Good workplace design means more than just good looks

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Mark Simpson, Principal, Chair of Design, Head of Workplace, BDP

‘Design is a funny word. Some people think design means how it looks. But of course if you dig deeper, it’s really how it works.’ – Steve Jobs.

What will the office of the future be like? Will we be replaced by robots? Will our friends be electric? What are the implications of artificial intelligence?

There are a multitude of scientists, programmers, workplace thinkers, gurus and commentators out there who spend a lot of time discussing the impact of AI and other advances on the future. Recent reports suggest that 20% of UK jobs are expected to be automated by the 2030’s; that’s around 10 million people. However, history also records that changes in technology can result in more jobs being created than destroyed. The answer is that we don’t know.

What is clear to us as a practice today is what the main drivers are for our occupier clients. People are the key concern. They do, after all, represent the major cost to most businesses and good people make good businesses. Put a good business in a better building and it will become a better business.

Mention Apple and you will inevitably think of the sleek minimal products conceived by the British designer Sir Jonny Ive – a self-confessed disciple of the work of Dieter Rams, who although initially trained as an architect, is famous for his consumer products designed for Braun and Vitsoe. Technology has changed rapidly since Rams was designing his iconic pieces around his maxim of ‘Less but Better’. Yet the major technology firms still seek to make products that follow his philosophy. ‘Good design makes a product understandable. Better still, it can make the product clearly express its function by making use of the user’s intuition. At best, it is self-explanatory.’ Rams also claimed. ‘Imaginative design always develops in tandem with improving technology, and can never be an end in itself. The aesthetic quality of a product is integral to its usefulness because products are used every day and have an effect on people and their wellbeing.’

Buildings are a product. Good buildings, like good products, should be easily understood and have real clarity, using them should be intuitive. Good buildings don’t need subtitles. We must understand the function that the building is to perform, whether it is a hospital, an airport or an office. They are all places that need to work and, to make them work better, we need to dig deeper.

Two key factors drive current workplace design; advances in technology and the wellbeing of people. It could be argued that they always should have – which was not always the case – but we can see that occupiers are demanding more from the buildings’ landlords and developers as employees become more selective about who they work for. Effective use of technology is central to working smarter. Wireless and cloud-based technologies mean we can work from anywhere, whenever we need to, and remote working is now becoming commonplace, with offices acting as ‘hotels’ or ‘work-hubs’ used for collaboration. The term Burolandschaft or ‘office-landscape’ once referred to a method of designing open plan office spaces (a philosophy BDP implemented in 1973 on the listed Halifax Building Society HQ). It is now being used to describe the software used to manage office ‘hoteling’ and to develop a physical environment that is optimised for employee engagement, such as serendipitous collaboration. The Internet of Things will inevitably become ubiquitous and have a big influence on the way workplaces operate and support those who use them. Buildings will become smarter as their systems become more enabled – particularly through Li-Fi. Occupiers and visitors will benefit from new ways to use, interact and communicate with them and each other; from the security methods to enter a building, through to the vending machine, MEP systems and lighting, the booking and use of meeting, study and collaborative spaces and the IT and AV hardware within them. This allows greater choice, flexibility and connectivity. However, whatever technology provides, care must be taken to allow a degree of individual control. It must be human.

Steve Jobs was not a designer or an architect but certainly an innovator. His primary motive was to understand how a product functioned, how it provided its user with something that made their life easier, their work better, and how to make it function better than anything that went before. The iPhone was such a success because it was easy to use and intuitive, delivering a much more superior experience to the user. What Apple didn’t predict is the boom in the use of apps and how that would revolutionise entire areas of our lives.

Developing a clear brief for a building is paramount. Without the inside leg measurement, we can’t make the trousers. It’s all too easy for a designer to become captivated at the beginning of a project, reach for the fat felt pen and scribble away at a high-minded vision, to arrogantly think they know best and that the client will move in and adapt. That might result in an iconic building, a grand architectural statement – but will it work? Will it function? Will the users enjoy being there? Probably not. The wrong trousers.

The term ‘New Ways of Working’ is well over 25 years old now but the predictions of those who first introduced this terminology, such as Dr Francis Duffy, are now the reality, even if not yet enjoyed by large parts of the working population. However, as workplace commentator Neil Usher of workessence points out in his book, The Elemental Workplace, ‘You may have the most effective, efficient and environmentally friendly workplace imaginable, but if the people think the organisation sucks due to another reason entirely, it will be worth little or nothing. A great workplace alone will not save a rotten culture or reputation.’

Workplace environments are becoming places you choose to go to rather than a place you have to get to. Attracting and retaining the best people who value their time out of work and quality of life within it requires buildings to work for them. Brand alignment to engender loyalty in an increasingly diverse, independent and fluid commercial world is a key driver for most of our clients. The workplace, if done well, not only enables the best people to succeed for their employer – it motivates the best people to consistently perform at their best. The best buildings are buildings with a heart, with outstanding facilities to make their working experiences better, their lives easier and more enjoyable; buildings that allow them the connectivity, space(s) and time to think and to relax with great food and great coffee. Space to collaborate, to teach, to learn, to inspire and to innovate.

As designers and engineers, we continue to strive to deliver buildings that are sustainable, inclusive, flexible, support change, provide choice, embrace daylight, good air, good food, clean water and recognise that we are humans not robots, that we have feelings and need meaningful contact with the elements and with one another to thrive. We know from working with enlightened clients such as PwC, Astra Zeneca and Google that successful companies embrace these key principles and align them with extremely high sustainability and wellbeing criteria to create buildings and environments that embody their own values and appeal to those who want to work for them. That goes for all ages and not just the so-called ‘millennials’ by the way. The workplace is increasingly multi-generational, diverse, fluid and inclusive.

The drivers, therefore, are for less corporatism and are more about freedom and choice. Spaces for extroverts and introverts, quiet spaces for problem solving and communal spaces for lively discussion and collaboration. A rich menu of inclusive settings that provide choices in where to work to suit the task in hand enables wellbeing through encouraging an agile daily work pattern.

This is growing increasingly relevant for the public sector, which is undergoing a huge revolution in how it uses space. Our recently completed headquarters building for Northamptonshire County Council is a perfect example of bringing diverse parts of an organisation together and providing them with the facilities and settings to work together in a way that was impossible before.

Our clients are requesting fewer fixed spaces and meeting rooms, using fewer desks, more collaborative settings; ‘not-desking’ rather than ‘hot-desking’. This ‘loose-fit’ approach to a ‘fit-out’ means organisations can be more flexible and their working environments more responsive to change. Hackable space that is easily adapted by the user will become far more prevalent and churn costs will reduce as fewer services are required, emancipating occupants to adapt their immediate space to meet a particular task in hand, enhancing their experience and productivity. FM teams will need to be more nimble and actively respond to a more fluid environment.

The iPhone is only 10 years old, the iPad only seven. Google/Alphabet is not yet 20 years old. What companies like Google will look like in 10 years is anyone’s guess but they will certainly set the agenda. What we do know, however, is that the buildings people work in – whether a hospital, airport or office – will be smarter and more responsive to an ever-changing landscape.

Desiring a beautifully designed building inside and out is a natural aspiration. But ensuring it really works is the key to its success. Dig deep