How Japanese history is influencing the future of the office

The advent of hybrid working has prompted a global rethink of how time and place influence our working lives. Over the past two years, we’ve learnt a lot from organisations as they experiment with approaches to hybrid working – but recently we’ve cast our net a bit wider for inspiration.

Hybrid workspaces are not as new as we think. In fact, in Kyoto, combined working and living spaces have existed as far back as the 17th Century. As described in the article, The Japanese Home Design That Strikes a Work-Life Balance, machiya, or townhouse, homes featured workshops and storefronts as well as dedicated spaces for religious practice, domestic work and social activities. In their initial form, they were an important way to maximise space – but also to bring equilibrium to lives and cities by ensuring that everyone had adequate and equal space for professional and personal pursuits. Importantly, although machiya created separations between private and public pursuits, these lines were flexible.

Over time, the machiya approach has become a blueprint for restoring balance after social disaster.  For example, following WWII, these homes re-emerged as a way to maximise space and embed the cultural behaviours needed to bring back a sense of social stability.

Machiya fell out of popularity in the 1950s, but today, as we navigate the shift in our work and home lives, we have much to learn from them. We’ve all heard about the effect reserving dedicated space for home working can have on our work/life balance and as we renegotiate office spaces, thinking about purpose is just as important.

Maintaining intentionality in design is key as you rethink the office.

One organisation has already tried this in a literal sense. Garden Lab is a combined residence and co-working space built out of two machiya. The space is designed to take advantage of the buildings’ intentional design to both accommodate machinery and create opportunities for people to connect.

As we rethink the role of the office, we can use similarly intentional blueprints to ensure that our newly designed spaces offer a curated experience. A key part of this is ensuring they can accommodate a wide range of scenarios and tasks – from collaboration and focused work to social space and visitors. In particular, creating dedicated space for the tasks and behaviours we want to encourage helps to rebalance the status of tasks – minimising any suggestion that some types of work are more important than others and creating an overall sense of harmony and purpose.

Find out more about redesigning the role of the office in Founder of HSM Advisory, Prof. Lynda Gratton’s Blueprint for Redesigning Work.