Designing A Future-Proof Workplace

Mini booths in a modern office By William Poole-Wilson, founder and managing director, WILL+Partners.

With a recent study revealing 75% of Londoners vow to never go back to the office full-time, some form of hybrid working looks like it’s here to stay. A new era of work means a shift in the relationship between worker and workplace.

Contrary to the early pandemic sentiment that “less people in the office means cutting cost on space”, savvier enterprises have understood that it’s not less space, but adaptable, better managed, more flexible spaces that will keep employee morale high and attract talent about the human experience.

Conveniently, modern facilities management technology solutions allow for these attributes to achieve more cost-effective results than their predecessors. The office landscape is shifting and moving towards a renewed, sustainable, social, flexible and, in many ways, more human direction. My experience has taught me that a well-constructed and well-managed space can become greater than the sum of its parts. More so than ever, office design should be purpose driven in a new, accelerated, agile world.

Building For Connection

Post-pandemic, the office now has to embody the role of a social hub, so creating spaces for connection is essential. Workplaces should be designed around the symbiotic relationship between business, people and space. Open plan offices with pleasant communal spaces can satiate the intrinsic human need for interaction. A well-designed space will help create spontaneous encounters and off-the-cuff conversations, which are valuable for new ideas to sprout and keeping a positive morale in the office. These “water cooler moments” help magnetise the workplace and encourage people’s voluntary return to the office. Leesman’s survey of 22,000 hybrid workers revealed that focused individual tasks are preferred to be done at home while collaborative work and social interactions are better supported in the office.

However, these communal spaces must then be contrasted with focus spaces, built for doing deep work. As the Leesman survey affirms, beware of turning offices into mere meeting places. Individual, focused work is still an essential component of working life, important to 91.9% of employees. Although the home environment can be a distraction-free environment for some employees, others will have a decrease in productivity in their home environment, and may need the office to accommodate their individual work needs. To think that employees won’t need spaces for some head-down, concentrated work on a day when they are in the office for a meeting is risky. Offices that employees will want to come to will need to support both individual and collaborative work in the future.

Sound-proof pods are becoming commonplace in interior office design. Having accessible dedicated calm spaces in the workplace allows people to escape from the hustle and bustle of an office, while enabling those wanting to chat to do so unobtrusively. Additionally, in the age of hybrid working, workspaces must have a blend of spaces for both physical and distance communication. Accessible sound-proof pods allow users to take video calls in private without disturbing others.

Further, a combination of focus areas and communal spaces promotes neurodiverse wellbeing, a trending topic in ESG, and an increasingly desirable factor for talent attraction. Around 1 in 7 people are ‘neurodiverse’, meaning their brain functions in ways which are not “conventional”. For example, conditions such as ADHD, dyslexia, or autism are encompassed in the term neurodiversity. As workplaces grow towards being inclusive, creating an array of spaces with different sensorial inputs (for example lower-lighting or soundproof spaces) can make the workplace more comfortable for everyone.

Building Smarter

With energy costs rising and ESG increasingly becoming a business imperative, these factors have seldom been more relevant. This was reaffirmed at COP26, held in Glasgow last November, where the UK government revealed plans to mandate the publication of net zero strategies for companies operating in high-emitting sectors. Smart technology can help businesses make better, more sustainable and cost-effective workspaces.

Smart technology enables efficient distribution of energy throughout a building. For example, intelligent lighting using sensors helps conserves energy by turning off lights in areas not actively being utilised in the workspace and illuminating them only when they are in use. What’s more, this can create a pleasant and seamless experience for occupiers as settings can be made entirely bespoke. This reaffirms the calls for adaptation to neurodiversity, as some employees may prefer lower lighting as a sensorial relief. Listening to individual needs for optimum wellbeing is increasingly valued in the work environment.

Another effective solution is smart climate control through smart heat pumps and air conditioning. Older central heating systems can be wasteful and costly given the post-Covid limited office occupancy. These smart technologies can save on cost through isolating energy expenditure in areas of use. This also significantly reduces the environmental footprint of an office, and takes a step towards our collective desired state of net zero, all the while creating a more pleasant workplace experience.

With hybrid working as the new norm, companies are adapting and improving capacity planning for their office spaces. Sensor technology produces real-time occupancy data and can be supplemented with apps which allow workers to book rooms or desks and see which relevant colleagues are in the office at the same time. However, it’s worth remembering the privacy concerns occupancy technology can cause. I would encourage an open and transparent discussion with your teams when considering the implementation of such technology so that you can respond adequately to any concerns.

Future-proof design is human-centric and listening to user needs is primordial to understanding how a space will be used. Keeping a finger on the pulse of employee sentiment towards their work environment allows for workplace design to better accommodate the needs of the present as well as better predict the needs of the future. These employee needs and wants can be married with a company’s strategy and long-term goals. Allowing for workplace design tailored to your enterprises’s managerial approaches, all the while magnetising your workplace to a new generation of workers, who prioritise purpose and wellbeing.

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Designing A Future-Proof Workplace