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Mix Roundtable: Adapting for an ever-changing workplace

We look beyond the immediate needs of workplace environments and ask how flexibility can be built into the workplace so that it can continue to evolve with as little disruption and waste as possible over the long-term.

Feature in partnership with CMD

29/11/2021 9 min read

We’ve all had to adapt to change over the past 18 months, but the reality is that change in the commercial interiors sector is nothing new – it’s just been a little more urgent and often unplanned, post-pandemic.

As specifiers race to tailor the work environment to shifting workplace routines, occupancy levels and technologies, are we becoming too focused on adjusting to the new normal and overlooking the pandemic’s biggest lesson of all: change is coming and it will be relentless?

We’re at the Clerkenwell home of our partners, CMD, where, as ever, we’ve brought together a number of the industry’s finest minds. Slightly unusually, however, our guests represent not only leading A&D practices, but also the most revered furniture brands and product design firms.

In this roundtable conversation, we look beyond the immediate needs of workplace environments and ask how flexibility can be built into the workplace so that it can continue to evolve with as little disruption and waste as possible over the long-term. How can we learn to adapt to new live/work models, new demographics, climate change, changing sensibilities, heightened issues around health (particularly mental health) and wellbeing, and technological advances? Also, what does this mean for the world of workplace product design and manufacturing?

We begin by discussing those advancements in technology and how far we’ve moved in such a short period of time; accelerated by our reliance on tech throughout the past 18 months or so. With all this in mind, do our guests feel that this makes what is happening in the world of work unique or is this the direction we were always headed – merely at a heightened pace?

Adrian: My take is that, up until now, the power has always been with the organisations. When you’re a commodity manufacturer, everyone wants to know how you reconfigure, what does the wire management look like, what are the guarantees? All of which tick boxes on a spreadsheet but don’t do a single thing to help the person who is actually using that space! The only benefit is to the organisation. The 66% of people working from home are healthier, wealthier and more productive. So you could argue that the industry has done quite a poor job in creating spaces that 16 million people have chosen not to go back to! Now, the power is with the individuals. There obviously does have to be a levelling up and a balance – but this is why I do think this is a pivotal moment. This is not all about the hard issues; it’s about the emotional issues – brand, culture, social value, aspiration. People are out there because they want the self-esteem of going to work. That’s why this is such a huge shift.

Jon: Product development definitely needs to be driven by the user experience and, as employers consider strategies for bringing people back into the office and supporting them at home, that’s more important than ever. For us, that means connecting the whole CMD team in product development activities to build end-user feedback into the process, and drawing in market insights from consumer trends, alongside office environment trends.

Tom H: It’s interesting that a lot of people have spent the past 10 years trying to convince us that we don’t need to be in the workplace – and now they’re trying to convince everyone to come back!

Jon: Ideally there should be a degree of choice, but that’s hard to manage in practice. The challenge for employers and their supply chain is getting the balance right and adapting to the need for genuine agile working in the office: tech will form a big part of the answer to all that.

Tom H: There’s a lot of money tied up in this. We’ve got to remember the whole psychology of new behaviour here – we’ve got so used to doing one thing that we’ve forgotten what it was like before. You only remember the bad things. Just think about all the relationships that started at work, particularly for younger people, for whom a lot of what they do revolves around the people they meet and befriend at work. There’s a whole level we’re missing here. We’re missing out on seeing and talking to people by not being in the workplace – and by being around these people we’re reminded of what we’re a part of. I think people need to remember and be convinced that it’s pretty good to be out there and to do a bit of both.

Tom L: Why do we need to convince people to come back? In whose interest is it?

Tom H: I think there are organisational interests here and there’s an element of employee experience that people are missing. There’s an element of creativity that’s been lost.

As an extremely creative business, we ask Tom L how Pearson Lloyd has been able to avoid losing that creativity.

Tom L: Everyone has been back at their desks for six months. I’m actually just challenging what’s being said here! Cities were actually created because that’s where data was and that’s where communication was – you had to go there to pass a piece of paper. That’s where all the bankers were, for example, in one place. The proximity was important – but that’s not relevant in the same way anymore, certainly when it comes to hard skills. It is when it comes soft skills such as social interaction and networking. Maybe now is the time to distribute out of London and allow every other city to thrive!

Tom H: Wherever people get together, there are going to be benefits – whether that is out of town or in the cities. I do agree that you don’t necessarily have to travel into central London just to get those benefits.

Chris: It is more difficult to orchestrate that. When you have that centralised model of people coming in, then that is when you’re going to get that critical mass of feedback – which is important.

We ask where mentorship and leadership sit within this debate.

Chris: Particularly when you’re really busy and you’re working online, when you get someone new to the organisation or even new to the profession, there does need to be that understanding of the company culture, the policies, hearing how people communicate and how they talk. I’ve found that if you try to schedule regular check-ins with these people, you’ve only got a 15-minute window to actually talk to them before you’re on to your next call – and they then potentially have an entire day or the best part of a week without coming into contact with you again. They don’t get to hear those important conversations.

Tom L: We can’t do without each other – but there’s definitely a series of paradoxes going on here where we have to figure out the balance.

Tom H: It feels as though, at the moment, there are still a lot of people who don’t understand the power of coming to work. They’re still in a holiday period.

Jon: I used to have a boss who was 100% clear in his belief that culture trumps strategy every day of the week. What the past 18 months have shown is that we need to be together to create that culture. It’s so important. I’m not sure it’s more important than a good strategy – but the two are certainly side-by-side.

Chris: We’re physical human beings and we occupy physical space – and just the interactivity you get with people, reading their body language, reading their gestures…these are things that are easily lost by not coming together.

Tom H: There also needs to be that sense of belonging. If you are relatively new to a business, then being around people makes that transition so much easier.

David: If you’re trying to make the biggest decisions – big investments – then you really want to look someone in the eye, to see their body language. You want to know they are on side and that they’ve got your back. I think the discussion about the balance and the shift of power is really interesting. What we’ve been talking about for four or five years now is user choice and control – but actually that’s been held by the employer or the organisation, who will reduce your space to a 14×8 footprint and will then give you some ancillary space, but it’s ancillary space that they’ve designed and you must use. I do think the choice and control is more towards the user or employee because they can work from wherever they want – and I think that will have a fundamental impact on how a space is going to be designed and used. A lot more thought is going to have to go into the setting, the application and the way that space supports activities. I also think we’re now seeing a lot more care and attention is being shown to the furniture, the technology, the acoustics, the lighting…

Speaking of which, we move on to discuss where the market currently is when it comes to product development, starting with Jon, who tells us about the design direction and latest innovations at CMD.

Jon: Good design needs to bring in influences from different environments and focus on the user experience. And, as we’ve learned over the past couple of years, end-users are all individuals so, now more than ever, good design and product development need to factor-in adaptability. With this in mind, we have now collaborated with a couple of external designers – including Andrew Wills, who has worked with us on Miro; a brand new monitor arm, which is double articulated and unlike anything else on the market. We realised that we needed to invest in the right designers, so that’s really quite exciting for us. We’re also looking at our infrastructure products – products that link with the Internet of Things and smart buildings. We need to harness tech; not simply because it’s there, but to make buildings more functional and flexible for users.

David: I do think you have to be brave right now. We’ve seen an incredible bounce-back from some of our brands – we’ve got some cool new products now coming through, but it is something of a gamble and a brave thing to do when you can’t necessarily see an end to things.

Adrian: I think there’s been a wider acceptance of a lot of the products that manufacturers have already had for a while, but people are now catching up as the conversations move on. So there is this perception that there are a lot of new products out there, when actually people are now listening. Some of the stuff that has been around for 10 years is now totally relevant.

David: People are looking at new concepts and have the space and the time to do that. There are some clients out there who are just really keen to do something – to do anything – because they’ve held off for so long. I think that has been one of the real surprises; how many floorplates have been left unchanged.

Jon: Are you not seeing more collaborative stuff on floorplans?

David: We are – but I’m still surprised by how many and how much of those floorplans are largely unchanged.

Stephen: We’re now starting to see more change as people return to the office. A lot of the people we have been talking to are saying that they think they know what they are going to do but they still aren’t sure about when this will happen.

David: There’s only so long you can hold off. Also, there are a lot of conversations going on about just how expensive it will end up being to change everything.

Jon: That certainly rings true for us. Where we were once getting plans for a certain number of fixed workstations, we’re now also getting options two and three! People are planning for multiple options – how many people are going to come back into the workplace at fixed desks, how many are going to work in collaborative settings…it’s driving demand for our underfloor power distribution systems, which enable easy reconfiguration.

Adrian: There are still some pretty astonishing figures out there – for example, 98% of government employees are still not back in the office! Not a single government employee was furloughed and not a single government employee was made redundant – so that’s some pretty big economics.

As Chris said a little earlier, we’re all physical human beings and we occupy physical spaces. It is those ‘softer’ human issues, such as social interactivity and belonging that we’ve been missing – but we need to develop workspaces that support the ‘harder’ elements, such as productivity as well. Thankfully for our friends in the design fraternity, the leading tech and furniture manufacturers have not been resting on any laurels and are continuing to produce products that can help support a new focused way of working – and not just aid collaboration.

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