It’s fair to say we’ve learned a lot about workspace design since an interest started to be taken in the possibilities it offered in the late 1950s.
Yet while acknowledging fantastic contributions from many people over the last seven decades in shaping an industry for the benefit of millions of office occupants, everything written about the subject (yep, The Elemental Workplace included) since 1968 still feels like a footnote to Robert Propst’s work, The Office: A facility based on change.
How someone could have got it so right so long ago is quite staggering. Picking it up again recently for a reference, it prompted a thought around the potential within Workplace for universality. Having been involved in countless new workspace projects over thirty years, it made me think that over this time a series of ideas and practices have crystalised into what might be considered a set of universal workspace design principles.
That is, principles on which all new workspaces should be created, and against which all decisions in each regard should be tested. That’s not to deny the application of other principles to complement them, determined by context, but those that are a given, pre-written into every strategy.
I’ve arrived at six. They’re not mutually exclusive and are not without an impact on one another. We can’t simply fire up each one and watch an amazing workspace emerge. They still require excellence in strategy, design and delivery. But it’s difficult to imagine any workspace today without these principles at its heart.
The workspace is there to enable work and so must work brilliantly. All the time, and for everyone. Which means it needs to be simple and intuitive enough for our occupants to understand and use without instructions. Right down to the finest detail, which is often what occupants will be most interested in. They’ll ‘sweat the small stuff’ and so must we.
Noting that while it’s true from before the time of the writing of the Roman architect Vitruvius in the 1st Century BCE that form should follow function, we do have to acknowledge at times that form might actually be the function of a workspace component. There’s always room for something beautiful — but one of his own six principles of architecture was eurythmy — that is, beauty found in proportion. As in, don’t overdo it.
Post pandemic, expectations of functionality are higher than ever, given the investment (time, money and comfort) we’re now conscious of making in being present. That is: connectivity, worksettings, amenities and services. They’re not likely to be the elements that have us unconsciously deciding on waking that our office is the place we just have to work, but they’ll sure as anything send us home again if when we get there, they’re not present and working.
We’re creating something based on present (known) and future (predicted) needs. We also rather hope in our workspace scheme to influence future behaviours, to prompt and enable them in line with the expectations of the occupant organisation. For this reason, I’ve always resisted in my strategy work focussing too much on ‘personas’ because they work counter to the goal of enabling flexibility. Our organisation will continue to evolve, and its needs and the needs of everyone within it will do so, too. Our workspace must be able to adapt over time to account for these changing needs — it’s a journey, not a finished product.
Post pandemic, the hybrid-driven reductions in workspace under consideration (and in implementation) by many organisations, with few answers available to us as to how this will pan out in the medium to long term, require as much flexibility in the size, form and operation of the workspace as possible.
Our workspace should be open to access, use and enjoy equally by everyone, irrespective of how we are or how we choose to live. No-one ever wants to be regarded as a ‘special case’, or to have to ask for different treatment. There’s no formula for this, it’s a case of thinking, working and refining the detail. We can start with the nine protected characteristics of the Equality Act 2010, and add those not covered, such as neurodiversity.
Post-pandemic, we’re rightly more focussed on this than ever, given for many, attending a workspace is a choice. Anything in our workspace that negatively impacts our ability to access or use it will see the choice being exercised not to attend. There’s a likely clash with flexibility in some areas of workspace design, that will require balanced decisions. Unsurprisingly, balance is set out below.
We’ve gone too far for the environment, and our impact on it, not to be a key consideration in creating and (just as importantly) operating our workspace. It includes responsible sourcing and supply chain management, minimising energy usage, minimising consumption and hence waste through avoidance and re-use, and being a ‘digital first’ organisation (the production, distribution and storage of information).
Most of all, however, it focusses on our only using the space we need. As has been commented on many times since the pandemic, almost every organisation carried a surplus of workspace before lockdowns began. Utilisation was on average 40–60%, peak 60–80%. Yet, while the organisation’s workspace was considered the primary — perhaps only — place of work, it was accepted as part of the cost. It’s not going to be accepted anymore. Empty workspace is waste that must be removed.
Workspace is for human beings, and so a logic that took quite some time to arrive determines that the environment should do everything possible to consider and support human needs, conscious and unconscious. From air quality to refreshment and rest facilities, controllable lighting, comfort and ergonomics, planting, a choice of worksettings and the means of getting assistance, there are a raft of measures available to meet these needs.
Post pandemic, our expectations of a focus on wellbeing in workspace have been heightened. Covid-19 was a health and safety matter, and we’re more attuned to such considerations than ever. As suggested with inclusivity above, if our workspace doesn’t embody best practice in wellbeing, we’ll likely exercise our choice not to be there.
Extreme solutions rarely work or last. While there’s often a temptation to be as bold as possible, to push boundaries, workspace needs to balance the needs of everyone within it and enable everything they’ll need to do. And they won’t all want to do the same things in the same way at the same time. Inclusivity and flexibility help us here.
It’s also the case that most exemplar workspaces pre-pandemic embodied a balance between settings for solo, focussed work, and those for interaction, supporting most credible research showing we spent — and still spend — around half our time in each work mode. It’s easy sometimes to think we need to re-invent everything, when these workspaces are well suited to enabling hybrid work — they’re just possibly too big for today’s needs.
On a larger scale, our workspace must balance three forms of sustainability: environmental, described above; organisational (commercial, together with the contribution the workspace is making over and above not having it at all); and human (the experience of being present, and access to colleagues).
Post-pandemic, smart space scheduling technology is able to remove the human effort in achieving this balance, resolving the optimum space required now and in the future (environmental and organisational), and ensuring that we can work with the colleagues we need, where and when we need to (human) without relying on chance (with which hybrid working just got a whole lot less reliable) or being subject to the faff of booking systems.
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If you’ve been involved in creating workspace, or are at present, did you deploy these six design principles? I’d hazard a guess that they were in the mix somewhere. What others would you add?
Over to you.