Designing a workplace is simple, surely. You need desks, a couple of meeting rooms, informal spaces, great coffee. How difficult can it be?
Yet for most of us, the goal is of course to create something above and beyond. It is about delivering vibrant environments that engage employees, using data to understand working practices, innovating and boosting productivity. And that is rarely straightforward. It’s why having the right architect on board is paramount; they pull the various needs and considerations of a project together and give shape, definition and eventually life to the space. Yet even among the best practices, both in the Netherlands and further afield, the same mistakes keep happening. Breakout and pantry areas in the middle of an open plan office, where no one wants to linger or chat for fear of disturbing colleagues. Comfortable lounge seats, but no sockets to charge devices. Meeting rooms made of glass that provide no privacy for confidential meetings. Beautiful long tables that are too wide to have private discussions across. In and of themselves, these seem small details. But they converge to create a cascade of problems that have consequences for individual productivity and workplace innovation as a whole, as end users, trapped in poorly functioning offices, become increasingly sceptical.
So who is to blame for these mistakes? Why do they keep happening? And how can we stop it? Arguably architects shoulder much of the blame. Many have a fixed vision of how they want the product to look, rather than assessing how the workspace functions as a living, flexible environment; there is a reluctance to adapt signature styles, even when the job demands it. They do not have to live with the consequences of their decisions – unlike end users, who will navigate the space daily. The latest design trends may be stylish but do they work? Is form too often eclipsing function? These are questions I’m not sure architects are asking themselves enough.
Take, for example, one project I was involved with. The client initially wanted an enclosed space. We persuaded them to look at the data and adopt a more suitable, open plan space, but the architect refused to drop the on-trend concrete floor which was signed off at an early stage. Intended for an enclosed space, it was beautiful – but entirely impractical. Those in heels had to tip toe while rubber heels squeaked alarmingly. No one likes disturbing colleagues by being inadvertently noisy, yet here it was, built into the fabric of the building. Another example is transparent booths where you have to sit with your back towards the glass door or wall. Loved for their sleek lines and minimal design, they lack privacy and feel uncomfortable to work in. Many are not sound proof. So people stop using them. They go outside or even home to make that confidential call, reducing the collaborative nature of the office.
Architects need to be challenged more, by their clients and their partners. They need to embrace data as a creative lifeline, using it to assess how people work and what they need from the space. They need to have the courage to let go of preconceived notions and trends, and not be afraid of going back to the drawing board. Creative workspace architects need to be trained as researchers and strategists as well. But we cannot blame architects alone. Too often they juggle the realities of the building with demands of clients. Many are hired after the building has been chosen, or for a refurbishment, and then must navigate predefined visions of how the company would like to work or brand guidelines. The client, meanwhile, needs to be forceful when dealing with architects and not be over-awed by big name firms. But they also need to listen, and to understand data. More testing needs to be done: build that glass quiet booth but pilot it first with the end user. Look at where IT will need to put cables, avoid sound leaks via the ceiling or under the door, provide enough visual privacy and so on. And teams must communicate: from client and architect to contractors, procurement and end users. In case of doubt, do not hold your silence. Because while designing a workspace is simple, creating an environment that meets myriad employee needs, that marries form and function, is anything but.
From the architect down, everyone must work together, challenge and be challenged, and base design on hard data; look at how people work, understand and incorporate it, and change strategies and design as needed. Only then will mistakes stop happening – and innovation soar.
Chantal Wouters | Workplace strategy consultant and design and change manager
Chantal has been the lead consultant and design and change manager on several high-end headquarter projects, guiding clients through all stages of the journey towards a new workspace and beyond. She is passionate about creating fit for purpose work environments, through tailor-made research, creative end-user engagement, a strategic and multidisciplinary approach and a sharp eye for detail.