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© Paul Riddle

Flexible principles

Office environments are changing as space becomes multifunctional. Julian Sharpe, principal director at TP Bennett, looks at the benefits and drawbacks of this trend and asks if shared spaces require a different FM regime 

The world of office design is constantly evolving and, in the past five years, the rate of change has been particularly pronounced. One of the most fundamental differences is that workplace design is now a board-level issue. In every major corporation, the management team recognises that an attractive and well-designed office can lead the way in attracting and retaining the best talent, promoting productivity and providing a proud representation of their brand to clients and customers.

In light of this, contemporary offices offer more to staff than the token ping-pong and free popcorn these days in order to impress. There are also macro issues on the horizon, with the impending exit from the EU in less than six months’ time. This brings with it the potential exit of skilled workers, and possibly increased competition to attract new workers from abroad in a more isolated state. This might create a different workforce demographic in addition to the already difficult challenge of organising a space which caters for five generations in the same environment, all with differing working styles.

By far the biggest trend we have witnessed in recent years, though, is the coworking movement and the increasing prevalence of the WeWork shared space model across traditional corporations. It has gone from strength to strength with its appeal to the millennial worker and the rise in flexible working. The technology we have today dictates that no office need be static and people can, and should, have the choice to work anywhere.

This trend has bled into office design at every level, and we now have corporate occupiers at the largest financial and legal institutions looking to recreate such spaces within their office environments. Any workplace that wants to compete needs to be ready to break with tradition. The old-fashioned tea room or small kitchen space is not enough – companies are now replacing them with modern cafés and restaurants, or even food halls. They are also using them to reflect their cultural values, especially those related to social interaction and team work.

However, as the lines between living, entertaining and working start to blur in the workplace, effective management structures are required to maintain and facilitate these spaces so they operate effectively and enjoy a long lifecycle. FMs should note that some coworking providers are finding that high levels of usage in such spaces are generating concerns about ongoing care and maintenance – an issue that may spread to other office buildings. The resilience of shared space needs to be considered at the start of the design process.

In the ‘office as restaurant’ workplace, traditional desks are done away with in favour of the café/restaurant style. Until recently, food outlets were normally placed in dedicated areas apart from the working floors, but this is changing. Where once there might be a canteen on one floor and a café point on another, there is now a trend towards distributing the offering across numerous floors mixed in with the working environment. The idea is to encourage movement and create a variety of social and collaborative spaces in a comfortable atmosphere with wellness as a priority.

A high-profile example of this is Google at King’s Cross. The tech giant, which has been a leader in the evolution of office design, has seven F&B outlets over numerous floors servicing a variety of working environments. Similarly, Nationwide’s Swindon headquarters has been transformed, the ground floor now consisting of one restaurant with an associated ‘street’. A variety of open and enclosed environments are on offer, and the restaurant morphs over the course of a day with food predominating at certain times – but work is always present.

As all café and restaurant owners know, these kinds of environments are maintenance intensive. Rows of desks have given way to varied work settings, and the numbers of building users have increased; in effect, offices have become ‘densified’. This has increased the pressure on FMs to actively manage spaces which are used for different purposes at different times of day.

© Hufton-Crow

We find that the biggest mistake made by operators and occupiers is choosing form over function and fashion over sturdy, robust products. Furniture and materials need to be considered from the perspective of usage. A design project should be informed by an initial, comprehensive workplace survey, followed by consultation with all levels of the business. The FM team needs to be fully involved with the design. Incorrect planning leads to spaces showing wear and tear before their time, creating a less attractive environment and a space that isn’t fit for purpose, for staff or visitors.

But are things about to change again? There have been rumblings of a move away from open-plan working with recent research by Unispace, an office design company, finding that more than two hours a day of face-to-face time with colleagues was “overly collaborative” and “potentially disruptive for individuals and the business”. Unispace surveyed more than 2,000 occupiers of office space on four continents, and found many staff resorting to noise-cancelling headphones and working from home to do their jobs without distraction.

Does this mean a return to the days of cellular offices and cubicles? Highly unlikely. A better way might be a properly managed hybrid model providing for all temperaments and generations of worker, balancing space for quiet concentration with space for collaboration and social time. FM teams, change managers, HR and IT departments need to work together to find out how people use spaces in order to develop flexible solutions better adapted to the needs of the organisation. The comfort and convenience of visitors can be catered for alongside the wellbeing of employees, who deserve an environment that allows them to be their most productive selves.


About Sarah OBeirne

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