Oct 29 2020

Rethinking the office: a conversation

The second home office wave is just starting. At the same time, many companies are asking themselves how they will be able to get their staff to return to the office after it. What added value does an office workplace have to offer in order to complement working from home intelligently? A conversation about work environments and work culture.

The era of the individual office is over. Almost every employee has now set up their own workstation at home. Next door to it is a great coffee machine, the fridge is full, and they love working in the garden in the summer. An empty grey office in a deserted building is not an attractive alternative.

What employees actually miss is real interactions, technology that works and inspiration. Chatting with co-workers face to face about trivial things instead of messaging online. Casually bumping into someone in the corridor. Quickly discussing an issue. Enjoying the break between two meetings.

It is these “time spaces” that we want to imbue with a new quality by developing communicative and collaborative interior concepts. Fewer conference rooms and more project rooms with outstanding interiors, excellent equipment and a great atmosphere will get employees to return to the office.

Matthias Abel of Innovation Natives, a development office for innovations in Hamburg, Germany, asks questions of Juliane Bennien of Spaces & Places. Among other things, she accompanies large urban companies and public authorities in changing their work culture and working environment.

Juliane, what influence do work environments have on work culture? 

Everyone works better when they feel comfortable. The interior design is just as important as having a good relationship with your colleagues. Open spaces reflect transparency and trust. You can gain many insights and a lot of subtle information just walking by, which is extremely valuable. Having places of calm for quiet moments is equally important. All employees should be able to independently seek out the right place for them based on their personal needs and responsibilities.

Is there a language to describe the quality of work environments?

Not yet. We still need to develop it and learn how to use it. At the moment, it stops at “I like it”/“I don’t like it”. Yet we are facing completely new questions: How does the space support me in my work? Does the environment inspire me? Does it give me a feeling that I am valued? A sense of clarity? Structure?

Does it stimulate me? How and where would I like to exchange ideas with my colleagues? And what qualities do I personally contribute? If we raise awareness of these issues, we will get better and better at choosing and creating the right environments for our work.

Who is responsible for designing work environments today? Who defines the requirements, who provides the budget, and who does the design work itself?

I am increasingly seeing individual departments and employees expressing the desire for attractive, contemporary office spaces. It is about communicating content and special responsibilities and making them more visible externally – this aspect is much more important than it was in the past. And what is especially important is the connection with the company’s values and culture. Those who identify with how the organisation works and its values want to return to the office. 

The requirements are often defined by the company’s own estate management team, its occupational safety officers or senior managers. It is good to see growing willingness to get fresh perspectives and support from external architects, interior designers and organisational consultants. These cooperations are an expression of the new era. Less monotony and more uniqueness and diversity lead to more attractive work environments. 

How rigidly or fluidly do workspaces need to be conceived? How spontaneously can work environments be created?

Very spontaneously – the coronavirus outbreak has demonstrated that. But the kitchen table isn’t the ideal solution in the long run. On both private projects and in large corporations, I am seeing a focus on experimenting with new work situations. Only a few families have a spare study, so it is a question of integrating good work situations into the living area of the home, sometimes even into the bedroom. Obviously, that isn’t the perfect solution, which is why we need attractive, comfortable office furniture – ideally multifunctional furniture – for the private sphere.

Companies are in the pilot phase, too. Should they reduce the total number of workstations? Which items of beautiful colourful lounge furniture and which types of redesigned project rooms will prove themselves in day-to-day work? How much openness does an innovative department need, and how many conventional structures do the traditional areas of a company require? 

It is not about changing everything for everyone now. Rather, it is about asking the right questions and listening. Everyone has got to know their own needs better over the past few months, and their awareness has increased. First, there has to be a conversation, then the redesign. After that comes the evaluation, and then you can be sure that a new adaptation will follow after some time. 

How do work environments, in particular office spaces, define a company’s identity? And vice versa?

The big tech companies have shown us how it is done. The architecture, floor plan and interior design foster identification with the company. Grey, but “warm and dry” might have been enough up until now. But it no longer attracts anyone today. Young employees want a piece of the cool Google-style workplace. Or a start-up that is improvising and growing.

Design is an important characteristic for identification with a company. But there’s a proviso: It is not enough to simply invest in a few trendy pieces of colourful furniture. Soon many companies will have them. It is about expressing the company’s values visibly. Involving employees, assembling teams well, embodying a culture in which people are valued – in as many different ways as possible. 

The interview was led by Matthias Abel from Innovation Natives, a development consultancy for innovations based in Hamburg. 

Juliane Bennien // Spaces & Places supports clients including large local authority-owned companies and public agencies with transforming their work culture and work environments.

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