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Mix Roundtable: Creating compelling destinations for employees to return to

While some will automatically want to return to the workplace, others will need convincing – and, to convince these doubters, employers will need to offer much more than just a desk, chair and meeting room.

Feature in partnership with Liquidline

28/06/2021 10 min read

Now, more than ever, people are craving variety, interaction and collaboration – things they simply can’t get from WFH.

A group of people who know this all too well are the guests at our recent Mix Roundtable in partnership with Liquidline; a mix of designers, developers, agents and end users who we have gathered in Manchester to discuss the expectations and opportunities the return to work presents.

One of our experts, who’s currently living the realities of this topic, is BT’s Suzy Wright, who is fresh from opening the latest office in Warrington, with plenty more in the pipeline.

Suzy: What this period has provided us with is a great kind of catalyst to bring people into an amazing space and reset everything. People have walked out of our old Warrington building and then into the new one and said, ‘Wow – why would I not want to come back here?’ From free drinks to a concierge service on site and even dry cleaning, as well as a variety of places to go and work rather than being somewhere quite gloomy. That’s been the real trigger – and I suppose the hook – to get people back.

What exactly are clients asking of the designers around the table – and what are they advising them on in terms of designing or redesigning their post-pandemic spaces?

Simon: ‘Magnetising’ I think is a key word. We’ll always have that flexibility in terms of how we work – Pandora’s Box has been opened and the right thing to do is to treat intelligent people (who you’re prepared to employ) as intelligent people! Let them choose what they want from the workplace. But it’s great if that workplace can draw them in as we keep the flexibility. Employees can choose to come in and connect with the brand and their colleagues, and experience chance encounters again.

Things like great coffee are important – and it can be about getting people in to do events and just vibing with your team. That’s the key thing. It’s not just about design, it’s about collaborating with IT, HR FM, to work in that ecosystem to make that workplace. You’ve got to align with everyone, and that is the secret to it. Making it beautiful is the easy bit. I don’t think we’re designing in a different way. We call it the ‘flux capacitor’ – we were already on that path anyway. The problem was that people weren’t prepared to change: ‘Oh that won’t work for us. Well, you’ve done it!’ The change management has happened for us, and that’s always been the hard bit; getting to people to go with it and say, ‘Trust me, I’m a designer’.

Leigh: The one thing I would say is anybody that’s trying to make a long-term difference to their workplace now is absolutely crazy, because nobody knows what’s actually going to happen in the next 12-18 months. What people should be doing is making subtle adjustments, primarily to try and map and match the behaviours of what people having been doing at home, to hopefully bridge that gap.

It’s about using the spaces differently and better than we did before – because we’ve broken down those boundaries about what meetings and collaboration look like. It’s opened people’s eyes to the fact that you can use technology in a different way, even if it’s massive collaborations. I think people have really bought into that at home – and it’s what you can do to make subtle changes to help keep that flexibility in an office environment as well.

Craig: For the first time, you’re seeing colleagues with a language that isn’t around the office – it’s around their life, rather than thinking of the office as a place that we’ve got to make exciting. Actually, it’s just part of people’s rhythm and routine.

We did some work a long time ago for housing associations, who effectively took over council stock. The first thing they do is they look after the house, and then they look after the spaces between the houses, and then the parks and streets, and then they start to look after the families through debt management and education. What we’re starting to do is create an infrastructure around communities, which, again, an office is a part of. So maybe it’s not the workplace solving everything, but HR coming up with a better question. People aren’t afraid of change in the way that we thought – people have responded really well.

Suzy: What we’ve been looking at is collaborating with purpose. People are going to need a reason to come in, they’re not going to come in to sit at their desk anymore. No matter how much free stuff you throw at them, if they can do it at home in their slippers they will. It is going to be about coming in with a reason and being able to give that kind of whole day efficiency.

Anthony: We’ve definitely noticed an increase in demand for premium, touchless coffee and water machines, to help foster that social interaction and collaboration when we’re physically in the office – it’s about bringing back that watercooler moment, which you just can’t get at home…bringing the coffee shop experience into the workplace.

Suzy: I also know my team a lot better on a personal level than I did a year ago, because we’ve seen inside each other’s homes, their home lives etc. I think teams are going to be much more comfortable with each other when they come back into an office. While working with Leigh and his team at our office at Snowhill (Birmingham), we’ve been a bit braver in removing some of the more formal settings. We’ve kept the same components but changed the proportions of how we do it, because I think people are going be more comfortable with how they interact with their teams. Sitting around a table like this is going to become much more normal to us, and not feel as strange as it did a year ago – and it’s about giving people permission to work like that.

Jonathan: In pre-pandemic meetings with designers, you could pretty much write what was going to be presented to the client before you even got to the meeting. So much so that the opinion was, ‘We’re paying a lot of money for a designer to put in lots of spines and maybe a sofa over there, and a coffee machine over there…’ In the last six months, that has pretty much been scrapped, and the meetings I’m going to now have some great ideas. The figure we’re working with now is 40% collaboration space.

I met with a client earlier this morning and they have a Manchester office that we’re looking to refer for them. They have two floors and they’re literally wiping out a whole floor of desks, moving all their staff on to one floor with maybe 50% of the desks they would have had pre-pandemic – and then creating spaces where people collaborate, with bleachers and zones on the other floor.

Richard: It’s interesting, as we’re on the opposite end of that. As a residential developer, we’re looking at how people work from home, and how they work in the city. There is a huge requirement from our client base for suitable home working space in the city centre and nearby. A few years ago, community wasn’t such a big thing and people were living in the city centre primarily to go to work. Now it’s about creating that space to work from home and evolving with that. It doesn’t always have to be in the unit itself, it can be through the shared amenities that we’re offering as well.

Craig: We can start to see that people are starting to think of work as a purpose, as Suzy mentioned. Why would you travel to Manchester? Because there’s a reason to do that. Why would you go to the office? Rather than just work being a routine – where you turn up and it happens – the question should be, ‘Who do I need to work with today? What resources do we need, where’s the best place to do it?’ I think people are probably thinking about work more intelligently because there’s now a choice.

There’s also a chance for the office to do less! If you have a bit of everything in terms of amenities, it’s almost not done well enough, because you’ve not got the scale. Why wouldn’t you use all the facilities in the neighbourhood rather than trying to squash them into an office and doing them (quite often) quite poorly?

Richard: As we grow our portfolio, instead of putting the same gym etc in each scheme, we have an amazing gym at one and an amazing cinema at the other, and so on – so you can be a Capital & Centric resident and use this fantastic network of amenities across the city and become part of that community.

Suzy: It’s certainly mutually beneficial, isn’t it? It’s the reason why we haven’t chosen to have gyms in our buildings, for example, because we should be able to build up partnerships. We’re then an important part of the community rather than just people that sit in a big building.

Simon: We’re working with a client who is creating a programme of events – so there’s always something going on to bring back that engagement. It’s constantly evolving as they continue to work with local companies in the surrounding community.

Anthony: This has absolutely been at the forefront for Liquidline right now – pop-up events, barista afternoons – where we come and interact with the staff and tell them about the coffee. For example, we have a partnership with Change Please, who are doing some great work with homelessness in Manchester and beyond. We’re bringing in people who have experienced homelessness and are now trained baristas to talk to staff, who use our coffee machines and coffee every day. It’s about building these experiences that is becoming so important, and people like to know they’re giving back to their community.

Leigh: Another part of this is changing people’s behaviours when you go into that space – and understanding and appreciating other people around you. Some people will go back absolutely terrified about why this environment has suddenly been thrust back upon them. Others are going to be thriving and literally bouncing off the walls, wanting to talk to absolutely everybody and terrifying people! I think it’s going to be a big issue for people going forward: how are we respectful towards other people?

Simon: The workplace has a huge responsibility to create a neurodiverse space where we can all work. The arrival point is vibrant, loud, social…where you can have that watercooler moment at the coffee machine. But there’s also a quiet and calm area you can go to because that’s what suits you.

Suzy: I think a key thing for us has been about being inclusive in the things that we provide. Amenities like cafés and social spaces have become more important, but it’s also about having all kinds of multifunctional spaces to enable people to socialise – from yoga to band practice. We have made sure we have a multi-faith room and wellbeing rooms where people can go and decompress. We’re very conscious of all the different types of people we have working for us, and how they work. Decompression for one person may be sitting in a dark room, whereas someone else might need to be energised, surrounded by people.

Jonathan: When we created a space for a national care provider (a workplace where people are dealing with very difficult calls) we had a reading corner with soft low lighting, we had a zone where there was a computer to play games – because people deal with that level of stress in work in different ways. Some people want to read a book, some want to go sit in a corner and look at a black ceiling, and some simply want to play on a computer game. It was about creating that level of diverse activity.

Leigh: There’s never going to be a one-size-fits-all to any of this. There’s always going to be an element of, ‘What can we do? How can we accommodate? Is it possible to accommodate it – and, if not, what can we put in place?’ My biggest nightmare is hybrid meetings going forward. 10 people in the room, one doing one screen with one camera, and 15 other people on Teams.

Simon: There is an etiquette that we need to learn of how we deal with that. There’s a whole level of technology solutions that need to come out to resolve that – that’s probably for the next generation. It’s fascinating that we’ve all been able to work internationally, across many time zones and not actually be present. There’s so many plus sides – carbon saving, time saving, budget savings…

Craig: The old offices really drove our behaviours. We’ve got something that’s still quite human at the moment, but if we let Teams etc drive our behaviours and connections, we’re missing the trigger.

There’s a real pause point now where we can think about how we can do things better. In some ways, the design industry is often being forced to do things in response to the world we live in and the game we’re playing, rather than, ‘What could we really do?’

Leigh: There’s a phrase we’ve coined in our office when describing coming back to work: ‘All can, some should, none must.’ It applies to everything: who should be working from home? Who should be working in the office? It picks up the whole inclusivity piece, it picks up the whole neurodiversity piece – not everybody is going to be the same. And you must give people a choice.

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