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Office design: a time to learn

Enrique Soler, Head of Interior Design at Willmott Dixon Interiors gives his opinion on the lessons to be learnt from the current crisis.

10/11/2020 3 min read

Enrique Soler, Head of Interior Design, Willmott DixonFor the past six months, I have been sharing my workspace with my guitars. Colleagues and customers joining me on video meetings see some of them mounted on the wall behind me. Some days I swap them round to create a different backdrop.

This is my creative space; the attic of my house. Before the pandemic, it was where I came to play my guitars. Now I work here too. For me, that’s a perfect fit.

But it’s important to remember that everyone’s experience is different. While some have found elements of their home working spaces inspiring, others have found it impossible to work in their homes, for any number of reasons.

One thing that we all have in common – and which companies could benefit from – is that we are learning about ourselves and our workspaces. The Covid-19 pandemic has created a huge, unexpected experiment which could teach people like me, who design workspaces, all kinds of interesting lessons.

Dystopian future?

Some of the measures we see now to create ‘Covid-safe’ working environments in offices will become permanent. Others won’t.

I don’t want to look into the future of office design and see Perspex everywhere. That’s my idea of dystopia. But for now, screens make sense in some situations. And it may be that we continue to deploy them in areas where there are high levels of contact between people, such as reception areas and concierge desks.

Lower density offices probably are here to stay. Which means that, although offices may get smaller, the shrinkage may not be as dramatic as some people suspect.

There will be less need for focussed working spaces in tomorrow’s office; those of us that can work happily and efficiently at home will be more likely to do so for those tasks that require concentration. But some people will still need their own, individual office working space. Don’t believe the news that hot desking is dead, although the hot desk of the future will be 100% clutter free to allow it to be easily cleaned between users.

The office of the future will need a variety of spaces to allow for formal and informal activities. Video meetings have starved us of those random human interactions which can boost productivity – and wellbeing. We don’t know yet what sort of spaces will work best. It is going to be a case of trial and error, which means that the configuration of workspaces must be flexible.

The Elephant in the room

This pandemic has influenced many people’s mental health, for better and – in some cases – for worse. It is important that we acknowledge this, investigate it and act on the findings.

From a workspace office design perspective, we need to ask questions and listen carefully to the answers. If people are feeling more anxious or more defensive, what has made them feel that way? If they have felt more productive at home, what were the factors that contributed to that: views of the garden, more regular snacks, conversations with the dog?

This may be a good time for companies to rethink their dress codes, or just throw the code away. Remember how smart we were for our first video meetings? Now we are happy to be casual and comfortable in front of colleagues.

In an era when companies are trying to build more diverse teams, allowing people to dress as themselves at work might just help.

For me and my guitars, this is an exciting time because there is an opportunity to change our workspaces so that they work better for individuals and for organisations.

Flexibility will be the key – not just for the spaces themselves, but for those designing and managing them.

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