First, a statement of the obvious: we don’t work the way we used to. You may have noticed. Flexible hours, homeworking and portfolio lifestyles mean that today, many of us do our jobs in very different spaces – and at very different times – to the traditional employment model.
And, as our working patterns have changed, so has our concept of the office itself. Ask yourself this: when do you start work today? It was undoubtedly before you sat at your desk. Perhaps it was on your laptop during your commute. Maybe it was on your phone the minute you woke up. With such a stretched and poorly defined concept of what ‘work’ actually means to us today, the biggest challenge in terms of design is the starkest: ‘How do you get people into the office?,’ asks Lewis Taylor, Design Director at David Collins Studio. ‘More people are doing flexible hours, working from home or remotely. So when they’re taking a job, and thinking about the benefits, that now includes the workplace. Is it a nice place to work in? You have to feel happy to be there because you spend more time in the office than you do at home a lot of the time.’
And – now that the work-life balance is shifting in favour of the home – there needs to be some pretty compelling reasons to opt for the office. That means a more enticing environment as well as a more productive one. But happiness in the workplace is a nebulous concept that’s hard to quantify.
It could relate to the amenities (from workplace gyms to breakout spaces and bars) to the ergonomics of the workstations themselves, or to the management structure and a sense of feeling involved and valued.
‘Last year we did some conceptual work in the US on workspaces,’ says Lewis. ‘We were looking at how they could conceptualise this office block and what they could put in there in order to get the biggest tenants in. They were looking at vitamin injection stations, Michelin-starred chefs to do the canteen food, theatre spaces, a blue sky room for virtual reality – and lots of wellness aspects go into that as well as the lifestyle aspects.’
While there have been many attempts to regulate how we measure wellbeing within the working environment, one that has taken a foothold within the industry is the WELL Standard initiative. This takes certain key elements – including air quality, light, movement and mental wellbeing – in order to quantify how ‘well’ a building is.
The opportunity for architects and designers is that they can start to shape this standard; whereas homes have to be influenced by the media and people’s will to change their own homes. A better understanding – and use of – materials can often have a fundamental affect on the wellness of a project, for instance. Air quality can be vastly improved by using natural materials and natural finishes – as opposed to toxic VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) found in many lacquers and paints. Equally, the touch and gratifying solidity of a well-made wooden table in comparison to an MDF can help boost the general ‘happiness factor’ of a space – as well as using natural materials to make the most of natural daylight, as opposed to the harshness of artificial light reflecting off a glossy surface. The hardness and ‘coldness’ of many manmade materials can also affect the acoustics of a building, whereas soft furnishings can act as dampeners to create a more homely ambiance.
The consideration of movement applies not only to ergonomics and, for instance, the use of sit/stand desks with variable heights to provide less stress on people’s backs and to limit RSI – it also extends to movement within the building, which can often be something as simple as persuading people to use the stairs and not the lift or encouraging people to spend less time being sedentary (something David Collins Studio demonstrates in its own workplace, with standing desks for design work).
The importance of wayfinding and considering the journey someone makes through a building is something that Lewis picks up on. ‘The way we design is: put yourself in the customer’s shoes,’ he says. ‘What’s the first thing that they notice? What is the door handle like? What’s the first impression? What is the feeling they have when they walk into the space? What’s the first thing you see? How do you get to your table… it’s that whole ceremony of using the space. All of that is thought about.’
Wellness is a key consideration for Lewis. ‘It’s fascinating,’ he says. ‘There’s all sorts of research – such as the workforce is 40% more efficient if they have natural daylight. That’s massive. And if you can accentuate that by using natural materials to reflect natural light – when you’re talking about being 40% more efficient, you have to change your interiors or the shape of our buildings to replicate that.’
Of course, workspace design now has to cater for a more demanding and informed generation who won’t be sidetracked by the gimmicks of office culture (less free beers on tap, more insight into how the workplace is a healthy environment to work in, perhaps?)
There is of course a cost implication to be considered here, but that is prefixed by how businesses value health and wellbeing within the working environment. Even looked at in terms of cold data and metrics, a healthier environment results in less days off work for the workforce and thus increased productivity.
Of course, a key consideration is also what goes into a building once the space itself has been completed. Lewis, who studied Product and Furniture Design himself, remarks that while there are countless examples of office furniture that are considered design classics, workspace interior design itself is often viewed in a far more prosaic way.
‘I think it’s because of the changing ideals in workspace design,’ he says. ‘It’s always changing, whether it’s open-plan, or cubicles or whatever. But classic furniture works through time. You’re always going to need to sit, you’ll always want desks. You’ll always need a decent shelving system. And you’ll need those whether you work from home or if they’re in your office. So those remain stable, whereas the interior is constantly changing.’
By way of example, he cites the Anglepoise lamp – ‘super functional office design’ that adapts to any environment. ‘We’ve often thought about things like that – what can you design that is the architectural of interior equivalent of the Anglepoise? Something that is so flexible and you can get so many multiples of.’ The closest equivalent, Lewis suggests, would be a flexible space where ‘nothing is fixed; everything is component based, so you can move it all around.’ Much of the conceptual work involves simple problem solving: ensuring there are enough power points; that tables are at a comfortable height to work on; introducing sound booths for taking private calls in open-plan spaces… ‘You have to always consider the user and how they are going to use the space,’ says Lewis. ‘I think too often you see a blanket approach, where you have to fit into whatever the concept is, instead of the other way round.