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Relax, don’t do it: the scope for relaxed office floorspace

We all need to relax – seriously. So is the office property business learning how to chill, or is it manic from too much coffee? David Thame investigates the scope for relaxed office floorspace. Stop. Calm down. Take a break. Above all, relax.

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Relax, don’t do it: the scope for relaxed office floorspace

We all need to relax – seriously. So is the office property business learning how to chill, or is it manic from too much coffee? David Thame investigates the scope for relaxed office floorspace. Stop. Calm down. Take a break. Above all, relax.

13/11/2019 5 min read
The Cradle, Dussledorf (HPP Architects)

Words like these are not a big feature of today’s UK office property market. Thanks to the ubiquitous ground floor coffee bars, and determined efforts to create buzzy, activated workspaces, relaxation is the last thing on offer. Keep moving says the office fit-out, don’t slack says the surge of natural light, those emails need answering now says the super-fast lift.

But what if this is all a mistake? What if modern offices were developed and designed with peace and tranquillity in mind? What if, for a few precious moments, we all just chilled? A surprising number of players at all levels of the UK office scene agree that the frenetic always-on atmosphere of modern office space has gone too far. We all need to calm down.

Ann MacDonald, Associate Director and Senior Designer at KKS Savills, says that workplace trends will make a calmer atmosphere progressively more important.

‘We often talk about the domestification of the workplace and offices of the future need to be treated like a home from home, a creative mix of formal and informal,’ she says.

And if the workplace is like home, then you need bedrooms as well as living rooms.

Ultimately, landlords are missing a trick. Multi-use space often allows for a wide variety of activity, so why does it not accommodate sleep?

‘Ultimately, landlords are missing a trick. Multi-use space often allows for a wide variety of activity, so why does it not accommodate sleep? A study of UK workers found nearly 70% of people are often asked to work outside of office hours so it is no wonder so many of us feel overworked,’ Ann insists.

‘The working environment is undoubtedly important, but it is also the ethics and ethos of a company that really drive your ability to relax. So many office buildings now provide the tools – i.e. a gym, green space and roof terraces, so now we just have to make sure we use them and encourage others to do the same.’

But it may be more complicated than that. Is it possible to have truly relaxing space if the walls, carpets, partitions and furniture, and the oozing chemicals, stimulate the nervous system? According to Marco Abdallah, Head of Engineering at Stuttgart-based Drees & Sommer, the answer is a resounding no. Without a natural non-toxic environment, preaching about naps is simply missing the point. Sealed air-conditioned buildings trap noxious chemicals, which cause ill health and over-stimulation.

Venlo Town Hall

Two chemicals come in for particular censure: HBCD Hexabromcyclododecan is a now-banned flame retardant, which might still be in some office environments (it was widely used during a long transition period). HBCD has an impact on the nervous system and behaviour. Meanwhile, Bisphenol A Endocrine Disruptors, used in paintwork, coatings and sealants, has been on a watch list since 2018 and may be banned in 2020. But in the meantime it features in many offices and can affect our hormones, with inevitable disruptive consequence.

Drees & Sommer have been working on schemes that avoid harmful substances (by removing them entirely from the life cycle of products). The result is a healthier building and a healthier workforce: 2% fewer sick days may not sound a lot, but it soon adds up.

‘Personally, I think calmer offices are the right way to go. But we can create calmer healthier spaces by re-gearing the cycle of fit-outs and refurbishments, which in London is every 3-5 years,’ Marco says.

His firm is pioneering an approach that allows every part of office kit to be disassembled, meaning nothing (in theory) needs throwing away. And to ensure disassembly, you have to cut out glues and many other pollutants. The result is recycling plus healthier workspace.

‘Employers know that people are the most expensive element in their workspace, and they need to make spaces where they can focus and concentrate. And that means eliminating substances known to be harmful but which are still found in workspaces,’ he says.

Once the chemical stimulants are under control, developers will turn to more people-focused techniques for improving the restful and focused aspects of workspace. Mick Timpson, architect and workplace yoga guru, is one of the people they are turning to.

Mick’s business beanando brings modern meditation to the workplace, mixing a variety of coaching techniques in self-awareness with the core principles of yoga. The yoga element is stripped down: no mantras, no tricky positions, no complex breathing techniques.

‘We can operate in any space. We just need somewhere undisturbed with space for a circle of chairs, and in most offices you can find that kind of space. But you have to make sure people put their phones away,’ Mick says.

Hardcore property people are rarely impressed by fluffy words, so how does Avison Young office property specialist George Jennings react to calls for a more relaxed office space? George says he spends his time bobbing between open plan offices and conversation pods designed for phone calls, and he sounds fairly fed up about it.

Personally, I think calmer offices are the right way to go. But we can create calmer healthier spaces by re-gearing the cycle of fit-outs and refurbishments, which in London
is every 3-5 years

‘We’re all 100 miles an hour into everything. Texts, emails, meetings…I really don’t think we get more done than we did 20 years ago, it just involves a lot more interactions to get there because we are constantly on each other’s cases. And so we’re all stressed, and we’re drinking more coffee than ever and…’

No, George definitely doesn’t sound happy. And the solution? Now that is tricky, because landlords and developers (and occupiers) like to create buzzy atmospheres that are the exact opposite of relaxing.

‘Everyone wants to feel like there’s a bit of a buzz, which is fine, but you still need decent spaces for quiet chats. I’m not overwhelmed with clients who want quiet rooms, or napping zones, or libraries – but they do sometimes want soundproofed booths for calls, which keeps the noise out of circulation, and they do want to work from home more often, which can be more relaxing if you don’t have kids,’ says George (who has kids).

His suggestion is that 10-15% of floorspace should be quiet, or at least activation-controlled. That might mean breakout spaces or separate rooms – everyone will have a different answer.

‘Watch what the flexible workspace operators are doing – they offer plenty of quiet space. That is the future,’ says George, who agrees with Mick Timpson that less coffee would be a good idea.

‘Less coffee, more water,’ he insists.

For now the trend is towards more, not less, active workspaces, and landlords seem reluctant to resist the trend. As Ann MacDonald suggests, we need to re-think how we relax.

‘When it comes to designing calm, you need to pare down space. It needs to be quiet from an acoustic perspective and almost monastic. We tend to fill breakout spaces with colour, which inspires collaboration by being visually stimulating. However, a relaxing space is somewhere we can be alone. This can take many different forms, for instance, a prayer space, a quiet room, a chill-out zone or a sleep lounge,’ she says.

The property industry, scarcely a relaxing place to earn a living, has a long way to go. But the time when nap-spaces and chill-zones are part of what it provides is moving ever closer.

 

David Thame will be chairing our Hospitality and Living Sessions at Mix Design Collective 2019. Find out more and register here.

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