Getting it right

The smartest workplaces are those which adopt strategies to make their employees feel happier and more motivated. Pamela Buxton investigates some recent examples of forward-looking design thinking in the office arena

Work’s no party, but we all perform better when we feel happy. And, while no amount of design thinking can inflate salaries or change the nature of the work itself, there’s no doubt that, if it’s done well, workplace design can engender a sense of well-being, with knock-on benefits of increased productivity.

But, it’s all so subjective, says David Firth, a management consultant specialising in human behaviour in the workplace. He warns that companies must be wary of believing that design alone can change the workplace culture. ‘Human beings will construct mental barriers if they want to, even if the office is open-plan,’ he says.

This is the case with the accelerating trend for greater transparency, demonstrated not just by open-plan working but by glass walls to meeting rooms that ensure greater visibility, such as Bene’s new RF system, just introduced to the UK.

While such strategies can benefit communication and collaboration, there is a flipside if the process isn’t well managed. ‘Being watched is something we need to be careful of,’ says Firth, who believes that some people may react badly – at least initially – to constant visibility, feeling anxious about being under scrutiny and perceiving a lack of privacy.

‘One of the ideas behind being able to see everything is instant communication,’ he says. ‘Also, it’s claimed that it provides a stimulating environment. I’d question that. One person’s stimulating vista is another person’s noisy or messy environment.’

It’s the designer’s task to get the balance right and encourage a happy and productive atmosphere. Certainly, the softer elements of design – such as colour, humour and relaxation – are rising up the agenda, as more work is done away from the desk.

‘The more we work privately and individually, the greater the need for belonging,’ says Richard Beastall, director of Bennett Interior Design, which designed the new offices for national innovation agency Nesta.

Here, colour is an effective pick-me-up, with a laboratory-like white space enlivened with splashes of boldly coloured furniture. But, says Beastall, ‘Colour will do nothing without the right light. We believe very strongly in getting the light sources correct.’

Space for relaxation is also central to any happy office. Long popular in medialand (anyone for table football?), it’s increasingly spreading into more formal business areas, as companies recognise that workplace quality can be a factor in successful recruitment strategies.

‘In our modern age, talent needs to be looked after, nurtured and treasured,’ says Crawford Hollingworth of Henley Centre Headlight Vision (see case study opposite).

Even humour, used carefully, can be effective in creating a positive ambience. Platform Group’s new London offices for media firm Billington Cartmell include a boardroom table mocked up as a snooker table. Chairs are red to suggest snooker balls, each with a player’s nickname. In the ceiling, Tom Dixon lighting represents more balls – arranged like a giant executive toy, the Newton’s Cradle. Glass walls are decorated to look like library shelves.

‘It’s not what customers and visitors expect, and it gets the creative juices going,’ says Max Eaglen, director of Platform.

But, for all the design tricks, any fun-to-be-in office has got to perform, first and foremost, on an operational level. Without that, any feel-good atmosphere will soon falter.

Henley Centre Headlight Vision, London
Designer: BDGworkfutures
‘The water-cooler moment is so much bigger,’ says Crawford Hollingworth, executive chairman of Henley Centre Headlight Vision, of his company’s new offices in the More London development near London Bridge. He briefed BDGworkfutures to create an environment that was mentally stimulating and conducive to staff interaction. The solution combines uplifting colours with a variety of workplace ambiences including a chill-out zone with hanging chairs, a sloping ‘hill’ to lounge around on and an outsized kitchen table where people can eat, read, meet, discuss or relax. These ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ breakout areas are at either ends of the space. In between, the office is punctuated by meeting ‘pods’ colour-coded pink, green and orange to reflect different kinds of strategic thinking. ‘It’s OK to take time out. Really, it is,’ says Hollingworth.

Sony Computer Entertainment Europe, London
Designer: Morey Smith
‘Everyone loves a bit of wood,’ says Linda Morey Smith of the reclaimed timber at Sony’s revamped offices in London’s Soho. This forms the cladding for Sony’s new café interior created in a former courtyard, which, despite initial client concerns that it would resemble a sauna, has proved to be the most popular feature of the new offices. Crucially, the design has no visual reference to the company’s business and avoids strong colours. Instead, the aim is to create a calm atmosphere in contrast to the frenetic imagery that many of the 450 staff are working with at their desks. ‘There’s so much colour in what they’re doing, staff don’t want to be distracted by more,’ says Morey Smith. Instead, lighting was used to create an ambience with a bit of drama, with alternative solutions to standard suspended ceiling lights.

E.ON Gastransport, Essen, Germany
Designer: Objecktform
Bene’s RF frameless corridor wall is used extensively in the new headquarters of Germany’s leading natural gas company, in an attempt to facilitate a motivating atmosphere of transparency and open communication. More than 85m of the glass system are used to create meeting rooms at the heart of the otherwise open-plan office in Essen. The see-through approach was an appropriate way to express E.ON corporate values, including integrity, open-mindedness and trust. Client Peter Schottler, head architect of E.ON Ruhrgas, says that RF offers a high acoustic performance, as well as transparency and space efficiency. According to Bene, the installation has led to more communication within the office. Staff are also pleased that the modern design is more suggestive of technology and innovation. l

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