MAKE IT WORK:
THE FUTURE OF 
WORKPLACE DESIGN

A Interview
by
Donna Wheatley
30–09–14

We’re learning how to value a person’s experience and how to make their environment better. We’re questioning what the traditional notion of the workplace is, and we’re on the cusp of what it might be.

A conversation with Dr Donna Wheatley, leading international workplace researcher and head of the workplace design team at Warren and Mahoney.

More and more people are choosing to work remotely, from their homes, from cafes. Is the idea of the office becoming obsolete?

People can work from almost anywhere. But humans are a social animal. People want to work in proximity to other people; to brainstorm and share ideas, to form friendships and create a sense of group identity. And knowledge sharing interactions are a hugely important asset to businesses. We need collaboration spaces to make this happen.

With so much change in workplace design over the last few years, what do you predict offices will look like in the future?

The biggest change will be the focus on people, on their behaviours and preferences.We’re learning how to value a person’s experience and how to make their environment better. We’re questioning what the traditional notion of the workplace is, and we’re on the cusp of what it might be.

For me, the future of the workplace will be socially driven. I predict work hubs are the way forward. By hubs, I mean collaborative spaces for people to connect in a social and creative way, with the flexibility to adapt to different needs and activities. It’s where every element of the design exudes a sense of brand identity for the organisation, a concept that was seeded in my PhD ‘Branded Spaces’. The idea is compelling – it’s still somewhat abstract but it’s where we could be in the near future.

So what would these work hubs look like? How do they work?

It might look like one big café, or a student space at a university. Today’s students could easily study at home, but they increasingly come onto the campus every day to work in different spaces, to complete group work and be near other people. This is how young people are already working, so we need to prepare for when they enter the workplace. How long are we going to be able to chain them down to one desk five days a week?  Allowing freedom, choice and independence is essential.

The design of the space is more important than ever. At the moment, most workplaces are simply places to work. But with the rise of flexible working, workplaces need to be ‘sticky’; they need to help people to work to their best potential by offering better opportunities for collaborating and concentrating than anywhere else.


01


02


03


04

with the rise of flexible working, workplaces need to be ‘sticky’; they need to help people to work to their best potential by offering better opportunities for collaborating and concentrating than anywhere else.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

01
Southern Cross Health Society, Auckland

02
KiwiRail, Auckland

03, 04
Telecom, Auckland

How can you create and tailor a workplace that will let people reach this potential?

First we recognise that every employee undertakes different activities. People go from writing emails, to having meetings, to writing a report, to working with a team and brainstorming.

Creating an ideal workplace design is about understanding all those activities and shaping spaces to meet those different needs. It’s called an activity based workplace. It means people have the freedom to move to spaces optimised for these different tasks, rather than stay in the same space all the time.

An employee can come in and chose the space they feel they would work best in on that particular day. That choice will hopefully increase their productivity - they’d feel like they had a good productive day, and leave more satisfied each evening. The organisation wins because they’d have a more productive and satisfied employee.

That’s activity based workplaces in a nut-shell. It’s a significant change to how we think about and design workplaces, how we understand the requirements. And New Zealand and Australian businesses are really leading this global change – the rest of the world is looking to see what’s happening down here.

Will this change how we do business?

By moving around, people get to know each other more. I’ve done post-occupancy evaluations for these types of environments, and that’s been the biggest outcome. There’s better connection across different departments and teams – rather than just interacting with people at surrounding desks all day. And that’s hugely important for business. It’s not just for employee well-being, but it’s also to generate new ideas.

It’s also good for businesses during economic fluctuations. Activity based workplaces can flex with changing employee numbers, because you can fit more or less people in the same amount of space. It provides a huge amount of flexibility; you’re not locked into as rigid desk space requirements as traditional environments. It helps solve the issues with employee churn. Commercial real estate is expensive here, so the less impact staff fluctuations have on real estate needs, the better.

But what about people who like to take ownership of their space? Such flexibility might not be ideal for everybody.

There’s a middle ground. You might still create a workplace that has a great deal of choice, but you can still allow people to work in one space at any time. We call that a hybrid model. You still have your home base, a place where you put your bag, but rather than a big L-shaped work station, you’d have a smaller desk.

But then there’d be other spaces to work in too. You’ll maybe have quiet rooms, where you can go close the doors and have a half hour phone conversation with a client if you don’t want to interrupt people. But then you might have collaborative tables and video conferencing areas. Many businesses are attracted to this model.

The reality is that every business is different. So there’s no one right model for everyone – it’s about tailoring a workplace for each individual organisation. In doing so, the final workspace will be more responsive, to help support the corporate objective, and lead to greater satisfaction, productivity and creativity for its people. That’s the difference great workplace design can make.

This site does not display as intended on some browsers like Internet Explorer 6. Please update your browser.