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Mix Roundtable: Collective displacement – workspace on the brink?

The last two years have been one long mighty displacement – from the workplace to home, from normal life to the abnormal and uncertain. Is this displacement something we will now have to live with?

Feature in partnership with Amtico Flooring

15/12/2021 8 min read

The last two years have been one long mighty displacement – from the workplace to home, from normal life to the abnormal and uncertain. Workspace design has also been through some traumas, thanks to the surge in homeworking and a wobble in occupier confidence in the idea of ‘going to the office’.

Collective displacement has had a monumental impact on people’s behaviours, and many companies must now face the fact that the colleagues and customers they knew so well, have changed. Or have they? Is the workplace a kind of hotel for working in, or home-away-from-home, complete with communal kitchen, cosy lounges and sleeping pods? Or is it (what no one will admit) just a well-disguised factory, not a love-in or a gateway to personal fulfilment?

We’ve gathered together half a dozen of the biggest names in the city’s interior design at Bruntwood’s Bloc building in central Manchester in an attempt to bring order to the conceptual chaos of the last 20 months. The event, in partnership with Amtico, looked at the hotelisation of the workplace, and the way homes have become both offices and vice versa.

To begin, we asked the panel whether there is a limit in each of these sectors, have we reached it yet – and how will we know when we have?

‘Our Pioneer programme is creating a home in the workplace,’ says Jayne Baguley, Bruntwood’s Design Team Creative Lead, revealing that the central Manchester Bloc building contains sleeping pods. ‘This creates an opportunity to connect socially, because people need people – whether it is sat behind a desk, or yoga or being in a café, it is about people and conversation and that’s how innovation is driven forward.

‘A lot of what we have in our buildings allows the merging of hospitality with workplace all under one roof – and we were working on this trajectory before the pandemic struck. Now it is about every space has to work, but we’re now creating spaces that have the ability to evolve – rather than chucking all this out and starting again. It’s adaptability.’

But isn’t there a risk that multipurpose adaptability turns into unfocused blandness? The panel agree there is.

‘If we get these places wrong, they will be empty,’ says Daniel Lesser, Regional Director at AHR Architects.

‘The answer is to design with purpose, to create destinations,’ says John Brazier, Studio Lead: Interior Designer at Day ID. ‘Flexibility is just a function of design so that it can be adapted, but so long as it is branded and feels like a place people will still want to go.’

If there is a ‘secret spice’ that can make rethought workspace work it is operational skills, says Jayne. ‘You can create the most wonderful spaces – but if they don’t work they are going to fail,’ she warned.

It also depends on understanding an occupier’s culture, explains OBI Property’s Darius Baniabassian. ‘It is about understanding the business, its culture and that of the locality. So, for instance, at Salford’s MediaCity, it’s lots of small and larger media operations and they need certain tools – you might, for instance, want to create podcast rooms. ‘Landlords now understand it is not about a building, so much as a building with a purpose – and that will change and depend on occupiers.’

From wide experience in the fast-expanding life science sector, Emily Kirkham, Interior Designer at Fairhursts Design Group, adds. ‘Many of our clients are in science, often chemists, and they want more breakout zones, more sensory zones, spaces where people can chill out. It’s very collaborative and about breakout focus rather than being lab heavy – that’s a big switch. The lack of social interaction in the last two years has meant more emphasis on that. We’ve found a real change going on in that sector.’

This includes appreciating that some people – and some businesses – are not naturally extroverts. Quite the opposite. ‘We have to recognise that introverted personalities need spaces too. I think that is one of the changes in thinking that we’ve seen since the pandemic,’ says Darius.

‘The key is to understand the pulse of the business,’ muses Atul Bansal, Founder and Co-owner of Sheila Bird Studio. ‘Before the pandemic, if you asked that question about the pulse of the business, they would look at you as if you were really strange, but now they seem to understand it. Because they all ask for the same things – agile workspace and so on – but some of them don’t actually want it.’

Emily enthusiastically backs up the point. ‘You have a conversation with them, present them with an agile look, and they look disappointed and ask where the cellular offices are,’ she explains. ‘I think people are struggling with change, but I don’t think we’ll go back to a pre- pandemic world. The genie is out of the bottle.’

This is often the result of a psychological tug-of-war going on inside the minds of business managers, suggests Darius. ‘You see a split between business owners who want agile working for everyone but control of their own space, and leaving their own space requires a huge leap for them. And when they see the final plan, they take a deep breath, and ask themselves do they need more desks, have they taken too many out?’

‘Our job is to question the briefs we are given,’ says Atul. ‘And if they don’t believe in what they are asking for, then they shouldn’t do it. Challenging is what we should do more often. Otherwise the results will just be rubbish.’

‘Do business owners feel they have to do something different post-pandemic, rather than doing what they really need?’ asks Jayne.

‘Absolutely,’ Atul replies. ‘You get asked to do things and realise the boss doesn’t really want it. We need to know relatively quickly whether they mean it or not. But the result may be that they tell you you’re fired when we say their brief is wrong because what they really want is this or that. Half the trouble is selling someone an idea that you think is right and that they don’t want – it’s a huge waste of time.’

Amtico North West Project Specialist, Joanna Griffiths, identifies a trend apparent across the UK office sector. ‘Occupiers are worried because they have people working at home on one hand, and others coming back to work – and they don’t know what the direction of travel is, so that is leading to caution. They aren’t quite sure where that business is, how the mix works and what the culture is any longer,’ she says.

At which point, the discussion turns back to the idea of workspace as homespace, something that had already become a reality during lockdowns.

‘During Zoom and Teams call we all felt, to some extent, that we were in each other’s houses. Perhaps for the first time we got to know each other as people, without context around us. The result was that we were in some ways more connected than ever before – but in the office you have a different persona. The question now is how can we get that sense of really knowing people inside our offices?’

Michaela O’Hare, Senior Interior Designer at Chapman Taylor suggests that the hospitality theme, now apparent in every part of the commercial property world, still has some challenges ahead. ‘The processes we’re going through now, about how to get people back into some environments, is very testing. In the end it is about trying to get the human side of things back,’ she says.

The difficulty is that what feels right isn’t always commercially viable, and that mixing uses in the fluid flexible post-pandemic way can lead to blandness and mathematical headaches.

The shared view around the table is that workspace design costs are now being shared between landlords and tenants in a way that was not often the case before the pandemic. Landlords are designing and equipping common areas more thoroughly, leaving tenants to focus on a different range of issues.

‘The focus on costs has changed’ says Atul. ‘We’re working with clients who are looking at the cost of occupying the building from fit-out to recruitment to travel expenses. They start to create a spreadsheet and the cost to run the whole office is huge – and if they can partner with a landlord then they can afford to spend more, because more of what they need is already in the building itself.’

Amtico’s Joanna points to the uncertainties that still remain. ‘We’ve seen so much research on changing space needed by office occupiers – do they need less these days? And it’s not clear whether they need quite so much, or perhaps just different types of floor space.’

Landlord-organised office fit-outs can be one way to ease occupier qualms about their floorspace needs. But it is not one without its drawbacks, says Michaela. ‘With no tenant, there is no brief to go by. You end up working on a floorplate that may have to be divided into four units, or just one, but still has to work, and what gets lost along the way is the art. There are cases of landlords asking for plug and play space, who then end up with the wrong furniture and service points. The best option is to leave all that until the occupier comes along because we can’t specify until we know who we are designing for,’ she reasons.

The biggest takeaway from the pandemic is perhaps not inside buildings, but outside them. This is the growing realisation that neighbourhood context matters as much as indoor amenity. A great gym nearby, or a coffee bar over the road, can render expensively-created facilities inside the building redundant or wasteful.

‘It is all about encouraging the neighbourhood to come into the building, to make it part of the community,’ Joanna adds.

Designers are on the lookout for half-hearted efforts, says Atul. ‘Buildings that just talk about or refer to themselves will fail, eventually,’ he explains. ‘Sometimes this effort to integrate with the community is very false, very transparent, and everybody knows this. It will get found out. You have to join up the dots and really mean it.’

He points to a Manchester Northern Quarter office scheme of 30,000 sq ft, which he felt needed ‘a beating heart’.

‘The landlord didn’t really know what that might mean in practice – so the job was to go out and find a business that could animate the building. And we did. And the landlord was persuaded to initially pay for this start-up to be there, for their fit-out, to give them a generous rent-free period, and the result is the building now has a pulse. It is now fully occupied.’

Jayne agrees. ‘This is about bringing in local businesses, and creating partnerships.’

Conclusion

The displacement we have all experienced over the last 20 months has had all kinds of consequences for the workplace. Some of them are apparent, and some are still working their way through displaced minds. But if our Manchester roundtablers are right, a little generosity of design and intention can go a long way to solving them.

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