What’s next for office design?

As employees learn to adapt to new ways of working, designers weigh in on how office spaces can help them adjust.

Can a building be immune? That’s the idea behind the Immune Building Standard, which bills itself as a “blueprint for the healthy buildings of the future”. Created by a European property group with offices in mind, the certificate scores buildings by looking for the presence of 130 suggested measures which include isolation rooms, antimicrobial paint and self-cleaning lift buttons. And while cleanliness will likely be a concern for returning office workers, the pandemic has unleashed other concerns – mostly about what an office is actually for in a post-Covid world.

James Christian, co-founder at London’s Projects Office, believes that workspaces will benefit from a rethink. Working life has shifted over the last year, revealing a new set of pros and cons, according to Christian. “Home working works for some people – particularly the people making the decisions – and not for others, such as people at the beginning of their careers,” he says, pointing to the poor working environments and a potential lack of on-the-job learning.

Projects Office’s work for AccuRx. Courtesy of Andrew Meredith

While there was concern that Covid would mark the end of shared working spaces, Christian believes the opposite – and this could help solve some working from home problems. In a recent design for medical start-up AccuRx, half of the available floorspace was saved as a breakout space for employees to meet informally and host events. This was about making the most of in-office time, he explains, offering opportunities to bond with colleagues as well as impromptu, inspiration-sparking conversations.

The studio also designed a large, configurable table which aims to promote collaboration. Christian views meal times as a “kind of leveller”, an opportunity for people who may not work alongside each other to have a chat. While this set-up is especially well-suited to the start-up and tech sector, Christian says there’s no reason why it couldn’t happen at traditional city law firms of financial corporations. “A degree of mixing with people is always going to be beneficial,” he adds.

“It’s not creating a day care space for children”

Gensler’s office design for Pladis

Chris Crawford, senior associate at Gensler’s London office, agrees that we’re likely to see a “changing proportion” of spaces that already existed within offices, such as open collaboration areas and enclosed meeting rooms, for instance. The days of designated desks are at an end, according to the designer. “The vast majority of clients aren’t committing desks to people unless there are people who are in five days a week”, he says, pointing to exceptions such as traders who need to be “tethered to their desks”. At the recently redesigned office for confectionary company Pladis, Gensler created a “bakery-meets-hotel” space and open kitchen which provides a place for workers to meet.

As the pandemic has proved people can work from home, though the responsibility has now shifted to employers to create a “compelling workplace that makes employees want to go in and makes their work easier to do,” Crawford says. One way to achieve this, he suggests, is through a more bespoke work environment. Being able to control your immediate settings – such as light levels or temperature – through an app, for example. Another could be an UberEats-style app that delivers food and beverage to workers. Though such measures can be retrofitted, ‘smart buildings’ open up possibilities in this area, he explains.

A booth at the AccuRx office. Courtesy of Andrew Meredith

For Projects Office, one way to achieve a compelling space is to create a “more subtle narrative” for offices which highlight the company’s key values. These cues help to reinforce company’s purpose for workers – though it’s helpful if that aligns with something “positive for society as a whole”, Christian adds. For AccuRx, the studio designed a graphic pattern based on the start-up’s work around medical communication tools.

Inspired by the use of “obsolete technology” still used in the medical sector like fax machines and pagers, Projects Office created an abstracted pattern which now adorns curtains; these also provide an acoustic softening for the office. Though it’s not immediately obvious what the patterns are – “it’s more like reading an abstract painting,” Christian says – the more nuanced approach suits the working environment and helps distinguish AccuRx in a crowded sector. “The people that work in these spaces are highly intelligent, trained people,” he says. “It’s not creating a day care space for children.”

Rekki’s office. Courtesy of French + Tye

Another brand-aligned design element was a modular table for Rekki, a London-based tech company which provides a management app for chefs. The office has chefs that cook lunch for the employees every day, and the Projects Office team created a “fragmented table of shifting planes”. The table is designed to prompt conversations around its corners where people can sit facing one other. Gensler has has sought to craft similar narratives into the Pladis office, which has light installations made of rolling pins and a live digital screen which links out to the company’s bakeries.

Certainly, some of the short-term measures – such as one-way wayfinding systems or stickers that tell people to stand 2m apart – could be a part of the past. Christian suggests these were a somewhat “knee-jerk reaction” and warns particularly of the “perils of one-way systems”. “When you think about it, the one-way system may take you past more people than if you could take a short cut to where you wanted to go in the first place,” he says. “My instinct is that you can make a lot more meaningful difference than a few stickers”, Christian adds – having well-ventilated offices is a significant one.

Simple interventions

Pladis’ office space

Well-considered furniture is key to helping staff work. Christian points to a booth which was designed for “paired working” at Rekki. While software exists for collaborative work, there’s really only proper interaction when two people are working side-by-side, he explains. The booths allow two people to work next to each other with one large monitor, two keyboards and two mice. “Having a paired working set up means it’s a quiet space but they can do this very focused paired type working,” he explains.

Offices will of course have to adjust to the more mundane issues of hybrid working. There’s the problem of disjointed work calls, for example. In a pre-pandemic world when most people were in the office, there might just have been one person dialling into a call remotely – a presence that was easy to forget and not always well-integrated into meetings. Now many more people will be dialling in remotely, Crawford points out. While VR or even holograms might provide a solution to that, the designer suggests more simple interventions such as investing in high-definition cameras and distributing speakers evenly so it feels like people are actually in the room.

“There has to be a degree of familiarity to it”

The break out area at AccuRx. Courtesy of Andrew Meredith

Both designers stress the importance of bespoke design, tailored to individual needs. Crawford goes one step further with the idea that spaces may be “always in beta”. Even before the pandemic, the tech and media sectors in which he works were volatile, he explains. With workflow changing at such a rapid rate, “it’s difficult to determine a workspace that will be fixed all the way throughout a ten-year lease,” he adds.

And though it’s tempting to imagine futuristic spaces, he stresses the importance of old signifiers – what he calls “the repositioning of familiar things”. As people return to the office, it’s important that people aren’t shocked by anything too new. It’s why he believes there should be a focus on upgrading existing touchpoints instead of waiting on technology (like holograms) that is more suited to Star Trek. “There has to be a degree of familiarity to it.”

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