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Designing for people not pandemic: Nasim Köerting, The Office Group

The Office Group’s Head of Design Nasim Köerting considers what lockdown has taught her about great design, and how we can reimagine workspace design post-pandemic.

13/08/2020 4 min read
Nasim Köerting, Head of Design, TOG
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series of opinions on designing for people, not pandemic. Read more on the issues and challenges the industry is facing due to Covid-19.
For years now we’ve spoken with leading designers and end users about putting people at the heart of workplace design – so is there a danger that this will be thrown out of the window as businesses consider how to re-address their workspaces in light of the pandemic?
Is there also a danger that company ethos and culture (think sustainability, wellbeing etc) will be discarded in an effort to make spaces safe and suitable for people to return?
Is there a solution – or a series of solutions – that can help businesses ‘have it all’ – to allow their people to work safely, together, while not forgoing their company culture and beliefs? We believe there are – and we know the very people who can provide the answers.
Next to offer their insight is Nasim Köerting, Head of Design at The Office Group.

The art of blending style with substance has always been key to great office design. Workspaces should allow the businesses that occupy them to thrive – being both aesthetically pleasing and functionally seamless; designed to encourage positivity, wellness and productivity.

Four months ago, our whole concept of workspace design changed. The UK went into lockdown and the lines that separated work and home life became indefinitely blurred. As we adjusted to the new normal of working from home, physical office spaces became remote, desks morphed into kitchen tables and breakfast bars often became shared with partners, children or flatmates. Ergonomic chairs were replaced by sofas and dining chairs, and natural light became confined to small windows and a solitary hour of fresh air when we took our daily exercise.

But as lockdown rules are starting to ease, attention is rapidly shifting towards our return to work, and with this comes a new era of workspace design. Our most recent member research shows this seismic lifestyle shift has brought with it both challenges and benefits, both of which must be addressed alongside the new government guidelines, in order to successfully reimagine office design in a post-COVID society.

With 41% of our members most concerned about social distancing and overcrowding in the workplace, and 23% most worried about cleanliness, it’s of paramount importance that we place people’s wellbeing at the heart of our design philosophy, in both current and future buildings. Office providers must commit to upgrading air filtration systems, and implement social distancing measures – at TOG, we’ve integrated floor markers and revisited furniture layouts in all of our 40 UK buildings, and will be offering dedicated desks and larger meeting rooms. After the pandemic, we can expect to see one-way systems, sanitation stations and partitioned desks become the new norm in the workplace.

Though people will still want to work in an aesthetically pleasing space when they return to work, practical office design is evidently more important than ever before, as it becomes inextricably linked with people’s health in a post-COVID society.

What also struck me from the findings of our recent research is how the humble chair has such a huge part to play in the design of any workspace – although 92% of those surveyed said that the chair they use is important for work, only 55% are satisfied with the one they have at home. I question whether offices have historically prioritised this feature for employees above, say, a state-of-the-art coffee machine or an eye-catching feature wall.

Sometimes, it really is the smaller details that make the biggest difference to our daily lives; the office chair must be a key design focus, not an afterthought. In fact, we consider the chair to be so fundamental that we are in the process of designing our own task chair, which keeps to our design credentials as well as offering ergonomic support.

The pandemic has also exposed generational inequalities when it comes to working from home in a productive environment. Our survey found that Generation Z, followed by millennial workers, broadly have less access to an adequate homeworking set-up, when contrasted with those over 35. This presents an opportunity for office design to make a real difference to the lives of younger workers in particular. Great design should be accessible to everyone – and now, more than ever, the industry should take note of this, and work to bridge that gap to create an exceptional office environment for all.

Reflecting on my own experience of working from home for the past three months, I’ve largely managed to adapt, but certain things have been harder. Although I’ve have enjoyed having more one-to-one catch-ups, it’s been trickier to have creative sessions as a group, or work truly collaboratively without being in the same room. It’s reminded me how important it is to have access to a workspace that can accommodate team catch-ups, group brainstorms and the more social aspects of work life.

Creating different zones for different purposes, which enhance productivity – be it for quiet working, shared thinking or that essential down time – has always been central to the TOG design ethos, but this period has further convinced me that it’s a crucial consideration for any office provider.

I still believe that great design involves unifying style and substance. But, in this new era, designers and architects must realise that the goalposts have shifted – with health and wellbeing at the forefront of everyone’s minds, it is also now intertwined with creating a safe, hygienic environment for occupants. We have a duty to implement the changes that will ultimately help people not only with the transition back to the office, but also ensure that people feel confident in doing so, with social distancing measures and prioritising modifications such as air filtration key to this. There were benefits to working from home, so it should be our mission to translate these into future workspaces, whilst retaining what makes this environment unique in its ability to enhance productivity and wellbeing where possible.

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