Words by Katie Puckett
"We may be getting more people to come into the office, but we are not necessarily creating a better workplace for them"Diane Hoskins, Gensler
3. Be clear about what the office is for
To truly be a destination for work, the office needs to be better adapted to what it actually involves. What we call “work” encompasses many types of activity, from tasks that require head-down concentration, to writing emails and making calls, to collaborating, brainstorming or informal social interaction with colleagues. So while we need our own space, we also need different types of space. At home, we’ve been able to choose where to sit – albeit between limited options – and it will be hard to give this up. The best activity-based working environments cater for the cadences of the working day, offering a variety of well-designed, freely accessible spaces.
“Being able to move around and have a different outlook or ergonomic situation or connection to the life of the office, that really changes the quality of the workspace,” says Ron Bakker, founding director of PLP Architecture in London. He designed The Edge in Amsterdam, one of the world’s smartest and most sustainable office buildings, which not only has a range of settings but synchronizes with employees’ calendars to make sure they can always find the space they need. “After a few years, we’ve found that people plan their day differently and make very conscious decisions about their diaries and workloads.” Occupier Deloitte has also recorded a 55% drop in absenteeism compared to its other Dutch offices.
"Being able to move around really changes the quality of the workspace"Ron Bakker, PLP Architecture
Noise is probably the greatest source of stress in the open-plan environment, whether you’re struggling to concentrate amid the chatter or making calls against a backdrop of aggressive silence. Zoning should take acoustics into account, says Seiko Kurokawa, a designer at WSP in New Zealand, but employers also have to make it clear what’s appropriate where. “It’s really a matter of education and etiquette, and working together to support each other,” she says. “That needs to be discussed too when we come back to the office.”
Given the choice, many will stay home for solo focused work. Offices will still need some dedicated quiet areas for those who can’t, but the balance may flip. Why not take out some of the desks and dedicate open-plan areas to collaboration instead, suggests Heather Smith, national director of workplace strategies at Architecture49 in Canada. “We will hopefully see the end of 15 people packed into a meeting room, and maybe that type of meeting will be conducted in a more open environment,” she says. “I think we have to fight the urge to put up walls and barriers and dividers. Loads of us are desperate to get back to the office because we thrive on the social interaction, but if there are 10 people there instead of 50 and you can’t even see them, we’re not getting what we need.”
But how do we know that the people we want to see will even be in the office that day? We will need to plan our visits more carefully to get the greatest value from them – reinforcing the idea of the office as an appointment destination. Smart technologies can help with this, a topic that we’ll be considering in the next part of the series.
"Loads of us are desperate to get back to the office because we thrive on the social interaction ... We have to fight the urge to put up walls and barriers and dividers"Heather Smith. Architecture49
4. Give people the things they can’t get at home …
This is a relatively easy win because the office already has a lot to offer that remote working can’t match. Not everyone has the space or set-up to work from home productively, and few enjoy enterprise-grade technology and big-budget equipment. “Giving people really great hardware like 3D printers or fantastic large computer screens is definitely a real attractor, especially for young graduates,” says Carolyn Solley, senior associate at Hassell in Brisbane. “They are often motivated by a really cool workplace because it becomes like an extension of their own personal brand.”
Another pull is having a great restaurant, coffee shop or juice bar, or failing that, inviting a rotating cast of local caterers to serve on site. This potential for novelty is the office’s most compelling USP, particularly in downtown locations: “People crave variety – in their day, in their week and in their scenery,” says Solley. “It can be a bit one-note doing the same thing, day in day out, in the same environment. Mix it up a bit and offer something others might not.”
5. …And give them the things they can too
Returning office workers will be reluctant to give up their home comforts, and less willing to endure sub-optimal conditions or situations. So to encourage people to make the effort, offices need to make it as easy as possible for them to feel good while they’re there.
"Young graduates are often motivated by a really cool workplace because it becomes like an extension of their own personal brand"Carolyn Solley, Hassell
"We have devices that mean we’re at our jobs nearly 24/7, so it’s only fair that the home should be allowed to infiltrate the workplace"William Johnston, WSP
6. Maximize social interaction
More than ever, seeing other people will be the biggest reason to go to the office. A lot of the social life of an office is organic, but employers and building owners can nurture it by creating more opportunities for people to cross paths and get together. A well-publicized programme of social events is another easy win, but it’s the meetings we don’t plan that can really make the workplace into a genuine destination.
Above all, the office should be a place of inspiration, says Johnston: “Particularly in the knowledge industries, and as more and more tasks become automated, we need to create an environment that stimulates creativity and great ideas. We need dynamic, varied spaces that invoke curiosity and encourage people to think.” One way to support this is by prioritizing connectivity in the design. “This includes visual connections, such as atriums or common areas, but also areas that support accidental connectivity – bumping into people that you may not otherwise have encountered, learning what they do, and discovering that you can help each other.”
PLP’s office is one big space, defined by a 100m corridor through the middle. “It’s almost designed so that you do meet people,” says Bakker. “You go past all the different teams, and there are breakout spaces and all the printers and photocopiers in the middle. It’s from all these chance encounters that we have progress and innovation and creativity. It’s not just about communicating and exchanging ideas but also fresh ways of thinking. Group dynamics are a big part of how we function as a species, and we don’t quite get that on Zoom.”
These ad hoc interactions will be even more prized in the post-Covid workplace, says Kurokawa. “The typical office will shift to become more like a coworking space, where we’re more conscious of opportunities to collaborate with other people,” she says. Organizations might choose to capitalize on this by integrating actual coworking spaces where external collaborators can set up for the day, or by equipping front-of-house areas to host evening events. “There will still need to be private areas to secure sensitive equipment and information, but offices may have more layers of semi-public and multipurpose spaces.” The most compelling office destinations will not only be a magnet for employees, but for clients, partners and the wider community too.
"The typical office will shift to become more like a coworking space, where we’re more conscious of opportunities to collaborate with other people"Seiko Kurokawa, WSP
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