Trend or Foe

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Thanks to all who took part:

Louise Grimes, AEW / Ben Horobin, Bowman Riley / Howard Powsney, SpaceInvader / Leigh Dimelow, TP Bennett / Stephen Frood, Gardiner & Theobald / Simon Ramsden, Hilson Moran / Jayne Crampton Walker, TSK / Kathryn Mitchell, Intrinsic

As you will now be all too aware, we have focused our attention on the often less than scientific world of trends in the workplace throughout this issue. For our latest Round Table we continue the theme by gathering a panel of workplace experts from across the North West at Hilson Moran’s fantastic workspace in the Neo building Manchester. The aim was to explore which trends are currently being readily adopted by clients, which we are likely to see as commonplace over the next couple of years and which will only be remembered as ‘what were we thinking’. Here is a flavour of what was an enlightening and entertaining session.

We begin by asking our panel, which key trends are end user clients talking about right now?

Leigh: More stuff in less space. With what is going on with the global economy, people are looking at their property portfolios and seeing if they can squeeze it here and there – and even looking at relocating to other cities, as we have found with the likes of Freshfields moving into Manchester. We are also seeing people looking at different ways to do things, to work their spaces.

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Stephen: There is definitely a shift to people looking for space in or around big cities. If you take Manchester, a lot of end users who might traditionally have gone out to business parks in Warrington or airport cities, are now looking for spaces on the outskirts of Manchester – just look at Freshfields, Gazprom and Auto Trader. They have a very young workforce and one of the things that I think is driving this is that these people are living in the city and therefore want to work in the city. A lot of this is not necessarily right in the centre of the city – that is still corporate ground. Generally, these offices are probably a little more expensive than being right out of town – so you have to be very efficient in terms of flexible design.

Louise: They are definitely using the spaces in a different way. There are less desks with more people – because people are not necessarily office based or they are now using different work settings.

Howard: The important factor is whether this is driven by the fact that they want to sweat their assets and keep the real estate costs down or is it that they want to provide a better space for their staff? I’d say it’s a little bit of both.

Jayne: It’s about attracting the right people – the Generation Y’s and Z’s. They know that the way to attract these people is to move to an awesome building that’s easily accessible – and then sweating the asset internally. The youngsters don’t expect large footprint desks, they don’t have a need for masses of space – they have a desire for smaller, unique spaces. The desk will not die – there is still a fundamental need for a piece of wood to stop your laptop from hitting the floor. But how that looks definitely has changed. There’s certainly a desire for more agility and freedom.

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Paul Edwards, Staverton: A desk is owned and a table is shared – and the move is towards the table.

Louise: There is definitely a move towards shared facilities – towards business lounges and event suites. If you look at a building like this one, there are more event spaces, collaboration areas and meeting points – and therefore less space devoted to desks.

So does our panel see agility as a solution to the issue of consolidation of real estate – or is it much more?

Howard: It depends what the perception of agile is.

Jayne: The response from the client is often funny on that one.

Howard: What we’re talking about is providing different platforms for people to work at rather than assuming they’re just going to do a pin drop of where they’re going to sit. It’s a scalable factor that makes this work. When you get occupation ratios that companies generally work to, they only come into their fore if you’re looking at +500, 600, 700 people. It tends to mean nothing if you’re only looking at, say, 200 people. People throw around the word ‘agile’ and it doesn’t really apply to that many organisations.

Stephen: We did a study recently for a client where they had seven floors of working – and we were able to reduce that down by two and a half floors just by implementing different ways of working. We’re talking about huge floorplates and hundreds and hundreds of staff, so what we’re saying here is right – this works massively when it’s done on the right scale.

Kathryn: One thing that is huge here is the engagement aspect – getting people on board. As soon as you start talking about reducing desks, people tend to get a bit panicky. They don’t know what that really means. It’s all well and good setting off on a project and instilling all these principles, but, with the best will in the world, the client has other ideas an demands on the business – and will often go back to the tried and tested.

Ben: At the end of the day, the client wants the best looking result to attract the best people because competition out there is getting fiercer and fiercer. People are starting to expect it when they go searching for a job.

That’s absolutely true. Seeing as we’re sat in Hilson Moran’s relatively new (and incredibly impressive) space here at Neo, we ask Simon about this not inconsiderable investment.

Simon: We wanted a space that was good for people to work in, that was comfortable. We do have a recruitment problem in this industry and if you can retain staff and attract staff it makes a huge difference. The costs of re-employing staff and taking new people on is way in excess of the costs of providing a new environment. When we talk about squeezing people in and getting everything smaller and about ratios of desks, there has got to be a point where you say, ‘Have we saved any money – or is this going to cost us money because of turnover?’ if I interview somebody for a job here, when they walk in through the door they are already half sold.

Ben: It then starts to come down to the word on the street – your staff members will be talking about it, saying, ‘You need to come and see our offices’. That’s a great asset.

Jayne: Sometimes that can have a detrimental effect because you start to factor in expected growth. We had this with a client in Manchester – they were one of the first to take the leap to agility, collaboration spaces and complete transparency across their floorplates – and they set out with an expected growth over 3-5 years, and the relocation and new style has actually had a detrimental impact on them because everybody now wants to work in that office! We’ve just had to fit-out another 15,000 sq ft for them – and they said to us that they wanted us to take out some of the ‘good stuff’ to put in more desks. Their kneejerk reaction was to take out a lot of the things that we’d spent a year getting right for them.

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Stephen: I still think there are a lot of big corporates out there – large American firms and even the Government – who are relocating a lot of people out of London and who are still driven by density, getting as many people and desks into a space as they can. They think it’s smart to put these occupation densities into the design of a space.

Simon: We’ve also got to bear in mind that we now have so many variations of client out there. In a professional industry your staff costs will be way up – whereas in a call centre, for example, you’ll automatically find a big turnover of staff. Now, if you can reduce that…

One of the main things that we’ve found here is that you have to have a great facility on the desks – so people actually want to sit at those desks because of the two large screens, docking stations and the comfortable chair etc. In terms of agile working, I thought we’d spend much more time sat or stood at communal tables but in reality we all sit at the screens. We sit in different places every day and we do move around – and that certainly makes for better communication.

We keep coming back to the subject of desks, so we ask our sponsors – Staverton – to give us their take on how the latest workplace trends are informing their offering.

Paul: One of the things we’ve noticed is the increase in the use of dual-screens – and that ownership has started coming back. Whether that be an individual desk or a bench system, people tend to go back to their favourite space with a dual-screen. One of the challenges we’ve been set was to create an ‘agile’ mobile solution so that the desk was suddenly owned again, with all its equipment. This tends to come from companies who have quite a heavy use of IT – design-led businesses – who wanted to be able to move teams around and have really flexible space, but how do you do that with all their equipment? So we ended up turning our sit/stand desk into something that was mobile to solve that problem – it’s a plug and play approach. You move your desk and you regroup each day.

Howard: The desk has changed so much over the years, certainly from the whole huge L-shaped system.

Paul Edwards, Staverton: At £3,500 a pop!

Howard: I remember, back when I started with Sheppard Robson, you’d have this huge monitor in the centre, almost like a Lazy Susan.

Of course, the miniaturisation of technology has led to a massive reduction in the size of individual desk footprints. But are clients moving at the same rate?

Louise: We’ve been doing some work with a public sector client recently and they almost hold these guidelines like a bible – they have to work to a particular density of so many desks per space – but surely the whole make up of the space changes depending on what their people want.

Howard: It’s almost impossible to work out genuine occupancy rates nowadays because of all the alternative settings you’re building into a scheme. It can be really misleading.

Leigh: This in itself delivers massive problems from a wider architectural perspective. Buildings are designed with a particular density in mind and then clients come in and say, ‘We want this many desks – and we also want some breakout booths, collaboration tables etc’. Before you know it, you’ve got the potential for 300 people on a floor that is only designed, from a fresh air and a toilet perspective, for 140!

Jayne: We know what we have to achieve from a compliance perspective but the capacity is so much more. I think, at points, architects have to start taking this into consideration. ‘X’ amount of square foot does not necessarily mean a density of however many desks.

Kathryn: I think a lot of this is down to the policies of an organisation. What if everybody comes in at once? We know this will probably never happen, but you might have a peak on a Monday and a dip on a Friday and it’s down to that organisation to encourage the staff to even that out through the week.

Jayne: That again comes down to staff engagement.

Conclusion: Agility, wellbeing, collaboration, attraction and retention, interaction and staff engagement are all currently in the minds of designers and end users alike. Each of these practices must be implemented with caution and after careful consideration and consultation – there appears to be as many tales of woe as there are success stories when it comes to changing an organisation’s working practices. Out-trending all of the above, however, seems to be rationalisation and concentration of real estate. Therefore, designers must continue to be smart, while all is not lost for the forward-thinking furniture companies.

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