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Blending in

Today’s workplaces have to accommodate a diverse cross-section of employees. Michael Page, Director of Saracen Interiors talks about the need to combine comfort and efficiency with the wow factor

Offices are no longer utilitarian spaces where employees from a company come together to work, side by side. Today’s offices cater for everyone – blended workforces, with multiple needs and requirements, of all ages – and each worker has usually been consulted as to what their ideal space is well ahead of any fit-out activity getting underway.

With millennials in the mix, a fluid generation who are not scared to move on if they’re not happy and don’t have a purpose, there is a lot more pressure to please everybody and get the blend just right. Born between 1980 and 2000, these are the candidates who aren’t necessarily motivated by money but who will engage if the company feels authentic and true. This is where the environment has to play its part in meeting a certain expectation and deliver on far more levels than it did a decade or so ago.

All individuals work in different ways. It’s always been the case that some people function better with background noise while others prefer complete silence. In the past, the more sensitive among us had to train ourselves in the art of mentally blocking out the noise of busy, open-plan environments. Failing that, headphones played their part for those experiencing increased irritation.

However, many modern offices now try to acknowledge personal preference and sensibilities, with quiet zones, and private pods, sitting alongside areas that are specifically designed for collaborative working. These latter spaces are usually identifiable by the furnishing involved, such as long tables and benches, desks with no partitioning and spaces with a mix of comfy seating. They are flexible areas that have been specifically established so that people can gather together to share ideas and to socialise and take a bit of downtime, if needs be.

It’s also quite common now to have numerous docking stations peppered about so that people can infiltrate new spaces and not be locked in to a certain desk and space. Not only is it important to provide people with a mix of options, it’s also good to provide space for those who might not treat the office as a permanent base. Many of us are often ‘just passing through’; visiting a client and wanting some space to work in around the meeting time that’s been set, or maybe travelling between offices for our own company, if we’re engaged by a larger enterprise.

Added to that, we’re far more transparent in our relationships with clients and suppliers than ever before and this is reflected in the breakdown of office space. The traditional model of the office used to favour a reception desk at the front, with a holding area for clients and visitors away from the general melee. Most offices now allow access as soon as you step through the door, with many cutting loose the formal reception area and opting for a more inclusive style.

The changes aren’t just apparent in the free-flowing office space either. A more fluid approach to working is currently being championed and promoted across a growing number of industries and we’re no longer tied to the tired old working model.

We’ve altered the way in which we work, the hours that we put in, when we put them in and, often, where we choose to work. Many of us opt to work from home for part of the week to complement commitments outside of the workplace and to combat time wasted on a long commute. Some employers actively encourage working away from the premises and that, in itself, can be quite a canny move. With commercial rents on the increase, every square foot counts; if a high proportion of the staff work from home on a regular basis, less office space is needed overall and smaller space can then be taken, saving a significant amount on costs.

In fact, most office jobs now come with a degree of flexibility as par the course. We’re just as good and able to work in coffee shops and hotel lobbies, and our homes, as we are in formal office environments – and many of us prefer a mix of these locations, given the choice.

A lot of these changes are down to technology. Technology has enabled us on many levels, including how and where we physically go about our business. Years ago, we would have had to be in the office to access certain files. Today, as most work is able to be stored in the Cloud and web-based file sharing services, such as Dropbox, are now prevalent, our office can literally be anywhere.

This blended style of working can impact on every aspect of our lives. If our hours are more flexible and work is bleeding into the social, then the flow, to an extent, also works the other way. Again, millennials have driven this, to some degree, as they are the generation most likely never to turn off when it comes to technology. If they are fully engaged at work, they don’t mind the invasion in what was traditionally viewed as downtime. The days of rigid nine-to-five have long gone for most office workers.

The plus side is that our office environments have generally become a lot more relaxed as a result of such a multifaceted approach to work and we want offices that spell comfort as much as practicality. We all certainly expect a lot more from the design and facilities and it has been proven to influence our choices when it comes to prospective employers. We want to be based in multi-purpose spaces that provide comfort and stand out. We want our office to have its own identity.

The type of facilities that are most adept at accommodating the social side to work include provisions such as subsidised work canteens and cafeterias, healthy vending machines, free good-quality coffee and a well-stocked bar on a Friday afternoon.

A lot depends on the average age of the workers and the type of sector (although the level of formality has dropped all around, there is still a huge difference between the tech sectors and some of the professional service industries in terms of what might be deemed acceptable). As the workers are often consulted ahead of office redesigns and refurbs, the accepted ‘wish list’ is usually well known in advance.

Because the office is a company asset, and a physical manifestation of the brand, besides a place to accommodate workers and to enhance their wellbeing, one key question remains: can the space provided tick all the usual boxes and have the wow factor, while encouraging productivity and providing a versatile environment?

The answer to this question is ‘yes’ – with a lot of careful planning. Close collaboration ensures that the client isn’t boxed into a corner and budget isn’t risked. It can be done but, as with everything, it always comes down to money. That never changes no matter how much the working world moves on.

Creating these blended ‘super spaces’ can be expensive, and it’s easy to get carried away while ignoring the bigger picture. For the seasoned consultant, the art is to balance what works for everyone with the agreed budget and to manage expectation all the way.

We have the privilege of being in charge of manipulating the blend, with the goal in sight of a working environment that works for all and makes everyone feel happy, and so it falls to the design consultant to come up with creative solutions and alternatives, as and when.

Finally, it must be said, the results can only truly be measured by the influence that a particular environment has on its workforce going forward: higher attendance and retention, increased productivity and, of course, turnover. Never underestimate the power of a happy team.

The more members of staff that feel happy and comfortable in their surroundings, the more likely it is that they will buy into the brand and feel at home in their work environment. And so, much like our homes, every blend has to be different, as it just doesn’t work to force any given design. It takes thought and skill to get the blend right – but it most definitely pays off in the end.

About Sarah OBeirne


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