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Words: Harry McKinley
Clerkenwell: with its myriad showrooms and design studios, arguably the home of commercial interior design in the UK. There’s been a softening of its window displays of late – more cushions, more colour, more texture; the steely edges of traditional workplace fare replaced with something gentler.
“For us, there’s been a renewed focus on warmer designs, on wellbeing and on comfort,” says IVC Commercial’s Alistair Shove. “We’re seeing a different kind of commercial specifying that’s a bit broader; more of a residential sensibility coming through on the commercial side.”
It’s this pivot in design and cultural ethos that we’ve assembled at IVC‘s Clerkenwell showroom to discuss, asking if the homeification of the office is a positive or a problem.
For Oktra’s Dominic Dugan, context is king: “An office represents everything a company stands for. It isn’t just a functional interface, it can embody all of the sorts of aspirational qualities that we strive for in business, which create comfort, culture, performance and productivity. Those are the things that excite me and it’s certainly a positive that the workplace has become such a dynamic talking point.”
“I completely agree,” emphasises AIS’s Erik Mueller- Ali. “Before we talk about specifics, it’s worth touching upon what makes a good workplace, and that’s a place that supports the people working there and expresses the values of the business.”
Cornerstones defined, there’s little doubt that their shape has been the subject of intense debate post-COVID. If our table of industry experts is agreed that a successful workplace is one that supports its people, there’s less consensus on what that support looks like. Of course, one line of thought that proliferates across the design sector is that homeification simply means the introduction of greater levels of comfort; that shoulders-down feeling that comes when sinking into a familiar armchair. But can too much comfort be a bad thing?
“I don’t believe so,” explains Fora’s Katrina Larkin. “I’m just back from a holiday and had more ideas for my business lying on the beach than I did at my desk. So, for me, it’s a case of trying to bring some of that energy to the workplace, which is what we’re trying to do at Fora; to create spaces where people can have that moment to brainstorm, day-dream and just think about stuff.”
“But can ultra-comfort breed lethargy,” questions Dugan, “when the workplace isn’t ultimately a home or a place to relax, it’s a place to work?”
Jasper Sanders believes so, going on to challenge the impact more ‘homely’ offices may have on the next generation of the workforce.
“We’re treating younger people too softly,” he explains. “It’s important for everyone in an organisation to feel that they have a responsibility to turn up and deliver the role they’re employed to do, and environment is a part of that. When a workplace is too comfortable or too much like the home, it’s harder for employers to set meaningful boundaries with a generation that is still finding the ropes. If everyone can do as they please and offices are designed solely around how people feel, and not what they’re there to do, then in my opinion it’s chaos.”
Bluebottle’s Frans Burrows disagrees: “A majority of my studio is younger and I give them total flexibility. But they do know they have work to do and we give them spaces fit for different occasions, be that standing room or a sofa to sit on. Thinking about how to make an office more like a home isn’t about diminishing the amount of work that gets done, it’s actually about helping people to perform more fully.”
“And that’s about good leadership in a business,” continues Larkin. “That’s something that we really pride ourselves on; that we are about the people. We try to take them on a journey, we explain the business plan, we explain we’re very project led, we believe in rewarding them and we believe in socialising together. When that combination is in place, they do turn up to work.”
Of course, how we work is changing rapidly and so, while we often think of the home as a comfortable space and the office as a productive space, could the blurring of design lines actually be less about relaxation and more about function?
“A home is simply a particular series of ingredients,” says Colin Owen, Maris Interiors. “A kitchen is for cooking and socialising; a bedroom for sleeping; a TV room for chilling and so on. The old recipe for the office had different ingredients: rows of desks and a meeting room usually, because that was seen as fit for purpose for what the office was for. That isn’t the same anymore. Now the office is more about collaboration, about flexibility in how spaces are used and about having interactive spaces and places to retreat. In that sense it’s getting more like the home in terms of utility, so the design is following on from that.”
“Because whether it’s a couch or cushions or whatever,” follows Mueller-Ali, “the elements are relatively agnostic, it’s about the choice a home offers in comparison to the traditional office.”
Indeed the decorative scatter cushion has become light-hearted, even pejorative shorthand for how some define homeification – the supplanting of the practical in favour of the froufrou. But, as our speakers opine, it’s much more foundational.
“Yes, there’s lots about culture and identity, but actually designing and building flexible spaces that can be more easily adapted and changed year after year would be, and is, a hugely constructive shift,” says Unispace’s Nick Winter. “Versatile, nimble interiors have huge benefits and yet there’s still so much opportunity to create personality. Take art-work for example, we all have it in our homes but in the workplace it’s an afterthought. These are the types of details that are billed as homeification, but they can be a powerful expression of freedom and ideas.
“That being said, I’m probably in the minority as I hate working from home. I find it an incredibly unproductive environment, full of distractions. So I’m all for comfortable, personable spaces that allow people to bring their full selves to work and actually save their homes as a retreat.”
For Shove, it’s this diffusing of the frontiers between one and the other that is the greatest problem: “I like working from home and always have done, but have you ever had a meeting in someone else’s house? Well, it’s deeply awk-ward. So the office has a huge role to play; one that isn’t that of the home. Is it a place I can show and discuss product? Is it a place I can bring clients for meetings? These are the things that are important to me. The home allows agility and flexibility; it allows me to spend more time with family and avoid a long commute. There are lessons to be learnt there but there are also important boundaries and, unfortunately, we’ve turned our homes into offices more than we think, not necessarily the other way around.”
Much of the conversation about ways of working and the environments in which they happen has centred on freedom – to work from home, to work flexibly throughout the day and to make use of workplaces themselves more fluidly.
The homeification of the office didn’t start with the pandemic, but it has blossomed more swiftly because of it. The risk, then, that in seeking to create more comfortable, more productive and more homely workplaces, this shift bleeds unhelpfully in the opposite direction – taking our homes from places of sanctuary to spaces of labour.
As Sanders concludes: “It’s crucial to recognise distinctions. If you’re looking after people and care for them, it’s about motivation. So if a space can be comfortable and appropriate; fun, efficient and enjoyable; a great place to work, that happens to have some of the aspects of home, then great. But it isn’t about plants and cushions. In the end, my work life is about how I want to live when I’m at work, not at home.”
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