisscom, who instigated the BrainGym. She spent five years working as an outpost of Swisscom in Silicon Valley. She came back with the declared goal of introducing HCD at Swisscom and establishing a working, motivating culture of innovation.

4/16 Neither branding specifications nor budget cuts were able to slow Taylor down: “A technical solution for the problem of acoustics in the large hall would be too costly and also problematic in view of the fact that it is a listed building. Now a curtain made up of more than 20,000 tennis balls provides sound insulation.”

5/16 The large majority of the furniture in the BrainGym has a past, including the table made from wooden boards taken from a barn that had been torn down in the Bernese Oberland. The idea is to reuse tried and tested things in a new context. “This applies not only to our furniture, but also to ideas and projects,” explains Taylor.

6/16 Concentrated work in a focus room …

7/16 … or gathering ideas while lounging around on the couch: there is the ideal place to perform every task. The fact that not much attention is paid here to ergonomics has a reason, as Taylor explains: “The BrainGym is intended more for fleeting use; ergonomically oriented standard workplaces are available for stationary work.”

8/16 As a sort of logical extension to the BrainGym, the ProjectGym has been set up: interdisciplinary Swisscom teams can establish themselves for a certain time in one of a large number of rooms in order to implement projects more quickly and creatively. After between 12 and 18 months, though, they have to make room for the next teams.

9/16 ProjectGym: There is a friendly competition and active exchange between the teams. Open innovation takes place here. Taylor: “In our networked world, it is becoming increasingly important to sometimes present an unfinished prototype, collect feedback and learn from this in order to improve. Just sitting in a quiet room and developing the perfect solution doesn’t work any more today .”

10/16 According to Taylor, Swisscom employees are also expected to look further afield and create customer experiences: “Our most important innovation is not to be found in individual products, but in the way in which we work together to constantly question existing solutions and invent new solutions.”

11/16 What is known as the StoryGym contains no tables, but just comfortable seats. The aim here is to encourage more concentrated and lively discussions. The input for this came from the Group Executive Board, who was fed up of seeing numerous meeting participants consistently hide behind their laptops.

12/16 Try walking in my shoes: the installation is a symbol of Human Centered Design actually being applied. The shoes of customers have actually been nailed to the wall for this.

13/16 The lines on the floor also express the idea behind Human Centered Design: projects do not always take a linear route; going the wrong way and making mistakes is quite acceptable.

14/16 The attractive and colourful working environment is intended to promote childish playfulness, curiosity and even overconfidence. And yet: “Ultimately clear rules are needed. Creativity and discipline indisputably belong together; it is only in interaction that they realise their full potential,” maintains Taylor.

15/16 “An inspiring room is one thing. But there won’t be any innovations without suitable content and methods.” Based on Human Centered Design, projects are developed in three process steps: Hear – Create – Deliver.

16/16 Lucky coincidence was and is the decisive factor for numerous innovations, explains Taylor: “We encourage this by the way in which we have designed our rooms, through the methods that we use and finally through the culture that we are thus establishing. In turn, more lucky coincidences mean more and better innovations.”

1/16 Is it an office or a living room? It’s both! In what has been named the BrainGym in the former post office hall at the main site in Bern, Swisscom has set up a creative office environment, where employees are encouraged to do some lateral thinking …

It’s best not to overdo it

However, according to Lembcke, when it comes to office landscapes, the point is also to create an atmosphere that expresses the company’s appreciation of its employees and makes being in the office a quality experience. “This not only increases motivation and productivity but, particularly in view of the war for talents, provides an increasingly important recruiting argument. After all, it is the young experts who are questioning the old structures and increasingly desire a flexible working environment,” explains Lembcke.

However, occupational psychologist Peter Gugger warns against an overly one-sided focus on Generation Y: “That would be fatal as, in view of demographic change, it is becoming more and more important to retain older employees in the work process. Yet they are still given too little consideration in the open office landscapes.” Older people find the frequently neglected ergonomics in open spaces to be a particular challenge, as well as the fact that all employees become nomads, so to speak: “Constantly having to change locations and the ever-changing stimulations can have a positive effect, but they also take up a lot of energy in the brain, both neurophysiologically and neuropsychologically. This can impair the performance of the actual task at hand.”

“Instead of overdoing the worlds of experience and creating an offering that is overly complex, companies should stick to just a few flexible zones.”

Sybille Lembcke

Gugger’s recommendation: “Less is more. Instead of overdoing the worlds of experience and creating an offering that is overly complex, companies should always stick to just a few flexible zones in which a lot is possible, differentiated ergonomic equipment is available and social exchange is also given an important position.”

Copy and paste does not work

There is no blueprint for the ideal office landscape layout anyway, as Lembcke explains: “Generally speaking, it is important to plan a well-balanced mixture of different space zones so that various activities can be optimally carried out – from individual, concentrated work to work as a team and in projects. For this, the individual requirements of the different companies need to be taken into account. This is why every plan starts with the question: what do we stand for and where do we want to go?”


It is particularly important to involve the employees from the very beginning: “Those who are affected need to become involved in the process and the success rate of the planning increased by integrating the users. Only through a continuous change management process is it possible to ensure that the acceptance among users is high and that they also know how to use the new things correctly.”


Finally, Lembcke does not want to see office landscapes reduced to merely a clever layout, innovative equipment and home-like arrangement and summarises as follows: “The spatial change often triggers a transformation process that affects the entire working and corporate structure, and can thus make a contribution to significantly improving identification, motivation and value creation.”

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