It’s a rather sad indictment of the office industry that other sectors — leisure, residential, entertainment, travel — have never picked up the phone to ask: “How do you do it?” Which is disappointing, given in the last few decades some of the design thinking and practice has been outstanding.
It’s been the same with Facilities Management (FM) in offices over the years, too, constantly striving for service excellence while hampered by a tendency to over-promise while battling the resulting unrealistic client expectations on wafer thin margins. But again, there have been examples of FM providing fantastic service.
It comes down to a problem of brand. Not of any particular provider, but of the office itself, associated as it has been more often than not with the practices and culture of the occupant organisation. When we reflect on crap jobs we’ve had, we can see and smell the environment in which they took place; we picture those who tormented us shuffling their shiny shoes across the carpet tiles towards us beneath the striplight’s tinny gaze, and want to run, all over again.
Post-pandemic, therefore, attempts to re-brand the office as something else are rife once again.
As what, exactly? There are five contenders. They’re mainly drawn from the wider hospitality industry, which has for many decades understood that a positive experience is vital to customer advocacy and retention. Even though those customers are paying (or, more usually, someone’s paying on their behalf), they have a choice, they use them in pursuit of enjoyment, and their dwell time is short and interface limited compared to an office. But we shouldn’t let trivial details like that get in the way of an aspiration.
We could be forgiven that this one has been done to extinction. We’ve even heard the quite awful mash-up ‘coffice’ on occasion, and wished we hadn’t.
The idea of café working really took hold amongst freelancers and corporate alike with the ubiquity of Wi-Fi in such sticky-tabled establishments, and the arrival of apps directing us to those able and happy to accommodate kit-laden nomads. Of course, other customers wanting to talk, bring their kids and dogs, and use it as — well, a café — were an inconvenience, along with the puzzle of what to do with all your valuable when you needed the loo.
But it became clear that if we could work in a café, we could bring the café to work. Cue eclectic (that is, non-ergonomic) furniture and, without even so much as a cursory nod to sound attenuation, the office becomes a café. Which led to inviting kids and dogs, too, to create that genuinely difficult-to-work-in vibe.
All workspaces need a café of some form. And most certainly need high street quality coffee. It’s become an expectation. But the whole place doesn’t need to be one. Just as we use the café as a place to escape the pressures of time and expectations on us, even for a moment, sometimes we need to get out of the café to get on with some stuff. We’re better off with the contrast.
An Airline Lounge
If there’s a place on the planet that encompasses the soulless, lonely, stifling suspension of life more wholly than an airline lounge, let’s have it. (What’s that? The office, you say? Okay — fair point). Yet the office industry has been near-on obsessed with this depressing genre of space for decades, available only to those travelling in an elite class, for longer than can be recalled.
Perhaps the mix of relaxed and desk-type settings and the availability of food, pishy coffee, drinks and uninteresting journals somehow conjures how an office might be. But in whose mind, we wonder?
Airline lounges can of course be useful when we’re up ridiculously early or back late, working on the hoof and need a place to compose and send some mails, or halfway around the world on business changing planes.
If we’re to derive any inspiration from them at all, it would be that they embody a wide range of spaces and services in a small physical package, perhaps an accurate conceptual representation of the ‘less but better’ idea presently in vogue. Just better than an airline lounge, though.
The trend to ‘resimercial’ (another godawful expression) or the domestication of office design had been in train for some time when the pandemic ramped it up a notch.
The slightly strange logic runs that we spend a lot of time working at home, so we want our office to be like home, too. A continuum of relaxed familiarity featuring things we have at home that simply don’t work in an office, like rugs and table lamps.
The aspiration has even at times trampled over into the long grass of hygge. This is a Danish and Norwegian term describing cosy, comfortable conviviality, suited the daylight-starved two thirds of the year, and an idea that seems to have absolutely nothing to do with work. Or perhaps work for the vast majority of people.
It’s curious, because we might think we’d want the office to be in direct contrast home, to provide a motivating contrast and to make returning home itself a welcome experience. Yet there’s nothing wrong with an office open to varying levels of informality, and an overriding sense of ease in coming and going.
This aspiration is a more recent addition to the pack, and very much one of the pandemic era. The idea being an advance on the café — high quality, relaxed and hospitable check-in/check-out space on demand, a service menu that knows few bounds and failing that, a concierge who knows no bounds at all.
In the Dot Com bubble, concierges in offices were all the rage, as working hours across a full week’s attendances stretched into our sleep, and no-one had any time to do anything like dry clean their formal work attire (yes, we used to wear that) or get their photos developed (yes, we used to do that). When the Bubble burst, the concierges slipped out of the night entrance never to be seen again.
Given that hotels have to charge a rock star’s ransom to make any return on their offer, it’s another aspiration for our office somewhat born in fantasy.
Albeit there’s nothing at all wrong with elevating the comfort and service needs of office occupants. With the holder of every security badge seemingly called ‘Smith’.
By which we don’t mean ‘flexi-space’ — turn up and rent a desk or seven — but actual coworking, based on membership of a community. Which is far more important than the physical space itself, but of which you can’t take a whizzy photo without it being of something happening in the space.
Coworking runs on ridiculously tight margins, and so the space is often characterised by informality, with re-used or upcycled materials and furniture, little attention to ergonomics or acoustics, and a genuine shared ‘common room’ style and feel. And light fittings where the flex actually does need draping across the ceiling rather than being hidden.
Corporate office design has attempted to lift and shift the approach, but rarely successfully, because the community on which coworking thrives is derived from weak ties — no agendas, positioning or politics.
The designation of ‘coworking areas’ in corporate offices as workspace where no teams are assigned always appears slightly unnecessary, as everyone using it is from the same organisation.
We’ll have community, though — albeit how it works and what makes it successful needs studying far more than where the reclaimed chairs came from.
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While there are, therefore, useful threads of inspiration from all of the aspirations of what an office might be — availability, informality, flexibility, service, community and excellent coffee — claiming that the office “should be like [insert genre] is lazy thinking.
For the office to survive it needs to carve its own identity and re-establish its brand. It also needs to be created or re-created in alignment with the organisation and its practices, to avoid entrenching negative perceptions. But then again, it always needed to do this.
And if it does so, just maybe, at some future juncture, the phone might ring.