This month, M Moser’s Steve Gale looks at ‘homification’
As a ‘knowledge worker’ your week will see you in the office for more than a third of all the hours you are awake.
Over a career of 40 years this really adds up, and we know that getting to and from work also puts a big dent in the hours that are left.
This is one reason many companies want to make the experience a bearable one, maybe even pleasurable. They understand the arithmetic above, and believe a great workplace is good for business.
Generally, the design profession has evolved from the dogma of activity-based working. Things have become more nuanced. Boardroom vision is beginning to ask for space that is more than just an effective setting for production. It is common to hear suggestions that the workplace should be a home from home, and that employees should look forward to being there, and possibly even have fun.
What can this actually look like? A lot will depend on the organisation’s attitude to employees and how it is interpreted, and this is rarely in the public realm. The customer is the subject of a mission statement for a modern business, not the workers. It would be a novel mission statement that said ‘we just want our employees to have a good day, and do a decent job while they’re at it.’
But behind the scenes these aspirations do get airtime when the workplace is being commissioned, and unsurprisingly it is usually in the tech sector where the talent war is hot. Recruitment is often focused on young people who are starting out and might have patchy home lives, maybe sharing, moving frequently, and dictated to by what they can afford.
Employers try to place themselves in the shoes of their workers, and make informed assumptions about what employees would like, what makes them happy and energised. I often wonder why they don’t just ask them, but that is rare, and maybe understandable. You need to pose these questions very carefully to avoid creating a wish-list that cannot be delivered, so we get safe bets like ping pong and pool tables – everybody likes those!
“Kitchens look a bit domestic, tables and chairs are selected from John Lewis”
The efforts to make work life bearable are more subtle than this. The workplace is actually becoming more like a home, not like one where people actually live, but a sort of show home. Deliberately or accidentally the design profession is picking up on elements that remind people that life exists outside the office, where comfort, colour, scale and texture is valued and things have personal meaning.
It is tricky to get this right. You cannot personalise space that is used by many people, so ideas from the hospitality sector bleed easily into the workplace. Rugs and sofas turn up among the carpet tiles, planting becomes more ambitious, bookshelves appear in odd places, and lighting is warmer rather than just purposeful.
Reasons behind these concepts vary. Sometimes there is explicit recognition of the fact that work takes people away from their personal space, so we partially replicate imagined homes. In some regions employers know that the cost of living precludes generous personal space and so they provide a substitute in the office. In many cases the work environment has areas curated to be what employees might like to have, not how they actually furnish their rented apartment. Kitchens look a bit domestic, tables and chairs are selected from John Lewis, donated board games appear on a coffee table.
This trend is one way that employers try to appeal to their most valuable constituency. It is not the same as the cradle to grave all-caring environment delivered by the tech mega-brands, especially in Silicon Valley. It goes beyond providing perks like sleep pods, bike loans, massages and free food – it is an effort to make people psychologically comfortable, and respected as more than a useful asset. Done well, the effect can be humanising and memorable.