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Mix Roundtable: Happiness within the workplace

The world has never been so prosperous and yet, it seems, never as unhappy (and we’re not even talking COVID-19 here). Is there now an obligation on business leaders to create a feeling of happiness within the workplace?

Feature in partnership with Specialist Joinery Group

01/04/2020 7 min read
Specialist Joinery Group
London

We’ve gathered an expert panel at Gensler’s spectacular new home in Thomas More Square to consider how design can help create an environment where innovation is simply part of daily life, and ask whether design alone can create a sense of belonging and evoke a place of harmony, refuge, security and happiness. If so, that’s a great deal of responsibility on those interior design shoulders.

Thanks to the generosity of our hosts and our sponsor, double Mixology award-winning Specialist Joinery Group, there’s certainly a sense of harmony and happiness as we take our seats in Gensler’s impressive client suite, high above the square below and with spectacular views of the City and beyond. Will that harmony last? Well, time will tell as we begin by asking our guests whether the standing of the interior designer has increased over recent years, as end users have seen what their space can do for their staff?

Franky: I’m actually architecturally trained – I trained as an architectural technologist – so I chose to take the interior route because I realised that, although it was amazing to study the externals of buildings, it was even more interesting to focus on the internal environment and the psychology behind that. I think that, in the UK, there is no such term as ‘interior architect’ – you can’t call yourself that because it is regulatory – but actually the role itself is hand-in-hand with the architect; you’re reconstructing a journey for someone, and the two of you need to work together. I do think that the standard of interior design has improved.

Rosie: Spacelab really grew through that collaborative approach. We grew through our collaboration with UCL – the partnership was very much about bringing in academic thinking and ways of really understanding how people used the space. This is why research and strategy are so integrated into our whole design process. I’m not saying that the aesthetics aren’t important, but it is so much more important to make sure that the space functions for the people who are working in it. That has definitely increased in value. Maybe even six years ago, it could be a really hard sell – it could be difficult to get people on board with the idea that you need to understand your people first in order to get the space right. Back then, clients were coming to us with very aesthetic briefs, but that has now changed.

But is the perception of what an interior designer does still an issue?

Simon: I think it does depend on who’s looking at the interior designer role and the architect role. If you’re talking to informed people, who understand office design and the fit-out world, their perception will be very different from someone outside of the industry. If you look at the space we’re in right now, I’d suggest that the interior design of the space is far more important to Gensler than the exterior. If you are part of this industry, then you will understand and know the importance of the interior design. It’s quite obvious – just look at the spaces we’re all working in now and how much they’ve changed over the past year, two years, 10 years…I do think that, within the industry itself, the levels have shifted and the role of the interior designer is on a par with that of the architect.

Kathryn: I think there are two sides to the coin. Workplace has certainly evolved over the years and I think it’s less about interior design being more respected – 10 or 15 years ago there were designers really pushing boundaries – and more about a greater emphasis on the environment than just the interior design. Because clients want to impart value into that, environments are now getting more attention. I don’t necessarily feel that the bar has been raised – and I also can’t stand the term ‘interior designer’. I’m a designer. Yes, what I do is interiors, but my role is also about understanding the brand, understanding the people, understanding the business…

Simon: One interesting thing that often comes up when talking about interiors – even with people who are not part of the industry – is that they all have a perception of how to be an interior designer, everyone has an opinion – but not many people would turn around and say, ‘I’d be a great architect’.

Chris: It feels more accessible to them. They might have had an experience of it when designing their own home – maybe not the architecture of their home – but in making the inside their own, personalising their own space.

Karen: That’s often the case when they haven’t had any input into the architecture itself – so they do want to make it their own, they want to put their own stamp on their home.

Chris: I do think that this leads people to not appreciating just how much work, acumen, intelligence and thought really does go into professional interior design. They think it is just about the curtains and the cushions – and I definitely felt that when I first came to Gensler; it felt like we were the ones who had failed our exams! Now, however, there’s so much more conversation and appreciation between the two disciplines. We really do feed off one another. That’s happened over the last four or five years. We’ve seen that the projects that have embraced this approach have been that much more successful.

Karen: When we went on that journey of building and fitting-out our own factory, we used the experience we gained from the large number of construction and fit-out contracts we completed over the years. We listened to our people who told us about the things that didn’t quite work for them. We’d then take on that experience and those lessons. One thing we did learn very early on was to get those people involved earlier, to have those conversations at an early stage.

 

Very small things can make such a big difference. If you do this, people come to work with a spring in their step

Ciaran: It’s so important to engage people. Like Karen said, we did listen to our people. I firmly believe that a happy workforce is a productive workforce. Very small things can make such a big difference. If you do this, people come to work with a spring in their step. Remember, these people spend longer in their workplace than they do at home! We probably didn’t ask enough at the beginning – but we’ve definitely learnt from that. One of the largest investments we’ve embarked on is to bring in a company to help coach our people – to help them with work, with home, with life. I firmly believe that this is one of the best decisions we have made.

Simon: That would have been unheard of five or 10 years ago – to just get someone to talk about themselves and their work.

So, has the way we all communicate with one another changed? Is everyone now adopting a more human-centric approach?

Franky: We did an exercise recently about how we talk to different people – whether that’s our suppliers or our clients. What is really interesting is that developers are waking up to the fact that there is something very attractive about talking in a more emotional way – from a sales perspective and a business perspective. This is not just a ‘nice to have’ – this is about a realisation that, if you don’t talk in this way, people won’t buy from you. There’s a new generational movement where sustainability and emotion are at the forefront. If you don’t tap into that, you’re missing out. This is what people are looking for now; they don’t want cold and sterile, they don’t want trendy and cool – they want to be part of a community, they want to feel supported and they want people to be open and communicative.

Simon: It’s almost like keeping up with the Jones’s – because the bar is being raised so high across the board.

Nikos: The end users are demanding this now – they’re demanding this of the developers. At the moment, the only building in London that is considered to be truly human-centric is, apparently, 22 Bishopsgate – and that’s not even completed yet. Everything else has been designed and built some time ago. The first building that will really provide all those good things – the community, the coworking – and offer human-centric designed space is 22 Bishopsgate.

 

Ciaran: I think, sometimes, this is all very simple. Human beings have needs and needs have to be met. And they have to be met in a healthy way.

Simon: Everyone has woken up to the opportunities that are out there. The working environment plays a much bigger role for employers because people can now choose where they want to work. There’s so much choice for employees – so employers really have to fight and step up to those marks.

And are the majority of employers really stepping things up?

Kathryn: Many are – but I think a lot of this is a bit tokenistic. Clients will ask for a token bit of amenity space or a café on the ground floor or a coworking lounge – but is the space well designed? We have come some way – and that’s got to be positive – but people have to consider how this all works.

Nikos: We have to talk about the economics of all of this. People want to attract the best talent, they want to reduce their recruitment fees and they want to create a place where people can have a home-away-from-home, so they can work longer hours – and all of this is done because there are economic benefits. The big problem is that everything is moving so fast nowadays and yet all of this takes time. To achieve all of this might take seven years – to get through planning, design etc – so the developers will always be left slightly behind.

Ultimately, who has the power?

Chris: People these days don’t necessarily see themselves working in the same company or even the same career for the rest of their lives. People don’t attach themselves to a company in the same way they once did. It’s almost inevitable that we’ll see more churn. It is going to be costly and it’s going to be very different – but with that comes a sense of freedom. Employees are now able to demand what they expect from their workplace – whether that’s to do with health or wellbeing or with some of the additional needs they might have, such as work/life balance. If they can bring value to a company, the company is then obliged to meet those needs.

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