Workspace design must focus on making offices ‘sticky’, incentivising employees to return day after day.
From stuffy cubicles to sweeping bullpens to a study desk in the corner of a bedroom – the modern workspace has undergone many iterations in the last two decades alone. With each economic shift and technological leap, the nature of work changes; along with it changes the nature of the environment in which work is conducted.
Workspace design, however, is not just the reflection of these changes. Every design intervention in the workplace affects the work done therein. Broadly speaking, these effects can be classed as employee-centric and business-centric:
- Employee-centric effects of design tend to focus on workers’ productivity and performance.
- Business-centric effects of design focus on yield of profits, or returns on employers’ investments.
In both cases, the focus remains on the bottomline.
This has been the case for far too long, but recent developments have proven that a purely profit-driven approach to workspace design is no longer tenable.
As indicated by The Great Resignation, employees would much rather jump ship than continue working in untenable conditions, upto and including long commutes.
Added to this mix is the stiff competition provided by growing Work-From-Home trends and the promise of fully customizable virtual offices powered by FAANG. While remote work had been gaining favour even before the pandemic forced us indoors, the sudden and massive switch has been a catalysis for introspection on whether collective workspaces are even a necessity.
As architects, we believe that offices are not yet a thing of a past. We also believe that workspaces must be designed to be ‘sticky’ – offering employees concrete reasons to return day after day.
To ensure that the workspaces we design are relevant to their users’ needs and owner’s objectives, these are the factors we pay most mind to.
Density & Variety
The spatial demands of white-collar work appear small on the surface. Yet, the average office goer can require anywhere from 75 sq.ft to 200 sq.ft, depending on their designated duties and role within the organisation.
Space is a precious commodity. This is especially true in the context of lease & build properties which are typically used for offices. Yet, the efficiency of a workplace cannot be determined by per capita allocation of space alone.
For instance, open-plan layouts make space for many more employees than a cabin-based layout, but the increased noise, lack of privacy, and lack of designated seating can induce stress and lower productivity. In a similar vein, workspaces with no provisions for co-working or collaboration may accommodate all employees of an organisation but will be functionally inefficient in their day-to-day operations.
The key lies in creating a balanced spatial mix: a combination of individual workstations, team spaces, private meeting rooms and conference zones. Not only is this mix unique to each organisation, it is also likely to change with time. A kit-of-parts approach incorporating modular furniture and lightweight materials can help future-proof a workplace.
Flexibility & Culture
Flexibility goes beyond customizability. Good design takes into account every activity that an employee undertakes at work – including coffee breaks and watercooler chats. The social aspects of one’s workday, in fact, go a long way in ensuring employee satisfaction.
At the user level, a flexible workspace is one that can accommodate deviations within the user journey. Due to a change of duties, a change in routine, or even the need for change of scenery, employees often require different kinds of working spaces within the same environment.
Work pods, quiet corners, lounges and breakout rooms are just a few examples of supplementary workspaces. Their presence, along with the usual gamut of workstations, can give employees the flexibility they require in their day-to-day operations. These supplementary workspaces also shape the office culture – making room for creativity, social interactions, brainstorming sessions and chance encounters.
Biophilia has heavily influenced workspace design in recent years, and with good reason. Office jobs require users to stay indoors for long periods of time, often at the cost of their physical and psychological health. Occupants of poorly designed spaces may suffer from little to no exposure to natural light, inadequate ventilation and low indoor air quality, and a near total disconnection from their natural surroundings.
Biophilic design aims to change that by integrating elements of nature into the built space. Incorporating planters and green walls in the workplace, for example, not only improves indoor air quality but also adds tranquillity to the space.
The integration of natural elements is not restricted to indoor plants. Ensuring adequate cross-ventilation and ingress of diffused sunlight are simple yet fundamental ways in which workspaces can be made more habitable. Coupled with a pared back material palette and appropriate illumination strategies, nature-integrated design can be instrumental in boosting employee morale and wellness.
For several years before the pandemic, work was inching towards somewhere to be rather just something to do. Recent events have disrupted this progression, separating ‘work’ and ‘place’ almost irreversibly. Offices designed within their context will only be deemed successful if they ensure employee wellbeing along with meeting employers’ goals.