Over the last 15 or so years the workplace offering has developed massively.
With that, products have also become increasingly complex and refined – to the point where some pieces could be considered works of art. However, is there a danger of believing the hype and being convinced that the emperor is wearing the finest gowns? While there is a far more sophisticated landscape throughout new workplaces, we also find that new furniture systems and task chairs are actually less complex in their DNA and manufacturing. Fewer parts, fewer levers and knobs – but that means, in many cases, that far more is designed into them.
High-profile schemes have defined the workplace market and will continue to win awards and accolades but, as we all know, the vast majority of the market wants (and needs) to see value for money alongside great design. These businesses are being run by leaders who want a unique workplace – but like all their other decisions, want to add value (not just cut cost). So, is it time we stop ‘value engineering’ and look more closely at truly sustainable, robust, design-led furniture solutions? Has the specification process changed? What’s at the very top of the list of priorities when it comes to workplace furniture solutions?
We headed to Imperial’s Manchester showspace, together with a handpicked panel of industry experts, to discuss the issues affecting businesses when it comes to workplace transformation. We begin by asking our guests, in a time of economic instability, how great the opportunity is for workplace transformation for forward-thinking businesses in the sector and key clients from the residential, hospitality and commercial sectors. The aim of the debate was to try to attempt to double-guess how the workplaces and hotels will look and feel in five years’ time. Here’s a taste of what proved to be a fascinating discussion…
Mel: We’ve obviously seen a massive change over the past 10 years from cellular offices to open plan and now to somewhere in-between. There is a big trend for tech companies coming through who require these innovative spaces but we still have a lot of clients – financial and legal firms – who still require cellular offices and more enclosed spaces. We’re currently working with a mix of the two and seeing both styles of workplace.
Atul: I think there’s currently a huge opportunity because I think open plan as we know it has gone. People need more cellular content. The younger generation want privacy – they want to be themselves within a space rather than a tiny entity in a massive space. They want their own space when they need it – and they want it to be on tap. They can’t think in an open space in the same way that older people can – they are less able to focus. The opportunity’s huge because I don’t think we’ve reached the point where businesses understand exactly what people want from the space. I think there’s going to be a collision between the big old tankers of space and the small, nimble boats – and we’re going to see this ‘terrorist activity’ occurring, which is really, really important in terms of moving the workplace forward.
Lucy: Again, I think the opportunity is huge right now. Like Mel was saying, we’ve completed offices for a call centre and, at the same time, for a high-profile law firm. The call centre was completely open plan and the law firm was completely cellular – although both clients completely embraced flexible working, agile working and alternative workspaces. Although the lawyers had cellular offices, they still needed breakout spaces and collaboration spaces – not just traditional meeting spaces. Both of these projects were new builds, but we also have a Heritage Team at Sheppard Robson and we do find that the existing builds in Manchester certainly bring their own challenges because you’ve got a set space, which is invariably not even in shape and has lots of nooks and crannies. Clients really like these spaces. To get them to really work you need to introduce that variety of facilities – collaboration spaces, quiet working spaces, tea points etc. For both existing buildings and new builds, the opportunities are definitely there right now.
Andrew: I’m a lighting designer, so I have a slightly different view and slightly different stresses! We have seen a massive change though. We did a project for a major bank – we did three floors for them approximately eight years ago. It was very rigid and it followed their US standards. Around three years later they brought us back to do another floor. They wanted to introduce a ‘funky’ area but for us to also do the open plan space as standard. Then, just last year, we did yet another floor for them and they immediately asked us, ‘What’s out there? What can we do differently?’ That’s the same client! So, over seven years, they have changed massively in how they approach the space. The other thing we’ve seen – and we’ve been saying this for years and years – is not lighting a spec office at all. You’re meant to light a space for people – not light an empty space. I gave a talk to some agents in Birmingham a little while back and they let us have the 1st floor of the building for the event – which hadn’t been let. It reached the point in the talk where I wanted to say ‘Stop lighting empty spec offices’ – and I thought I was going to have to slightly insult the person whose office this was, but decided to take the risk. At this point, he said, ‘Strangely, we’ve not done this on the other eight floors and we’ve leased them all – but we cannot lease this floor and we’re now thinking about taking out what we originally put in!’
Richard: The transformation over the last five years has been huge. Going back to what Lucy was saying, ‘bums on seats’ was the overriding theme five years ago. Now we find there is so much demand for social spaces and breakout areas – to make the office environment more friendly, to make people want to come to work, to support health and wellbeing. For a company like ours, the opportunity is massive. We need to keep moving with the times – and we need to listen to the specifiers to learn and to understand exactly what’s happening in terms of workplace transformation.
Leanne: As a commercial interior and branding practice we do get to see all walks of life. I think workplace is still predominantly seen as ‘the office space’ – but actually it’s pretty much anywhere that people go to work. This has given us a real insight into a lot of very different environments that have benefitted from and really enjoyed that cross-pollination. If anything, when I first started to go out and look for workplace design projects, the first thing that came to us was that there was a big change occurring – but this was often only occurring on the back of a major company or brand making those first major waves – such as Google. I can’t stand that! This is absolutely no disrespect to Google – that company is a massive machine! The workplace has to facilitate its inhabitants – and why does a small business over here think it needs the same facilities as Google? Even Google moved away from that original ‘Google’ office. Strangely, I think this did a lot for our industry. We were able to explain to them what they needed and how they needed to work – and that they didn’t have to sit in a boat to get their work done! That’s not understanding how you make people productive. One thing I will say is that what this has done is open a lot of doors in terms of opening clients’ minds – which means you can challenge them in a way that you couldn’t years ago.
James: I set up on my own three years ago purely to focus on human-centred spaces – I’m very passionate about giving people want they need and not what everybody else has got. Every company is different – they’ve got their own unique brand and their own unique way of working. We undertake a rigid, long, human-centred design workshop, where we get to know the brand and dig really deep into every element of the business – that’s important to us because, when we do a spaceplan, it has to be done on the needs of the users. Not every client can afford to do this – but it’s important to explain to the client that it’s the people who build a business, not the CEO. If you give the people what they want, people will respond, they will work on the why – the reason these big businesses are so successful is that their people know why they’re working for the business. They’ve got the why right. They’re passionate about what they do and why they are doing what they do. That’s why every interior we’ve done is so different. There are always going to be people who need to go to work – there just simply aren’t enough unique spaces and inspirational ideas out there. You constantly see the same M&E, the same lighting – it’s so frustrating.
Andrew: That’s really interesting – who’s really driving that? We’ve got a project at the moment where it’s the architect and interior designer who are driving the lighting scheme. They are veering towards a fairly dated scheme and I keep telling them so – but I know that if I continue to keep telling them, I might not get any more work out of them!
Leanne: Is that not about education? From a CPD point of view, it’s their responsibility to have got you in the room in the first place, so they understand what’s new and innovative.
Andrew: The client has us there as a separate appointment – as a lighting designer. We should be doing the lighting design – but they want it as a uniform grid lighting scheme. They’re lighting the space and not lighting for people!
Mel: I think that clients are becoming more aware and more intelligent when it comes to the industry. Wellbeing is definitely ‘up there’ when it comes to what they want – many of our clients want to attain those wellbeing standards because they feel that will help attract the right people. I think that helps dictate the look and feel of a lot of these spaces. So what are the other key words that our guests are hearing from their clients?
Lucy: Coworking is something we hear a lot – so the WeWork model.
Atul: We hear the word ‘unique’ a lot – but that might be because of where we position ourselves and what it is we do for our clients. Clients are driven by the fact that they might be losing good people or can’t recruit – they’re not necessarily asking the question or understanding why that is, but it undoubtedly has a massive influence on what they do to change that. Some businesses don’t relate it to this at all. They don’t want what everybody else already has. It’s often easier to talk to people about what they don’t want and what they could have if they understand what their business stands for.
Leanne: So many people fall into that trap of creating an office that looks like somebody else’s brand – without understanding the reasons behind it. You need a much more holistic approach.
Atul: And people are now dropping the word ‘office’ – they’re talking about ‘their place’. I think that’s really important.
Andrew: It is no longer about an office – it’s about understanding what people really need.
THANKS FOR THE DISCUSSION!
Regional Director, Sheila Bird Group
Atul Bansal, the Co-Founder of the Sheila Bird Group, epitomises his motto, ‘love what you do’ and breathes life and love into every one of his projects. Known for his magnetic energy, his creativity and frank and honest approach, he understands the effects workspaces have on teams and a business.
Associate Director, tp bennett
Melanie is a highly valued, creative member of the design team, working on commercial office and hospitality sector projects. Melanie has developed her experience with tp bennett, working with clients such as Bruntwood, Push Doctor and CBRE. Having also worked in the UAE, she has worked with a variety of cultures and budgets, offering cutting edge solutions with commercial appeal, ranging from contemporary new builds to sensitive refurbishments.
Director of Lighting Design, Cundall
Andrew created and heads up Cundall Light4. With each project, his principle goal is the delivery of a lighting design that embraces the client’s ethos and history, integrates with detail into the architecture and interior design and enhances the wellbeing of every user and encourages social interaction. A particular focus is anticipating change and making use of the latest research and materials where appropriate.
Senior Interior Designer, ID:SR Sheppard Robson
Lucy joined ID:SR in 2016 after a number of years working on prestigious projects in the UK. She is a strong designer and an experienced project leader for award-winning schemes across the residential, commercial and education sectors. Lucy has a sound knowledge of the current drivers for projects, and what is needed to deliver exemplar, world-class facilities.
James Christian Scott
Studio Director, Cube 8 Studio
James Christian Scott has been designing beautiful, functional and meaningful spaces for over 18 years; driven by an obsession with human wellness and the needs of the employees within a workplace environment. He believes people’s needs, wellbeing and experiences should be at the heart of every workplace, and so Cube 8 Studio was formed in 2016 to focus on doing just that.
Leanne Wookey Director, NoChintz
Leanne has worked with the country’s leading property management groups and commercial developers alike to deliver inspiring spaces for employees across the country. She has been key in developing the studio’s portfolio into a multi-award-winning full-service design practice with a focus on commercial interior design and branding.
Director, Imperial Office Furniture
Richard has been Sales Director for Imperial for the past 15 years. He thoroughly enjoys his role within the company and is passionate about the new Manchester showroom, where he spends the majority of his time attending to dealer partner visits and supporting a host of functions, using his vast knowledge of the industry to its full potential, helping develop ideas and plans for both space effectiveness and cost effectiveness.