Explore the latest projects from the UK’s commercial interiors industry, featuring the best of workspace, hospitality, living and public sectors.

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A new building that offers co-working and social spaces, the West Hub marks the start of the transformation of the West Cambridge Site into a centre for innovation.

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Humanising the office: Dr Nigel Oseland

M Moser’s Steve Gale talks to organisational psychologist Dr Nigel Oseland about brains, bodies and better ways of working.

05/04/2022 4 min read

Things have changed in the workplace industry, we study individual needs more and how people respond to conditions and stimuli rather than simply what we do at work. Terms like emotional intelligence were not spoken and concepts such as happiness promotion or stress reduction were not key objectives in my own early career days. The litmus test was effectiveness, tasks and activities, enshrined in the simple doctrine of activity-based working from about thirty years ago.   These ideas are still vitally important, but they are mostly baked-in to modern workplace design. Just like turn indicators on a new car, they are necessary but completely standard. Occupiers are more complicated than mere workers.

So, Steve Gale speaks to environmental psychologist, workplace strategist and author of Beyond the Workplace Zoo, Dr Nigel Oseland to trade ideas on the professional working space.

Lovely Perks

I start by comparing the all-embracing workplaces typically provided by big tech firms to the more functional environments found where the money tree bears less fruit. Does the corporate generosity including food offers, gymnasia and sleep pods have a positive effect, or does it isolate employees from the real world where their customers live?

Nigel recounts his friend’s experience: “He was a manager at a US tech giant, who found that his young team, often straight out of college, appreciated the food because they had not acquired the life skills to feed themselves. During the pandemic, this same manager was sending team members food parcels complete with cooking instructions. This feels like basic humane support, not a luxury.”

Community service

Why do organisations provide employee facilities when there is abundant choice on the street on which the offices are located? Nigel quickly turns it on its head: “Why not make some of the private corporate space part of the public realm? Introduce the public into your space and while they’re there, show them how great you are – show off your brand, your technology or products and services. If a company has massive brand value and a large part of that is about people trusting the brand, then why not open the doors to the outside world?

“There’s an alternative here: to show how open you are and how connected you are with the community, you actually offer your facilities to those already there”

A load of gig workers

So what about the future of home working? WFH routines during the pandemic have tested the demand for office facilities and companies have re-examined what their employees want. Sometimes they choose freedom of choice in place of magnanimous corporate charity. Some companies, like Twitter, Coinbase and SAP for example, are supporting their staff to work at home as much as they want, even full time if they prefer it. For these organisations, and many others like them, the big change is exactly about this freedom and choice.

Nigel is a fan of a sensible compromise: “I say in my book, extremes aren’t normally the best option for the majority of people. We need to offer range and maintain an element of a central office where people can come together for mentoring and coaching, where we can build brand awareness to show what we stand for.”

Some firms are already rethinking ‘Big HQ’. As Brian Armstrong, CEO at Coinbase puts it, “Our vision is to have one floor of office space in ten cities, rather than ten floors of office space in one city.”

Home working, says Nigel, is “very good for getting tasks done without distraction. But we know it’s not very good for bringing people together or for that creative element or brainstorming and socializing. If we’re not careful we’re just going to have a load of gig workers. Do we want people who are just going to waft in and out of organisations? It’s not very good for long term productivity in terms of innovation, new products, new services and building the brand, all of which is what makes an organisation.”

Thinking groupthink thoughts

With the emphasis on brand I wonder, could a strong business culture actually stifle innovation, because people are too aligned, possibly too prone to groupthink and disinclined to challenge ideas? I know of a global charity that has deliberately ditched its London HQ to allow its globally dispersed members to have equal weight and to enrich the organisation with different lived experiences. Now its competitors are copying the idea.

“Bring as many different viewpoints into the business as possible,” is Nigel’s response, but allow them the opportunity to meet and socialise in person to accelerate their effectiveness as a group. They do not have to be permanently in the same place, but attract people and their ideas from outside, and allow them space to gel as a team; otherwise, their contribution cannot bear fruit.     “Sometimes if people have come together once or twice they can go back to the virtual world as a team. However, with video conferences I think you get issues of miscommunication because of the lack of nonverbal language.”

That’s what I want

In the future, asks Nigel, “who wants to go to a cramped office where there are problems with noise, thermal comfort and personal space? Offices are too dense. We can’t just reduce the amount of real estate. If you get it right, it will be more like a kind of club environment. It’s activity-based working, but a lot more spacious and a lot more humane.

“Build zones with different temperatures, noise levels and lighting so people can find the spaces that suit them. That’s how we get better use of the office.”

Belonging

On maintaining a culture, Nigel says: “Sustainability of the organization partly comes from people coming together when they know they’re not just there to do their job. There’s that sense of belonging to the organization, to the culture. If people don’t come together, you might lose a little bit of accountability and responsibility.

“There’s a big difference between performance in terms of goals and objectives, and coming together to create new products and new services – the innovation and spark that only happens through serendipitous meeting, bumping into people and mingling. If we are not careful we will recreate aspects of those sterile, boring, traditional working environments that we’ve had for 20 years by replicating them on screen.”

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