Prospectives and Retrospectives of Office Developments

/imagine jacques tati style office in playtime --v 1 --q 2 ©Midjourney

The office is dead, long live the office!” Whether this is a fad or actual societal transformation, articles and reports are on the rise and continue to predict a disruption in office real estate. A review of 30 years of prospective and retrospective thinking questioning office real estate programs can provide us with the key to a better understanding of this phenomenon.

Strategic foresight (“prospective”) is a way of “developing a set of assumptions about history in motion” (Decouflé, 1972). It uses scenario planning, which includes representations of possible futures based on available data and weak signals, against a cut-off date that appeals to the imagination. In the context of increasing complexity and uncertainty, businesses and organizations embraced the approach around 1985, influenced in particular by economist Michel Godet, perceiving it as a way of “clarifying present action in light of possible and desirable futures” (Godet, 2006)—in other words, as a guide to strategic action for decision makers.

Among major topics of interest, “work” is almost an old chestnut of strategic foresight. Both a primary function of our societies and a cornerstone of the human experience, work and its future relate to organization, policy and societal choices, technological and environmental change, institutional and demographic transitions, etc. As such, its future is both difficult to grasp by its stakeholders and highly exposed to paradigm shifts. It therefore mobilizes a repeatedly renewed retrospective and prospective thought.

Where does the office stand in all of this? Office real estate is the medium that materializes this organization. From the territorial level at which they are set to that of their interior layout, office buildings don’t escape this analysis of history in perspective. Three key periods of “prospective” have thus punctuated its history, raising the question of the space-time patterns of work, of how consistent it is with managerial practices, and that of the aspirations of employees. The three milestones of prospective thought on the matter have furthermore been in tune with various crises that have rocked the world of real estate, such as the global economic crisis of 2008 and the more recent Covid-19 pandemic.

The 1980s—When Technology Questions the Future of the Office

The 1980s mark the first period during which strategic foresight was used to question the future of the office. Exhibitions, symposiums, and publications abounded. The exhibitions devoted to the topic by the Paris Museum of Decorative Arts in 1984 (L’empire du bureau 1900-2000 [The Empire of the Office, 1900–2000]) and later by the Centre Pompidou in 1986 (Lieux? de travail [Places? of Work]) testify to this. Both events look back on the development of the office building, starting with its functionalist origins and the strong linkages between its interior layout and the grand theories of management. The open-plan office, with its wall-less layout, became widespread in the 1970s and was designed for optimizing work processes. The advent of modern communication tools no longer required dividing office space up based on the company’s organizational structure and the workplace became a serial surface. The shift towards the service economy and the spread of robotics, automation in production workshops were unerringly leading towards the homogenization of working spaces.

In this context, the advent of digital technology, then still called “office automation”, was of major concern. By further pushing a form of virtualization of the workplace, it brought players in the office real estate sector to have new considerations. For example, what would the implications be on office jobs, and as a result, on how offices are organized?

This question was also the subject of two national competitions by the Programme Architecture Nouvelle de Bureaux (PAN Bureaux), which were held in 1985 and 1988 by the French Ministry of Urban Planning, Housing, and Transport and focused on promoting new approaches in office architecture. Similar to current Europan competitions, the aim was to foster activity around architectural research and innovation, in a forward-looking spirit, in order to address major social, economic, technological, and urban challenges (in this case referring to “energy management, working conditions, office automation systems integration, and construction processes”).

Finally, and again in 1985, the “Prospective 2005” symposium, organized by the General Planning Commission and the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), proposed scenarios for 2005 based on the dissemination of office automation and industrial automation. The symposium’s findings pointed to an increased abstraction of both the focus of work and its tools. This has resulted in the blurring of boundaries between work and non-work, and its corollary, between office and home. “Though it’s unlikely that full-time teleworking (working entirely from home thanks to telematic links) will develop, it is certain that an increasing number of jobs will allow for some proportion of remote work or continuing education at home. The design of workplaces will also have to reflect this gradual disappearance of the boundaries between places of work, training, consumption, and family life” (Lasfargue, 1986). This paradigm shift was viewed as portending new forms of organizational conflict, making the projected workplace of 2005 something that would necessarily have to be “negotiated.”

The 2010s—Subprime Crisis and Knowledge Capitalism

Ten years ago, while Pavillon de l’Arsenal was exploring the iconic architectures of the workplace of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, as well as future of the practices and uses of offices (Work in Process, 2013), PCA-STREAM was questioning the traditional place of the office building in our cities—will there be an After Office (2012) world? A second period of strategic foresight followed these publications.

The decade was haunted by the specter of growing automation, which was threatening the very existence of a substantial proportion of existing jobs. Many authors, shaped by strong technological determinism, contended that Rifkin’s argument (The End Of Work, 1995) was to be given serious consideration, as computers were now capable of replacing many manipulations that had been carried out so far by humans. Changes in working conditions was, for this reason, at the heart of PCA-STREAM’s reflection. With After Office, the architectural firm analyzed this permanent technological revolution and put it in its global context—the globalization of trade and the growth of the knowledge economy, the “platformization” brought about by the digital economy, the strong rise in environmental concerns, and the financial crisis. The emergence of knowledge capitalism was then upending all previous organizational models. Further, the virtualization of work and the increased emphasis on the values of individual autonomy and independence of employees was causing profound changes in our relationship to work and the design of spaces dedicated to it.

Current Issues, Between Search for Meaning and Collective Sense

The years 2017 and 2018 formed a new milestone. As the “right to disconnect” entered the French labor code so as to limit the health risks of remote work in particular (1 January 2017), the French Ministry of Labor commissioned a report on “Artificial Intelligence and work” (France Stratégie, March 2018). Prospective scenarios on the future of work then emerged again from all quarters, produced both by academics and professionals (consulting firms, developers, and architects). Practices, locations, organizational and management methods, the time frames, rights, atmospheres, statuses, and tools—all the different perspectives on the subject—were explored in order to form coherent narratives.

Four new paradigms were taking hold: artificial intelligence, which moves automation and virtualization of work a notch further; the ecological transition and its policies that organizations are being enjoined to include in their corporate social responsibility road maps; the crisis of meaning experienced by employees, which is causing a reversal in the balance of power between employees and employers, and a growing need to erect new boundaries around the space-time of work; and finally, remote work. This change in the patterns of use is amplified by the Covid-19 epidemic.

In this shifting context, the organizational responses to the challenge seem to be further scattering the workplace (remote work, coworking, flex offices, etc.). The office isn’t obsolete yet, however. The office is indeed expected to continue acting as the bedrock of togetherness and an instrument of a certain serendipity, or perhaps a resource for the well-being of employees. Hybrid work requires making the physical experience of the office more attractive, at the service of cross-cutting work and teamwork. To that end, working spaces are diversifying, and are both becoming more flexible and more connected.
During these three periods of crisis and calling into question of the traditional office building, this dual approach of retrospective and prospective thought has opened new possibilities for the office, though, to this day, the challenge of its reinvention continues to pose a significant challenge. To learn more about the challenges of the future design of office buildings, discover the article "Concevoir les nouveaux avenirs des immeubles de bureaux" [Conceiving offices new futures], Réflexions Immobilières


Pauline Detavernier, Research and Development Project Manager at PCA-STREAM, Doctor of Architecture and part-time teacher


This article highlights the links between the prospective of workspaces and the technological advances of its tools. Pursuing this questioning, this page's illustrations were generated by Artificial Intelligence ©Midjourney. The essays below thus echo the key words of the article, used to power the AI.

Images generated by AI ©Midjourney


Chiambaretta, P. (ed) (2012) Stream02 After Office. Editions PCA-Stream.

Collectif. (1984). L’Empire du bureau 1900-2000. Musée des Arts Décoratifs. Editions Berger-Levrault.

Collectif. (2013). Work in Process, nouveaux bureaux, nouveaux usages. Pavillon de l’arsenal, Editions Picard.

Decouflé, A-C., (1972) La Prospective, Paris, P.U.F., Collection « Que sais- je ? », 126 p.

Godet M. (2006), « Prospective stratégique : problèmes et méthodes », Cahiers du Lipsor, Vol. 20.

Lasfargue, (1986) in Collectif. Lieux ? de travail, CCI.

Nivet, S. (2013) Histoire du bureau : un siècle d’architecture. dans Collectif. Work in process, nouveaux bureaux, nouveaux usages. Pavillon de l’arsenal, Editions Picard.