FUTURE OF
WORKPLACE DESIGN

A Interview
by
Donna Wheatley
19–03–15

Award-winning international workplace design researcher and architect Dr Donna Wheatley believes that workplace design should not just be company-centred, but also aim to motivate people and promote their aspirations to ensure the overall success of the organisation.

Living and studying in Australia, Finland and Germany, Wheatley has led the design of many large-scale commercial, workplace, cultural, education and master planning projects, including the National Museum of Australia, Australian Museum, Minter Ellison, GBT second generation, South East Water HQ, Griffith Hack workplace, Medibank HQ, University of New South Wales and University of Sydney.

In a chat with Facility Management, Wheatley discusses the current trends and future innovations in workplace design.

How has workplace design changed in the past five to 10 years?

The biggest impact on workplace design has probably been the convergence of new management thinking with mobile technology. We often think of technology having the biggest impact on workplace design, but while technology has become more powerful, personal and mobile, theories about knowledge, innovation, organisational culture and branding have become more mainstream, where the employee is considered the key organisational resource and one that is fundamentally difficult to attract and retain. I believe that new work practices relate to social science as much as they do to technology.

As a result, workplace design in the last five years has focused on putting people in the centre of the equation, thinking not just about how they work individually, but how they collaborate and identify patterns of behaviour. As designers and strategists, we have been asking ourselves how can the workplace respond to this? Instead of basing individuals almost exclusively at a workstation or an office, the whole environment needs to be conceived with a diversity of work and meeting spaces.

For instance, the Spark building in Auckland was completely transformed from a place where people were based at the same workstation every day to one where they could freely choose where the work, whether that be at balconies, bridges, cafes, team tables, workstations or quiet rooms. Today we can see this approach creates a really dynamic, productive and exciting environment and we are able to think about what comes next – the next generation workplace.

Instead of basing individuals almost exclusively at a workstation or an office, the whole environment needs to be conceived with a diversity of work and meeting spaces.


Spark, Auckland

What will the future of workplace design in Australia look like in the next five to 10 years?

A more radical shift will occur if we are able to better understand employees’ goals and value systems, the mechanisms of trust and respect, interaction and communication systems that employees have with each other and with the organisation. The future workplace will be even more socially driven that it has been in the recent past. At Warren and Mahoney we are developing briefing strategies that examine and value a person’s experience at work so we can understand how to make their environment better. We are currently looking back at recent projects to analyse what has worked and what hasn’t.

Workplace designers must understand how people think and behave, not just in terms of productivity, but how they feel in different settings. Do we need less of something, or more of something else? How do we connect those responses to different demographic groups, as there is not one ultimate one-approach-fits-all workplace; each one must be tailored to each organisation.

Similarly, the variety and amount of places to work in the office will undergo significant development. A strategic approach to design will have to be taken where different workplace activities are mapped out and spaces will become more sophisticated, diverse, thematic and comfortable to enable optimal performance. By diversifying settings and spaces it means the aesthetic potential of the workplace can be vastly broadened. I truly believe that we have barely scratched the surface of how workplaces can look and operate.

What are the challenges when designing commercial workplaces – both large and small scale?

Undertaking both development of strategy and design means we are better at putting aside our own preconceptions about workplace design, and allowing the requirement of the organisation, its brand and its people to help drive the design.

There is a requirement in design to use intuition and domain knowledge to come up with solutions. It’s quick, it’s valid and it’s based on our background experience. So while we cannot and should not design from first principles for every solution, we need to be mindful of patterned responses that do not account for users’ needs. A key way to avoid this is to have useful and relevant information about the requirements of the users, the business and the brand.

What are activity-based workplaces? How do they affect design?

Activity-Based Workplace (ABW) is the label given to workplaces that have no or few assigned workstations. Instead, a landscape of different places to work is provided, with the aim that each different setting is conducive to particular tasks. The overall number of work settings can be reduced, as a workstation becomes a shared facility, just like a meeting room – neither is used all day every day by everyone. Therefore, when contemplating a new work environment, many organisations consider if ABW could potentially work for them.

Detailed briefing needs to be undertaken to arrive at the overall strategy for an ABW scenario. This includes determining the tasks actually undertaken, how these are translated into work settings, and how many of these will be provided and shared. Our Post-Occupancy Evaluations (POEs) of these spaces show that tasks are in fact undertaken at the places optimised for them after a detailed briefing process.

What are the key considerations for creating effective workplaces?

As workplace strategists we need to research, co-create and synthesise the full gamut of information available to make sound decisions. Embracing the complementary concepts of reason and intuition can make workplace strategy and concept design far more exciting and enriching than they ever have been in the past.

While some of the best ABW examples worldwide are found in Australia and New Zealand, the concept of ABW is still in its infancy. This is especially evident when it comes to tailoring the overall designed environment to organisational culture. In a recent trend, clients and designers have started following a philosophy that you can yield all the relevant data and information required for a new ABW design simply by conducting a study of the current workplace.

While a study is part of the briefing, reducing the design process to such a commoditised service can mean missing the big picture of the organisation, its brand, culture, clients, aspirations, goals and, importantly, its people. What you may end up getting is an ABW environment in name, but not one that reflects the culture of the people and organisation. In other words, you’re missing the opportunity of motivating people and promoting their aspirations to ensure overall organisational success.

 

Workplace designers must understand how people think and behave, not just in terms of productivity, but how they feel in different settings.

What are the emerging global trends in commercial/workplace design?

The workplace will be more socially driven. The concept of work ‘hubs’ appears one of the ways forward – collaborative spaces for people to connect in a social and creative way, with the flexibility to adapt to different needs and activities, and where the overall design exudes a unique brand identity for the organisation. This idea was seeded in my PhD thesis, titled ‘Branded Spaces’. The idea is compelling, and it’s still somewhat abstract, but it’s where we could be in the near future.

Organisations recognise the value of having people working in the office, as opposed to having them working remotely, outside the office. That is making the workplace more important than it ever has been before, as it needs to offer a better environment for conducting work than anywhere else, to dissuade people from working from home even when they have the technology to do so. It is believed that people generally want to be with others; changing environments helps achieve a ‘work’ mental state, to control and manage work hours, and it enables access to critical networks. This is the benefit of the hub.

The concept of hub not just for one organisation, but many, is an extension and advancement of today’s co-working environment. In the future, corporations will start breaking down physical barriers – for example, the swipe card will become obsolete – and we will embrace our collaborators, clients, suppliers etc into our workplaces, offering not just space for meeting, but to work together.

How would you predict the success of these trends in Australia? Are we behind?

Australian and New Zealand firms are always interested in workplace innovations and are not afraid to try a new approach if, according to the briefing data collected, it makes business sense. In terms of the hub, we are starting to see this happen in the form of expanded front of house areas that support a café-style working space.

The data driven approach we undergo today means that a cutting edge approach may be more appropriate than rolling out what has been done before. With this in mind, I can’t see how Australian and New Zealand firms would exhibit less innovation than elsewhere in the world. If anything, recent history shows that we should probably expect these countries to lead new trends.

This article was first published in the February-March 2015 edition of Facility Management magazine.

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