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Designing for people, not pandemic: “There is no new office revolution coming.”

The workplace revolution has been happening for some time, says Rupert Dean, co-founder and CEO of coworking space x+why.

29/07/2020 4 min read
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.

In this month’s issue of Mix Interiors, we’ll be bringing you expert opinions from across the sector – starting with end-user, Rupert Dean, co-founder and CEO of coworking space x+why.

What is going to happen to the office? I get this a lot. There is obviously no single answer. Do people need physical environments? Yes. Do they need to enter into long-term leases with excess space to grow into for 100% of their staff for 100% of the time? No.

The answer to what happens next is somewhere in between. This is nothing new though.

Technology means companies are increasingly running balance sheet light. They are taking on more freelancers and consultants, encouraging more flexibility in staff working and they are taking short-term flexible leases, which means they can shed cost quickly in times of stress (or at least mitigate long-term liability). Seems sensible – but definitely not a new phenomenon.

But then again, maybe only a small number of businesses are actually tapping into this. I walk around London and visit various offices and it still strikes me quite how lifeless, soulless these (often glass) boxes are. Open plan offices (apart from executives), employees crammed in, encouraged to work hard, nowhere to escape, driven to productivity only at the expense of all else and offset by the subsidised gym membership, pension scheme and bang average salary.

It’s a classic trap. I actually fell for it years ago.

Employees – you know what I am talking about. You are the same people who are currently skiving off for two hours a day without your boss noticing (ps. they are noticing – that’s why they are desperate for you to return!). You are also the same employees who are being encouraged to prove your productivity more often even though there is potentially less to do.

So, those thinking there is a revolution in offices coming; take your head out of your 10-20-year lease in your glass box and note this revolution started ages ago and we thank the likes of WeWork, The Office Group and others for it.

This is not really about productivity. This is about businesses being fiscally responsible and looking after employees. So, find an office structure which provides more than just a destination for work; make it a destination where you can strengthen culture and performance, which will lead to productivity. An environment where people genuinely are proud, where they want to go to see colleagues and friends, to ask questions, take exercise, breakout/escape, drink good coffee and improve mental health.

Simply put, their space can instantly react to their business plan which, when you consider office space can be over 10% of total cost on a company's P&L, is obviously pretty helpful.

Rocket science it isn’t. Perhaps ironically, the people who have got this right are the ones who are thriving in lockdown and working from home. Their employees don’t skive. For them the physical environment is not mandatory, it is designed to improve culture and help employees flourish. These employers worry more about the mental health of their employees in lockdown, not their shortfall in productivity.

The best thing about this is that, in addition to having inspiring office environments and encouraging flexibility, these companies getting it right by using shared, innovative spaces on flexible lease terms don’t have long-term lease liability and only pay for the space they need and have a ‘pay as you play’ arrangement on meeting rooms etc. So, when lockdown comes, they mitigate these costs and avoid long-term lease liability. Simply put, their space can instantly react to their business plan which, when you consider office space can be over 10% of total cost on a company’s P&L, is obviously pretty helpful.

So, there is no new office revolution coming. No particular overwhelming new movement to suburban working or ‘hub and node’ structures. These already exist. It is just that more of the ‘old school’ employers will end up ditching the metaphorical typewriter and will join the laptop age.

Work out why you need an office, then how you should use the office and then what office you need (clue – think about your employees).

Finally, I don’t think design will massively alter either. Yes, materials may change to make them easier to clean and air should be monitored, windows allowed to open etc – but good design should always generally be considered holistically in terms of maintenance and safety as well as how best to inspire. Again, the fact that a lot of this is new to so many doesn’t mean it was not already happening by those who understood the true reasons and benefits of an office space.

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