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Clerkenwell Design Week is a barometer for trends in the workplace sector, says Beth Harrison, a Director at Sketch Studios

The trick with visits to exhibitions like Clerkenwell Design Week, the huge workplace design event which takes over London’s home of design on 21-23 May, is to focus on the wood as much as the trees. So as well as identifying new products, you can also glean the underlying themes driving the exhibits and displays. The show is a microcosm of what is happening in the outside world, and right now that means the way in which the physical office works in parallel with digital and cultural space to decouple work from the constraints of time and place. Here are a few of the trends visitors are likely encounter.

For decades, technology has been the main driver of workplace change. Change has been happening at an accelerating rate to bring us to a point where the distinction between digital and physical space is increasingly irrelevant.

This is not about videoconferencing systems or similar which ape physical interactions, but a new era in which offices and digital workplaces overlap and offer their own advantages and challenges. People will always need to meet up in person for a number of reasons, not least the need to collaborate and develop relationships (and because we like it). But increasingly people are seeing this is one aspect of the working day, not its sole component.

The challenge will be to create offices that address the needs of this new era and manage the creep of digital workspace into the rest of our lives. Some businesses may be lagging in this regard, but more are becoming aware of how to harness digital disruption to their own advantage.

A recent poll by Cascade HR (1) named employee engagement as HR’s biggest challenge for the second year running. This is a complex issue, as a recent study from the Institute for Employment Studies argues (2). The authors suggest that engagement is a multifaceted challenge that requires increasingly sophisticated solutions, including an openness to agile working methods.

Physical space can shape people’s behaviour, feelings and attitudes towards their employer. Organisations must think about the workplace as an ecosystem of spaces that allow people to have choice and control over where and how they work.

A report from Gensler (3) has highlighted how people now judge their experience of an office against how they experience the other places where they might be working. The report shows that there is a direct connection between the quality of design and a positive emotional response from people, and found that the best experiences anticipate people’s needs, tap into their emotions, and engage the senses.

The challenge for designers and managers then becomes how to make their office the best place anybody could imagine getting some work done. It concludes that ‘in a rapidly changing environment, designers will be required to rethink and reinvent how people experience every aspect of their lives and spaces that they live in.’

Some may still see coworking as something of a niche, perhaps even faddish, phenomenon, but they’ll have to change their minds as the concept continues to evolve. Coworking began as a property model allowing startups in real estate hotspots to occupy space at lower cost, for flexible periods and in an environment of like-minded people. Now it is appealing to a much wider range of organisations, including large corporates who are drawn to the idea of a core and flex model of real estate management. This allows flexibility in the way businesses occupy offices, offering a way of reorganising teams and acquiring talent and knowledge.

According to a survey conducted at the CoreNet Global Summit in Boston last year (4), the percentage of employees at respondents’ companies utilising coworking spaces has doubled over the past two years. When asked what percentage of their global workforce are or will be using coworking on a regular basis, respondents estimated that today it is 11 per cent, in two years it will be 17 per cent, and in five years 23 per cent.

BIFM’s recent name change to the Institute of Workplace Management tells us a great deal about the changing nature of the workplace. It is not primarily a rebranding exercise. While facilities management is office focused, the name change reflects a more complex landscape for work in which there is a convergence of what were once demarcated professions, including HR, IT, real estate and general management.

Designing for wellbeing means offering people views, fresh air and daylight, as seen at the new Deloitte HQ in London

Wellbeing is a nebulous idea that encompasses a range of physical, psychological and emotional needs, but it is an essential component of modern workplace design and management. Already a prominent objective for organisations, the focus on wellbeing will increase next year as awareness grows of how the workplace can shape people’s physical and mental health – including their interaction with technology and issues such as long working hours and diversity.

One of the intriguing sub-trends to look out for is the conflation of wellbeing with sustainable building and workplace design.

Although created by common global forces, especially technology, workplace trends manifest themselves in specific ways in specific regions. This is not even a national issue, because what happens in New York is not subject to the same influences as Silicon Valley. The same could be said of London and Edinburgh, or Melbourne and Perth.

What we can do is exchange ideas as they occur in different parts of the world in response to the forces of change. Learning from each other is what globalisation is all about.

About Sarah OBeirne

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