Office affairs

Public sector bodies are opening up their drab workplaces, increasing sustainability and staff motivation in the process, with smaller budgets than the private sector. Pamela Buxton looks at some successes, but finds there’s still a long way to go

It used to be easy to spot the public sector office interior. Droopy pot plants, scuffed-up walls, brown carpets, mismatched furniture and drab, cellular offices were the norm for environments seemingly immune to the new thinking in workplace design being explored by many of their private sector counterparts.

But no more. There’s nothing second class about the stylish offices of the London Development Agency, designed by Sheppard Robson with all the aplomb of a swanky media agency. The same goes for BDG Workfutures’s recently completed Millbank Tower offices for the Parliamentary Health Service Ombudsman, which shakes off a turgid Civil Service atmosphere in favour of jaunty colours, to suit a more dynamic way of working.

While over at the London Borough of Ealing, Pringle Brandon’s fresh and sustainably led £18m rehousing of council workers from 20 offices on to one site has caused a stir in a sector keen to embrace more customer-focused working.

‘Traditionally, there is a difference between public and private sector offices, but, in terms of design, they are merging closer together,’ says Jo Walker, senior designer at Sheppard Robson. ‘There’s much more awareness now of creating good, functioning design.’

So, what’s changed? Not, it seems, the budgets, which all agree remain depressed for public sector work.

Instead, what’s driving the design in public sector offices is the belated introduction of more dynamic working methods – though not necessarily hot-desking – which has brought a bright new aesthetic with it.

‘At Ealing, the council was embracing a whole new way of doing business and that was key to how the design evolved,’ says Pringle Brandon project architect John Prior. Out went cellular offices and closely guarded departmental territories, to be replaced with a bright, open-plan environment more conducive to collaborative and flexible working as well as better spatial orientation, with 1600 desk positions to serve 2250 staff.

‘Before, you couldn’t see across the floor as there were irregular cellular offices and no sense of direction. Our general aim was to open up the building so that it was a very bright and airy space,’ says Prior.

This is especially the case in the first-floor call centre where the use of bold colours in each corner of the building – magenta, royal blue, green and burnt orange – to highlight items such as columns and dividers helps ambience and wayfinding.

Another factor is that having fewer cellular offices instantly frees up some of the design budget, says Terry Gunnery, design director of DEGW, which is currently working with several Government departments on office environments.

‘A cellular office will cost more, so you can use that money elsewhere,’ he says.

Certainly, aspirations can be high in the public sector, says BDG Workfutures director Phil Hutchinson. ‘In our experience with the PHSO, it wanted to be as innovative as our clients in the private sector and its approach to what it wanted to achieve was equally robust.’

It was keen to embrace dynamic ways of working that allowed staff to work more collaboratively, which led to BDG providing a greater number of worksettings and greater team space, but less personal space. Jaunty stripes and bright colours – drawn from the corporate palette – were introduced where appropriate, in shared areas such as circulation and refreshment spaces.

‘Why should it have to have the feel of a service corridor?’ says Hutchinson. ‘Why can’t it be interesting? We’ve chosen to reinforce the brand and create a dynamic feature for a space that’s more about social activity.’

That’s not to say that there aren’t differences between designing for public and private sectors. But lower budgets shouldn’t necessarily preclude quality. ‘You have to work a bit harder and more creatively in using standard products,’ says Sheppard Robson’s Walker, stressing that LDA staff were consulted in the same way as private sector clients. ‘You don’t have to spend a lot of money to get a project looking great.’

Some of the LDA offices’ most eye-catching features were remarkably economical – images by photographer Patrick Burrows of lush park foliage were applied on 1.5mx3m strips of film to dividers in ‘break-out’ areas.

Approved supplier lists for public sector projects narrow down options, but on the positive side, also insist on the use of wood from Forest Stewardship Council-approved sustainable sources. And with maintenance often an issue, designers need to specify more robustly. At the LDA, this meant durable finishes and consideration of repairs – the positioning of vinyl prints on corridor walls above the height of refreshment trolleys meant that any trolley damage on plain walls could simply be repainted.

At Ealing, in areas where staff meet the public, this meant heavier furniture that’s far harder to throw, and public meeting rooms with panic buttons and staff escape corridors in tandem with a generally more bright and open approach, including private booths with bespoke furniture for consultations.

Of course, for all the smart new public sector offices being completed, there are still plenty of uninspiring examples out there. According to a survey by Ambius, 54 per cent of public sector workers complain of gloomy or depressing working environments and 69 per cent claim they’d be more productive with better surroundings.

And with public sector workers taking an extra 11 days off sick per year at an annual cost of £4.5bn, investment in more dynamic and attractive working environments could be money well spent.

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