The Round Table – Trend Spotting

In Association with:Karndean Commercial Logo copy

Leah Shutkever, EOS / Gurtake Singh, Gensler / Simon Jessop, Glancy Nicholls / Paul Eatock, Spatial / Alison Monteith, Monteith Scott / Josephine Bridges, AHR / Matthew Speck, Karndean Designflooring / Steve Townsend, Associated Architects / Steve Bickley, Karndean Designflooring

We’re in Birmingham – together with the pick of the Midlands’ design professionals and our friends at Karndean Design flooring – to discuss the fascinating subject of the latest trends in the workplace. To open proceedings off in a suitably provocative manner, we ask our guests if clients actually understand the current trends and what they might mean to their businesses – and if they actually discuss ‘trends’ when planning interior projects.

Alison: If we are talking about trends in terms of finishes and aesthetics, then this is something that quickly becomes a fad, becomes a fashion – rather superficial. If we’re talking about trends in workplace practice, then that is something much deeper, much more intellectual.

Leah: Clients initially approach us, typically saying ‘We need a facelift, we need to refresh, we need to attract the new generation into the workplace and we want to give back to the people who will be working for us in the future’. The directors of companies that have been working with the same furniture they had in the 80’s might think this is ok, but new managers and younger people coming into the workplace might not see that as attractive. I think they (clients) get it. They get that the workplace needs to be attractive and a desirable place to work.

Josephine: I think clients understand the aesthetic side of things more than how they work. Workplace design is going much more towards collaborative, open plan working as well as providing places to have secluded working spaces. People require very adaptable workplaces – and getting that across to clients is often the harder part. You can show clients a colour palette, for example, and they will totally get that – but then you go on to talk about introducing open pod systems and they say ‘Hang on a second!’

“Do you think that end users are bold enough to go with what you recommend?”

Paul: Do you think that end users are bold enough to go with what you recommend? We often see that where designers take it is beyond where clients are bold enough to go – which leaves a discrepancy. I think on the trends side of things   we’re trying to create this workplace that doesn’t match with the culture and the people who are using that space.

Leah: I think part of our job as designers and architects is to be a workplace consultant – initially, primarily and before anything else. You have to say that you will help them and we are interested – and this is what is happening right now and this is what we can offer and this is how it can benefit them and their workers and wellbeing and health…

Paul: There’s nothing more exciting for us, as a supplier, than seeing one of you guys come up with a really exciting design idea and it actually ending up like that!

Alison: Some clients just don’t understand what you’re showing them. They don’t care that you’ve done this before – their wife did an evening class…this is what you’re fighting against. You’re fine if you’ve done the job with them once, if you’ve worked with them before – then they get it.

Paul: For me, this is about understanding how the client works, what they want to get out of their environment – and then the finishes will come off the back of having the functionality right in the first place. We’ve got a client who we’ve just fitted with 80 electric height adjustable desks – and this was born out of the fact that they have a young, trendy workforce who wants to work with this kind of desk. They’ve also put a vast amount of money into their social areas and breakout zones. The result is that productivity has gone through the roof. You’ve got people no longer eating at their desks, you’ve got people going into the office earlier, because they’ve got a place to collaborate and socialise they’re not going out so much and their leaving later – because they’ve got a great environment.

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You do need directors and managers to have the confidence that when people are sat in booths or breakout areas they aren’t actually skiving!

Gurtake: With a trend such as the height adjustable desk, I think it’s about variety rather than just the desk itself – it’s about being able to migrate to and from particular spaces to do different tasks. Looking at trends moving forwards such as textures, colours, finishes, lighting etc, these are a byproduct of the consultancy work we do for our clients. As designers we really have to immerse ourselves and get complete buy-in from our clients – so we do understand where they want to go. Capturing all this information and regurgitating back to them can often lead to a dynamic altering of the workplace. It is by monitoring the trends on that side of things that leads to the finishes, colours etc. Otherwise – and I’m sure everyone around this table has heard this at one point or another – your client tells you that they want a Google office!

“It’s about being able to migrate to and from particular spaces to do different tasks”

Simon: With the clients that we tend to work with – the majority of whom are from universities – if you try to push academics into something that is totally unfamiliar, they will retaliate back to what they know best. We try to create spaces where we can give them a little bit of variety. These are academics, and in some cases there is a feeling of entitlement here – they want an office, they don’t want ‘pesky’ students interrupting them, they want to close themselves off. Many of the universities that have embraced more of an open plan structure still tend to keep the academics ‘hidden away’ – certainly the older academics. So when we talk about trends, we’re not just talking about finishes, we are talking about workplace culture.

Steven B: I do think the working culture side of this is such a big thing. We’ve experienced this at our office, where everyone used to work in cubicles, in quite an insular way. Then we installed a big breakout area, where people from separate buildings started to come together – and now people who previously didn’t even know one another’s names socialise together. I think this really helped a lot of people to buy into the company ethos a lot more. Having that social space has made people come together.

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Matthew: Everyone’s work/life balance is very different from what it was 10 years ago – and the workplace has changed accordingly. People do come in earlier and stay later. People are far more likely to leave or to go out for lunch if the office is boring and horrible – but if it’s fresh and inspiring, they are more likely to want to stay.

Stephen T: If you think about the office building as a whole, you’re selling the lifestyle, you’re not just selling the space.

Alison: Ultimately you’re taking a brief and you’re solving a problem. It’s like engineering – it’s not about the aesthetics initially, it’s about overcoming those problems.

Stephen T: We get involved right through a project, from the inception of the building design right through to the fit-out of the space. Some of our clients will engage a marketing or branding agency from early on in the process to be involved as part of the design team and come up with a concept. They’ll research through their market, they’ll research who the occupiers are, who their workforce is, what they’re looking for – so you create that lifestyle right from the inception of the building, you find out about the tech and the infrastructure they’re going to need from Day 1. I think having this consolidated process is really key to getting it right.

“You have to remember that the client is a big part of the design team.”

Josephine: Sometimes, the client might have an idea, they might have a concept that they want more social space – but you really have to show it to them. You have to regurgitate their own information – which they already know – and then you have to reformat it and show it to them again so that they can see it from the outside! As well as that, I find it’s most successful when you actually show the client what you’re talking about with regards to meeting people in the office. We did a university project where we went around and met with everyone – the librarians, the students, the union, the tutors, and we had consultation after consultation. It was only after we had sat and done all this that the client said ‘Ok, I see where you’re coming from’.

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Gurtake: I think more and more clients are cottoning on to what they need to do – but do they really understand what innovation is, what collaboration is and if so what is an example of that? We’re delivering more and more projects that hit our clients’ expectations – and it takes a lot of hand-holding, a lot of nurturing and a lot of guiding to get to that final result. It might not have been what they wanted at the beginning – but it was necessary to put in that work at the beginning in order to give them the workspace they absolutely want.

Leah: I think that is now part and parcel of it. You take what someone perceives is what they want and you try to educate and collaborate with them to try to come to an agreement. You often end up creating something that they didn’t expect to create and you didn’t expect to create.

Gurtake: This is co-creation – and this can only come from constant collaboration.

Alison: There is still suspicion from a lot of clients that you’re going to go away, beaver away for a month and then come back to them and say ‘There you go’. You have to remember that the client is a big part of the design team.

Gurtake: And you have to get buy-in from the very top.