Integral Parts

Offices are increasingly using sensory design – from acoustics to art installations and aromas – to try to attract and retain staff. Pamela Buxton takes the minutes

Just like a party, some offices have great ambience, while others, no matter how successful the layout or ergonomic the desking system, are sadly lacking. But don’t reach for your crystals just yet. Often it’s a case of paying more attention to the ‘softer’ elements of design – colour psychology, special lighting effects, texture, sound, humour and smell, even if it’s something as simple as the aroma of fresh coffee when you walk through the door.

These nuances are coming to the fore as designers strive to meet increasing demands for a richer variety of worksettings way beyond the conventional desk. While these elements may all too easily get chopped out of the budget when times are tight, enlightened employers are realising the atmosphere of their workplace has a direct impact on their ability to attract and retain staff, especially where staff perform repetitive tasks such as telephone enquiries.

So designers are having to raise their game. ORMS’s ongoing scheme for Capital One’s new 2.3ha headquarters in Nottingham demonstrates a particular use of the sensory elements of design through attention to lighting effects and sound quality in order to provide a better working environment for its call-centre staff, and tackle the problem of fast staff turnover. Working with lighting consultant Mind’s Eye, ORMS is creating concepts for a series of mood rooms to supplement the more visually conventional general office area. Currently under consideration by the client, these promise to take the genre of break-out room to a new level.

‘The ultimate relaxation area, the flotation tank, is achieved through sensory deprivation. We thought, why don’t we remove some of the senses and exaggerate some of the others?’ explains ORMS director Dale Jennings.

Proposals include an Imaginarium, featuring a James Turrell-esque rotunda, a relaxation room with an illuminated Fishtank, a Night & Day room with concealed lighting simulating sunrises and sunsets and a Bubble room where staff can relax inside a translucent inflatable bubble.

Break-out areas lend themselves perfectly to such sensory landscapes without overloading the general office area, as also demonstrated in Bloomberg’s London headquarters with interior design by Powell Tuck and art and design curation by Scarlet Projects. Here, a vibrant office ambience is encouraged through the use of art and design installations to stimulate staff comment and interaction. Corporate art is notoriously difficult to pull-off without turning into visual ‘musak’, but Scarlet Projects got around this by introducing provocative, but temporary installations by design students, changing every eight to ten weeks to keep them fresh.

One of the latest, by Royal College of Art students Martino Gamper and Rainer Spehl and graphic design group Ã…bäke, was a woodland scene that aimed to bring a bit of the country into the city. It incorporated a giant log with branches made of leather to sit on and a giant beanbag in the form of a rabbit’s head. Others related more directly to Bloomberg’s work culture: sofas by Buckinghamshire Chilterns College in the form of giant electrical wires bursting up through the floors to represent the constant stream of information passing through the building.

‘We’re giving them something stimulating and cheery, yet also tells them about design,’ says Claire Catterall of Scarlet Projects. ‘It makes them think in a creative way.’

Noise is another key contributor to atmosphere. With hearing problems a common disability, getting acoustic levels right in the era of open-plan offices is crucial, says professor of design studies at the RCA’s Helen Hamlyn Research Centre Jeremy Myerson, who feels workplace noise is often overlooked by designers. ‘Acoustic privacy and noise distraction will be one of the biggest issues in office design. I’d like to see the same people who design public spaces brought into office design,’ he says.

It’s not just about avoiding too much noise, says Chris Ager, senior consultant at workplace expert DEGW. ‘Too quiet is as much a problem as too noisy. It’s not unusual for the mechanical and electrical consultant to say they need more noise from the air-conditioning plant.’

Getting the optimum amount of background noise in the main office space was also important for ORMS at Capital One, where use of flat-screen technology reduced air-conditioning requirements and subsequent background noise. But ORMS still wanted an energetic ambience, creating a grand central space for team meetings and events using an acoustic ceiling to reduce noise for those working nearby. ‘It’s a subtle balance between making sounds quite hard to get a hubbub effect and managing the edge detail,’ says Jennings. ‘The atmosphere should be dynamic and change with the rhythm of the organisation – quieter first thing in the morning, then you hear everyone going to lunch.’

But with the growing trend for branding within the corporate interior, sound design is likely to increase in importance. Currently accepted as telephone hold and lift music, it is as yet under-used in the workplace, according to Paris-based musical design group Sixième Son, which plans to open a UK office next year. It’s a matter of timing, says chairman Michael Boumendil. ‘You have to find the right moment. Use it as a signature but not everywhere,’ he says.

In the meantime, designers are more likely to use tools like lighting and graphics to help create interior branding. DEGW used this technique in recent fit-outs at the BBC’s Broadcasting House with projections of graphics at the entrance to the floor, and in a project for the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions. ‘One advantage of using projected logos is that if a group moves, you can take it with you. That portable layer [of design] is becoming more important,’ says Ager.

Another tricky element to get right is office humour, which, while difficult to pull-off as it’s so subjective, can help set the tone of the environment, especially if in the form of gentle wit and a quirky attitude rather than a one-off visual gag. ‘It [humour] gets lost sometimes in commercial design. It’s all a bit serious,’ says Harper Mackay senior designer Gavin Harris, adding that some larger companies could benefit from more of a human touch in their environments.

In its fit-out of Deloitte’s new London offices, Harper Mackay included images of a tree in each lift foyer starting from the base of the trunk in level one and rising to the tree canopy on the upper floors to give a warm counterpoint to the crisp architecture. Such subtle quirks can be effective. They don’t have to be visual; step into the London offices of Framestore and the curiously bouncy sensation of the floor immediately triggers memories of children’s playgrounds – unsurprising, given that the rubber floor is normally used for just this purpose, as design group Nowicka Stern was well aware when it specified it for the job. ‘It has this tactile quality to it – you’re here to work, but you can enjoy work and it feels like you’re in a playground,’ says director Oded Stern-Meiraz.

Nowicka Stern was also the designer of the award-winning Another.com office, which featured a lawn as a meeting room, creating the summery ambience of a freshly-cut grass within the workplace. But while aroma design – also used some years ago by BDG McColl to evoke a holiday feel in offices for Thomas Cook – can create atmosphere, like sound design, there are far safer, and simpler, ways to go about it through straightforward good design. This can be as obvious as making the best use of views and colour to liven up more mundane areas, as BDG McColl found in its design of Kimberly-Clark’s Brighton offices. ‘Natural lighting, having a nice view and just getting people out of their desks is important,’ says BDG McColl senior associate Pohleng Spalding.

And clients are slowly becoming more open to the psychological impact colour can have on workplace ambience, says colour consultant Angela Wright of Colour Affects. ‘Now they [clients] open up much more rapidly. Colour affects us psychologically – they recognise its importance, but still don’t know how to do it.’

It’s not only a question of which colours to choose where and with what textures, says Hilary Dalke, director of the Colour Design Research Centre at London’s South Bank University, which is currently investigating the influence of colour on ambience.

‘Research has shown that one of the most important factors isn’t colour, but change. If you change an environment, it looks and feels different and has psychological benefits of making you feel cared for,’ she says.

However it’s achieved, whether by colour, sound, wit or visual design, it is this feelgood factor clients are increasingly seeking. Yet at the same time they want their offices to be more flexible than ever to accommodate different working configurations, presenting designers with more of a challenge than ever before to get that all-important ambience right.

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