One of the developer’s favourite anecdotes to tell about renovation of the Ambler Boiler House is that when he first saw the project, his son was starting second grade, and now he’s in college. Over those 13 or so years, Heckendorn Shiles Architects (HSA), based in Ambler’s neighbouring town of Wayne, Pennsylvania, has worked on scores, maybe even hundreds, of other projects alongside this one. Now that the labour of love is complete, the cherry on the cake is that the core and shell have been awarded LEED Platinium certification.
Built in 1897, the building was primarily a power station for an asbestos mill, though it had sat vacant for decades before Summit Realty Advisors (the developer, and one of three tenants) and HSA began work adapting it as an office. Despite its derelict state, the exterior – including its trademark roof stack – was relatively well preserved, with just a bit of patching up to do on the brickwork; but inside was a different story. Tonnes of asbestos-contaminated debris had to be removed before an interior restructure changed two storeys to three, and though some of the original steel framing was lost in this process, most columns and roof trusses remained in tact.
“That steel framework really reminds you of the industrial history,” says Matt Heckendorn, HSA’s co-owner, “so being able to preserve those details where we could was very important to us. And obviously that also decreased the amount of material going to landfill or being recycled.” After much research, HSA found a low-emission coating for the steel, used in the marine industry, to prevent rusting.
With preservation high on the sustainability agenda, the interiors focused on exploiting the factory’s character while making sure the development was marketable to tenants looking for a modern work environment. Like the steel structure, the brick masonry is an omnipresent feature, an important echo of the building’s history. Thinking purely from a sustainability point of view, says Heckendorn, these walls would have been covered in insulation, but instead they are a collage of exposed brickwork and new internal walls, maintaining a visual connection with the original structure while hiding services and insulation inside panelling. The tall factory windows were also retained, filled in with highly efficient, low-E glass that allows plenty of daylight without too much heat gain.
“The fundamental goal was a balance between upholding the industrial heritage and providing an interior that serves the needs of contemporary office space,” he sums up. “To a large degree, the design was a series of compromises, from a performance standpoint and for the aesthetics of the building.”
Since splitting up the three tenants floor-by-floor would have seen the employees schlep quite a distance from one end of the building to the other, HSA broke down the vast volume horizontally as well as vertically, giving the three different-sized companies their own bespoke segment. Each company’s office was then designed to fit its working culture. DiD, a healthcare marketing agency, is the largest and the most contemporary, with an open-plan layout, a central ‘communicating’ staircase linking spaces on the second and third floor, and a seashore-themed ‘village green’ with breakout areas and a games room.
On the other hand, the offices for engineering company Core States Group are more traditional, having come from private offices, and Summit Realty’s are somewhere in the middle, with glazed meeting rooms and an open-plan layout, divided by glass partitions. An underlying palette of materials – brickwork, steel, salvaged wood panels (reclaimed from the Coney Island boardwalk) and exposed services – ties them all together. “We were trying to give them each their individual identity, and yet maintain a consistency so that it all felt collectively like part of the Ambler Boiler House,” says Heckendorn.
Construction stalled a number of times due to funding hiccups, finally getting the push it needed from grants and low-interest loans made available – ironically – during the recession. These were largely in support of energy-efficiency improvements: for example, its location on a brownfield site qualified the project for a grant, which paid for a substantial environmental clean-up with minimal landfill and maximal recycling. Its adjacency to a rail station also produced more financial backing in support of public transport, and has done wonders for the local neighbourhood.
Installing a geothermal heat-pump system opened up more funding streams for the project, and massively furthered its sustainability goals, but it wasn’t easy. With a large portion of the site dedicated to storm-water management, HSA had a limited footprint to install the wells within a clear range of the building. This required a specialist geothermal well-field designer, which together with various other experts – including a masonry restoration consultant, plus a large team of mechanical, structural and civil engineers – was invaluable in slotting together the overall composition. “A project like this takes a lot of time and persistence from a really complicated team,” says Heckendorn.
Along the way, the practice has become a bit of a specialist in adapting industrial buildings for office use, having converted an old carriage house into a government office, and an old newspaper-printing house into another workplace. “I think there’s more a common process than a common aesthetic with us. Nothing else quite like this, though,” he laughs. Good job really: at a rate of 13 years a pop, this type of project can only come along once in a while.
Crossrail looks set to transform travel across the capital when it opens in 2018, but until then, Londoners have to begrudge the crater-sized holes it is making across the city. One of these craters obstructs almost the entire south-west facade of The Office Group’s latest site within Paddington Station, making the address – 19 Eastbourne Terrace – temporarily futile, as street access is impossible. Still, the inflicted nuisance outside is a necessary evil in the company’s long game to have a spot in one of the city’s best-connected travel hubs, and in the meantime, the alternate entrance is shrewdly used to create a sense of exclusivity.
Members (The Office Group runs a network of ‘ClubRooms’ for mobile workers) and visitors are guided from the tube exit via a line of blue vinyl on the floor, brandished with the address, up a set of stairs off the platform to a hidden door. Beyond lies a subtly modern interior by architects dMFK that melds beautifully restored details from the Grade I-listed Isambard Kingdom Brunel design with a sophisticated and contemporary aesthetic.
“Bold buildings require a bold approach, whatever their listing status,” says Julian de Metz, director and cofounder of the practice. “[Listing] often makes people too reverential. We wanted it to feel fresh but still have historic gravitas.”
The site is split over two tall, slim Georgian-style buildings, constructed in 1854, housing a mix of open-use workspace for individual members and permanent offices for companies of two people or more. There’s meeting space in varying degrees of size and privacy, kitchenettes and bathroom facilities dotted throughout, and two reception areas – one at the current entrance, and another, more impressive one at the main (currently unused) entrance. With such a list of different requirements, the brief conversely called for a cellular layout within huge, industrial spaces. “We had to come up with clever ways to subdivide the space that didn’t obstruct the existing features, but worked with them and flattered them,” says project architect Joshua Scott.
Most of the workspace is split over modestly sized rooms stemming off a backbone of central corridors; these areas display the project’s most inventive retrofitting techniques. In one, the brick vaulted ceilings are exposed and the walls set back from the original cruciform columns to emphasise them and break up the space, with crisscrossing fluorescent lights laid across the wall tops – an economical way to light and add dimension above. In another, metal supports from the old railway shed roof are retained, juxtaposing the minimal white hallway. On the ground floor, a mirrored Barrisol ceiling stretches over the corridor to hide all manner of cables and gubbins, simultaneously creating the illusion of height.
Inside the rooms, dMFK has resisted the desire to contrast Victorian details with coarsely modern interventions. Instead, the aesthetic is more college library meets chic hotel lobby, with a hint at the building’s railway heritage. “We wanted to complement rather than contrast, which is often the stock contemporary response, and avoid flexible working cliches of zingy colours and urban graphics. We don’t see that as professional; work is serious but it doesn’t need to be dull,” says de Metz.
In one of the members’ ClubRooms, pairs of Benjamin Hubert-designed Pod chairs from De Vorm frame the windows, quietly referencing a train carriage layout. In between sit Hans Wegner sofas and Vitra meeting tables and chairs, all in pale woods, with fabrics and Bolon floors in neutral greys and blues. The inside wall is lined in oak joinery (with some fluted panelling to dampen sound) housing lockers, bench desks for touch-down work and private work booths. “The atmosphere is calm and stately, relaxed but serious,” says de Metz.
A ‘quiet’ ClubRoom across the hall allows for more heads-down working, with individual cubicle desks and more private booths. In the absence of period detailing, services are exposed in these rooms and some of the other offices and meeting rooms, but not everywhere, as de Metz explains: “The biggest challenge with listed buildings is always services, and one route people take is to expose them all. It’s a look, but it doesn’t always suit the space.” Elsewhere, services are hidden by raised access floors and in cabinets, like in the ballroom.
The ballroom is the exception to the cellular layout, and a striking example of how dMFK treated each space according to its inherent features. Initially planned as a ClubRoom, the Crossrail-inflicted change of layout forced this space too far from the temporary entrance to make sense in this guise, so now, it is a particularly grand office for one permanent company tenant. A vast, corniced ceiling has been painted white, enhancing the detail but “keeping it modern in spirit” explains de Metz, while huge Wever & Ducré pendants stand up to the scale of the room. Services are expertly disguised in cabinets and low bookcases along the sides of the rooms.
The architects’ art for subtlety has also transformed the main lift lobby and staircase at the main entrance, formerly jazzed up by Network Rail. “It was a flashy patch-fitting glass design, a bit like a 1980s duvet cover, with token multi-coloured graphics, which we weren’t keen on,” smiles Scott. This has been replaced by a translucent reeded glass lift core by Reglit, which darts through the middle of an original Brunel staircase – which dMFK only lightly spruced up with a lick of paint – and bordered by pendant lights that dangle in the void.
The main lobby has an indoor/outdoor feel, created by resin-bound marble-chip floors, and some more oak joinery, adding warmth. The bathrooms have the most vivid colour palette, with rich, Victorian-inspired green tiling, oak beaded doors and large circular mirrors, again suggesting a vintage railway theme.
As for the building’s energy performance, improvements were restricted by the listed status, but dMFK did all they could, installing heritage-approved secondary glazing, additional insulation, and features like sensor-activated lighting throughout. All in all, dMFK has succeeded in creating a refined, professional setting that plays to this prestigious building’s strengths.
Tech start-ups with the cool factor turned up to 11 are ten-a-penny these days, so it’s refreshing to see a corporate giant like Walmart put its dollar behind something as funky as its São Paulo offices.
“They reached us through another office we designed: São Paulo’s Google headquarters,” says Guto Requena from the design studio that takes his name. “It was a direct invitation and we were the only ones considered for it.” Requena, along with Paulo de Camargo, were the architects responsible for this five-floor scheme in a new-build tower in Brazil’s largest city.
This is the office for the dot-com arm of the American retail giant, and as such, explains Requena, “most of their employees are young people under 30, so the design brief was about making them want to come to work.” Hence the inclusion of skateboards and bikes to reflect the interests of this demographic. “Also, the space is supposed to represent the company concepts of Respect, Service, Ethics and Excellence. They were also open to our idea of bringing some ‘Brazilian-ness’ to the space.”
This workplace is the very antithesis of the cubicle-laden floorplates that so typify the North American office, and by the sounds of it, the architects pushed for it to have a strong design identity. Requena and de Camargo say they conducted the usual interviews and online exchanges with company employees to assess the values, needs and expectations of those working in this environment, but what’s different here is talk of their “having long conversations with coffee and homemade poundcake late into the afternoon, talking about life.” It was this philosophising that then drove all the project choices. Sounds a lot more chilled than poring over space-utilisation charts and various vectors to see what would be best for the way the staff work.
Continues de Camargo, “Brazilian culture is reflected most in the creative and informal way we occupied the whole space and the way we wanted people to interact with each other as they move through the floors.” The architects brought the outside in, to reflect the Brazilian habit of interacting most when outdoors. In rural areas, they say, it’s commonplace to simply place a chair in the street and chat to one’s neighbours of an evening. Communal areas that are more like balconies or patios feature beach chairs, picnic tables and rocking chairs. The feeling of brasilidade, or Brazilian identity, even goes as far as the table settings, the flower species specified for the green belt that runs through the peripheral spaces and the checked carpet pattern, a large-scale nod to the gingham cloth associated with picnics. Images from contemporary Brazilian photographers plus maps, illustrations, folk art and pieces of domestic furniture by established homegrown designers again help to underpin this sense of national pride. The latter includes hammock armchairs by Maurício Arruda, a stool by Lina Bo Bardi and sofa and armchair by Fernando Jaeger.
Workstations are located near windows to take advantage of daylight while in the lounges and what the architects refer to as ‘decompression’ areas, lighting takes a more decorative turn. There are two lamps made from hollowed-out gourds (a fruit traditionally used in the making of Brazilian percussion instruments), painted grey inside and suspended from a wooden frame, with colourful wiring left exposed.
Each floor measures 1,000sq m, meaning there was a challenge to bring this vastness down to a human dimension. To do this, the architects created ‘cocoons’ of enclosed space in the centre. Each is clad in a different wood type and colour: eucalyptus and yellow on the sixth floor, OSB and green on the seventh floor, and pine and orange on the ninth floor, for example. The colours all relate to various elements of Walmart’s branding, with the large-scale pendants on the sixth floor representing the flower of the company’s logo. While different departments are separated out on to different floors, these decompression areas are spread out across the building, for the people from sales or human resources or finance to come together.
On the seventh floor there is a games room with a pool table, table football and board games; the ninth floor features an orange-clad video games room with couches and cushions for relaxing, or reaching for the console to get to the next level. “Going up on the tenth floor, right in the middle of the space, we’ve placed a grandstand, a place for informal meetings and for people to play some music together,” says Requena. Aside from the cocoons, there are other pockets of space, with either wooden bar stools or easy chairs; on the floor here, the gingham check is replaced with rugs in the corresponding branding colour.
The piece de resistance of this workplace is undoubtedly the open area on the sixth floor. Here there is a mini golf course, a space for yoga, an open cinema as well as a cafeteria. Characterised by its timber decking, it also has a shaded area and its own grandstand that can host small events.
The architects say the design creates spaces that are welcoming and comfortable yet professional and practical. While Walmart is no tech start-up (sales totalled US$466 billion in 2013) the elements of digital culture are seemingly the same – which is why everything, from space for guitar-strumming to a round of golf, are exactly what is needed.
Peldon Rose has designed a Lewis Carroll-inspired interior for the Office Space in Town’s Waterloo site. The serviced office features an Alice in Wonderland theme, with a lounge zoned by faux-rose-dotted hedges, topped by a chequerboard ceiling, and a glossy corridor lit by with intermittent strip lights along the walls, simulating the journey through the rabbit hole. A large statue in reception depicts Alice climbing through the rabbit hole, overlooking a reception desk that resembles a stack of books. To her left is a small door, like the one Alice walks through after she drinks the shrinking potion, and to her right is a wall of huge buttons, referring to when Alice grows larger than a house after consuming the Eat Me cake.
The walls of the gleaming white corridor are streaked with diffused strip lights to simulate a trip through the rabbit hole.
The media lounge is sectioned by hedges adorned with roses, like the Queen of Hearts' garden in the well-known story, and topped by a chequerboard ceiling.
The meeting rooms are themed according to memorable characters from the Lewis Carroll books. The Mad Hatter room has distressed wall coverings with grass floors and ceilings. The Cheshire Cat room has a large mural depicting the bizarre feline character. The White Queen room is the most minimal, with a monochrome colour scheme and teapot pendant lights.
To mark the launch of aberrant architecture’s exhibition, Going Public – Flexible Working for the 21st Century, onoffice and Domus Tiles will host an evening of talks featuring influential industry names. Jeremy Myerson (Helen Hamlyn Centre), Luke Pearson (PearsonLloyd), Felicity Roocke (Hassell), Oliver Marlow (Tilt), Tobias Goevert (Greater London Authority) and aberrant’s Kevin Haley will debate the pros and cons of public workspace and its future design.
The exhibition will showcase aberrant architecture’s workplace research and design projects, exploring the issues and opportunities of flexible working lifestyles, and questioning how to create viable third spaces that offer fit-for-purpose workspace between home and office. It will run from 18-28 February at the Domus showroom, 50-52 Great Sutton St, EC1V 0DF.
The British Council for Offices is urging practices to get their entries in soon for its Regional Awards, with the deadline for submissions on 30 November. Each year the BCO selects the best workplace projects completed in five regions across the UK, which then go head to head for the National Awards. This year’s regional winners will be announced in April/May 2013.
At the 2012 National Awards, 7 More London Riverside won the Innovation Award after being nominated for the London & South East regional award. The Best of the Best and the Fit Out prizes were given to K&L Gates’ offices at One New Change, London, fitted out by Lehman Smith McLeish, after winning the London award. Virgin Money in St Andrew Square, Edinburgh, won the Scotland regional award for best Refurbished/Recycled Workplace and then went on to win the National Award in the same category. The Greater Manchester Police Force Headquarters did the same in the Corporate Workplace category.
Regional categories are Corporate, Commercial, Fit Out, Refurbished/Recycled and Projects up to 2,000sqm. Judges choose nominees for the Innovation Award from regional entrants. Projects must have been completed between 1 January 2009 and 1 November 2012. To download an entry guide, visit http://www.bcoawards.org.uk/enter/
In a perfect world, every workplace would fit, hand in glove, with its workers: desks would be occupied in an optimally efficient way; meeting rooms would never be under- or over-booked; no one would be too hot or too cold; and yes, that statement staircase would produce those “chance encounters” to boost the productivity of collaboration-hungry knowledge workers.
Nice idea. But life is messy. Outcomes don’t always match expectations, and people don’t always use buildings in the expected way. To minimise this, however, many practices are now taking a more rigorous, empirical approach to workplace design, which relies on extensive front-end research.
Evidence-based design is “a concept whose time has come”, says Richard Francis, director of environment and sustainability at construction consultancy Gardiner & Theobald. “We know from academic literature that design clearly influences people’s behaviour; the real challenge is trying to identify the principles of design that will enhance not only environmental performance, but human performance.” As he sees it, from a business perspective, even the greenest of office buildings isn’t really sustainable if it lacks efficient, engaged workers. “We’re beginning to think about what buildings do, as opposed to what they are, and that’s a fundamental shift,” says Francis. “When I’m talking to clients, the criticism of Building Regulations or certification schemes like BREEAM is that they’re not really real; there’s always a gap between what you think you’re getting, and what you actually get.”
The UK Green Building Council’s chief executive, Paul King, warned last year that post-occupancy proof of a building’s poor performance could expose the profession to negligence claims: “If we rethink it, redesign it, we are going to have to prove we’ve made it better,” he said. “There is a great role for architects here. It will require more rigour, more science. It is going to require continued up-skilling of the profession.” In this light, the stakes are high for EBD to deliver a more scientifically rigorous result.
Although the environmental impact of a building is much more measurable than ten or 15 years ago, measuring its social and economic impact has garnered less attention. “The idea that the way your building performs can have an impact on its value – or if you’re the occupier, an impact on your reputation – is something that the industry is still coming to grips with,” says Francis. It’s partly because measuring how “successful” a workplace is in a scientific way is problematic. To explain the background, EBD has its roots in healthcare design, where there is a credible body of research linking design to improved patient safety and faster healing – for example, single hospital rooms are consistently proven to reduce infection compared to wards. What are the workplace equivalents, though? Productivity was once measured by increased typing speeds in the secretaries’ pool, but where does that leave the business that wants its fit out to deliver increased collaboration, more flexibility, or a repositioning of their brand? “Productivity is in many ways the silver bullet, but what’s much more informative, especially for knowledge-based organisations, is the engagement of employees,” says Earle Arney, Woods Bagot’s director of workplace. “If you’re able to increase engagement scores, that’s really massive.”
Arney says that EBD “underpins everything we do; we’ve built a business around it,” and the firm’s One Shelley Street in Sydney, for bank Macquarie Group, shows very encouraging results. Macquarie’s post-occupancy research with the University of Sydney into how its new activity-based workplace – a pretty radical concept for a bank – has fared showed that 97% of workers preferred their new environment, 93% preferred the new ways of working, and that 60% felt they were more productive (although how productive they were in reality wasn’t measured).
How does scientific research translate into practice, though? “There are quite a few challenges that stand in the way of design being more research-based,” says Dr Kerstin Sailer, lecturer in complex buildings at UCL’s Bartlett School of Graduate Studies. “Methods may not be quite understandable to lay people, with results normally written in academic papers, using jargon that is not very friendly for practitioners.” She thinks the problem runs deeper, though: “It’s a culture clash. The way we set up the research process, in a very scientific way, is not always appealing to architects, who have been trained to work quite differently. On the one hand there’s method, rigour, science – and the limitations of science, obviously – and on the other hand there are practicing architects, who have intuition, experience, judgement and working with their clients’ expectations.”
There is plenty of research that appears to link good design with better, more efficient workers, but it is hard to isolate cause and effect. Ideally, research should be replicable as well as empirical, but so much of what goes on in the workplace is about unique organisational culture rather than broader factors like, say, levels of daylight. “There have been studies showing, for example, that in LEED buildings, productivity increases and sickness decreases, and satisfaction with the building increases,” says Richard Francis, “but we need to be careful, because it’s difficult to separate out exactly what is causing those results.” He says that there is some good evidence for linking environmental factors such as natural ventilation, and acoustic and thermal performance, with positive worker experiences, but it’s different when it comes to research about how people behave and interact. “The robustness of the research, and its transferability, is always going to be a big problem in EBD,” says Sailer. “When I look at the evidence base we have for healthcare, it is relatively robust, but for workplaces, it’s all over the place.”
Sailer’s consultancy work for workplace designers Spacelab, whose clients include Virgin Money and publishers Emap, focuses on space usage – the creation of environments for optimum business effectiveness. This is what most workplace designers mean by EBD – systematic up-front research that takes a lot longer than the typical amount of work needed to fulfil a brief, but which results in a space based on what’s actually happening, rather than what the CEO might tell you is happening, or what a designer might be able to glean from a few walk-throughs and staff interviews.
“We would normally do a study of eight to 12 weeks, where we don’t do a single design move; all we do is assess who the client is. By the end of it we have a better understanding of how these people work than the people themselves,” says Sailer. This encompasses interviews with those at management level; an online staff questionnaire that includes questions about which of their colleagues they interact with, how much of their day they spend in meetings or out of the building; and standardised, structured observation about how many people use the tea points, for example, or are at their desks at any one time. Sailer says that it was initially hard to persuade clients on tight budgets and timescales that it would take two to three months just to assess their needs, but her initial work with Spacelab was mostly funded by a government grant, which cushioned the blow: “It helped to establish our processes, to offer pilot studies at no cost, to get a feel for the kind of data we should collect and how we could use it. It’s easier now, because we’ve redesigned those buildings and the clients are super-happy, and that’s the best marketing you can imagine.”
AMA Alexi Marmot Associates first developed workplace design strategies for IBM in the 1990s, and has more recently acted as consultants for Seattle’s Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (onoffice 66). AMA has developed standardised assessment tools, called WorkWare, that assess how buildings are used and its occupants’ opinions. It uses a mix of questionnaires, observational surveys, interviews and focus groups, with the added benefit of benchmarking data from previous surveys – some 60,000 desks’ worth – that reveals what that data means. AMA director Joanna Eley says: “We collect data because we believe evidence improves decision making. It creates new layers of understanding about what’s going on in particular type of workplace.” She adds that it also “makes it easier to communicate with people about what’s really going on” – so, for example, clients are more readily persuaded to move towards non-assigned desks if there is strong evidence of low desk utilisation, or significant business is already being conducted in meeting rooms, corridors, the canteen, or off the premises.
How does a multi-national, multi-disciplinary firm disseminate and manage research? Woods Bagot has its own research arm, Public, to which it devotes 2% of revenue, and a searchable intranet portal for accessing the latest information. Arney agrees with Eley that EBD can make life easier when it comes to pushing through change: “It is more demanding at the front end, so that the resource curve is closer to the front, in terms of the work you need to do. But it’s certainly a hell of a lot more rewarding for our client, be they end users of corporate office space, or developers who want to make sure that they are most aligned to what their clients want.”
Just as key, though, is creating a research-friendly culture, says Arney, “applying it on day one of a project, and making it really acceptable to all our people.” Woods Bagot publishes its research – “I think an organisation of our size has an obligation to the profession, and a duty to the environment, to share this information” – but that’s not the norm. The issue of post-occupancy study is a crucial one: such documentation should be the building blocks for ever-better workplaces, but rarely is a firm as interested in evaluating their new workplace as Macquarie were – Arney puts it down to the fact that they’re a bank, and thus obsessed with evaluating and putting a figure on everything (Macquarie has worked out that its new building will save it an impressive AUS$10m a year over ten years).
Richard Francis laments the fact that he cannot categorically say to clients that a certain type of building will boost performance: “The feedback mechanism, the collection of data, the experience-based results – they’re just not there. We’re constantly examining prototypes; we should be further along than that.” Francis is the new chair of the BCO’s environmental sustainability group, and says that he will be pushing the EBD agenda via the BCO’s research and discussion programme. So, while no one’s going to be proving the communications effectiveness of a feature staircase any time soon, what might happen is the creation of a more open culture of information-sharing, which in turn might find a way to place a tangible value on good workplace design.
Flexible working, remote working, activity-based working, new ways of working – there is an exhausting amount of jargon to keep track of in the office industry these days. Buzzy ‘workplace revolution’ concepts have been alight for over a decade, and essentially they’re all variations of the same idea: a shift away from traditional work methods toward a more ‘anytime/anywhere’ approach to getting the job done. The implications for building design, product design and how people relate to their employers have been very potent, exciting stuff – we’ve all been dazzled by the possibilities, and rightly so. But so far, there seems to have been an awful lot of talk and not quite as much action.
According to industry experts, vast swathes of the UK workforce are not benefiting from any of these new ideas – not even slightly. “I would venture to say 90 to 95 per cent of office employees still work in the traditional way, with one-to-one desk allocation,” says Mat Oakley, a director of commercial research at Savills, an analysis supported by various other research specialists and workplace designers. A Practical Guide to Flexible Working, an imminent paper from the Original Creative Co-op, notes that only 48 per cent of employees in the UK are offered any sort of flexibility, compared to 90 per cent in mainland Europe.
The consensus is that adoption of new work methods has been sluggish in Britain and that most of the working population still has lengthy daily commutes, set workstations and a nine-to-five time structure. Outmoded styles of management place value on time in the office versus quality of output. Plus, there is a shocking amount of organisations that do not prioritise offices with enough light, space and fresh air – or who aren’t willing to rethink their business strategies to allow for flexibility and choice. It seems daft when recent figures from the British Council for Offices say that the number of workplaces actually in use by employees can be as low as 50 to 60 per cent in a large sample of office buildings. Considering the potential savings on premises costs and the established connection between a well-designed work environment and staff retention and creativity, the resistance to new ways of working is a puzzling state of affairs. So what gives?
Marie Puybaraud, who carries out workplace research for Johnsons Controls Consulting, puts it bluntly: “onoffice is a dream world. The reality is that most people don’t have access to those kinds of spaces.” Which begs the question: what, or who, is standing in the way? The knee-jerk answer tends be that there is now a short supply of money in the coffers. But the problem can’t be solely a matter of resources, because some of the most forward-thinking workplace projects, particularly last year, were brought about with relatively little cash. There must be more to it. A scratch below the surface reveals that, more than anything, fear and a lack of awareness might prove the biggest roadblocks to change – not to mention unenlightened executive boards and a simmering tension between designers and middle management. Puybaraud agrees: “The major problem is organisations accepting change. The shift is very, very slow.” Although an obsession with the bottom line will likely inform decisions about how a workplace runs and will be fitted out, there is also an enormous lack of trust, she says.
Gill Parker, joint managing director of workplace design consultancy BDGworkfutures, believes there is a psychological hurdle to jump – people are very territorial. “If you’re designing for a company that is trying to change to a more dynamic working model, then the trust issue becomes so much greater because it’s seen as having things taken away,” she says. “It becomes ‘What’s that going to mean for me and my team? Am I going to have to change my work pattern? Am I going to have a desk?’ People, management in particular, always think there is going to be a catch and they’re always looking for it.”
There are ways of introducing change, however, if design consultancies are willing to push the agenda. In the case of the Communities and Local Government building in Victoria, BDGworkfutures eased the organisation into a more flexible way of working (chiefly, desk-sharing and collaborative work areas) with a pilot scheme for 140 of its 2,000 employees. It was an ongoing process of monitoring and tweaking, says Parker, but it eventually proved to managers that it could succeed. “Clients very rarely want to be guinea pigs. Most times, they don’t want to be the boundary pushers, they want to go where others have gone before.”
Jack Pringle, co-founder of Pringle Brandon, believes the recession has dramatically changed the outlook and predicts a ‘wave’ of workplaces adopting new ideas. Facilities managers (FMs) are resistant though, he says, because ‘new ways of working’ became a sort of “messianic cause” in the last ten years. Says Pringle: “It was almost like a religious cult – new ways of working is good for everybody – why aren’t you doing it? And the reality is it isn’t always good for everybody. There should be many variants of it but at the heart it just means looking at the real patterns of work without the assumption that the answer is one person to one desk.” One tool for selling new ideas to businesses is the Workplace Performance Index used by Gensler, which analyses an organisation before and after occupying a new space. This sort of data has in many cases become the proof of the pudding, so to speak.
Jason Turner, interiors design director for Swanke Hayden Connell Architects, worries there isn’t enough of such data and that design teams are not brought to the table early enough. Using consultants from the very start will inform the decision-making process so that it delivers something other than the status quo, he says, but it doesn’t usually happen. “There is still a lot of resistance to recognising that design is a business tool – how it can directly impact on performance,” says Turner. “It’s still considered by a lot of organisations as an add-on – something you do when you have extra money as opposed to implementing a strategy.”
He reckons the best projects are where CEOs have very clear objectives, see the value of design for their businesses and are willing to have it implemented properly. The ‘open plan’ mania of the last two decades failed in many cases because it wasn’t supplemented with enough alternative space for collaboration and ongoing change management, he says. Too often it simply meant more people crammed into smaller spaces in the name of progressive office design.
This is largely the fault of major decisions about offices only going as far as the finance director or the FM: “Their drivers are about money, not people,” says Turner. “When an organisation thinks about moving to a new space, it usually gets devolved to the FM – and this can crucially affect the way the business works. It doesn’t seem to register with senior management as something that deserves attention.” There is very little evaluation, he adds, which is mind-boggling when companies are signing leases of up to 15 years that potentially cost millions.Nigel Oseland of the Office Productivity Network agrees that there is a ‘disconnect’ between the bottom line and creating a better business. The two can work against each other, he believes, and this might be why so many offices stay stuck in the past.
“Whatever we say, the hidden agenda of flexible working is usually to save space and cost. The problem with that is, it’s treating the office as a cost burden, not as an asset that can benefit your organisation,” Oseland says. “So I don’t know whether it’s partly to do with the training of the corporate real estate team, the FM or their actual remit, which is to save money off the bottom line instead of meeting objectives like staff retention and well-being. The question is, how do you speak in the right language and convince the executive board that property can add a benefit and not just add a cost?”
It’s the million dollar question, it would seem, and one that will be difficult to answer as businesses limp through the economic downturn. Oseland suggests organisations take a good, long look at their real objectives before plunging into new ways of working, or else it will backfire. “The journey you have to take for flexible working is emotional and it’s hard work. If you’re not prepared to do it right from the start then don’t make that journey. There are other ways to save money. But if you are willing to do it right, the benefits are vast,” he says.
Part of that journey is a shift in middle management – moving away from clock-watching and presenteeism – and allowing staff a choice in when and where they’d like to work. At the same time, flexible workers need a clear understanding of what is expected of them and how their work will be measured. It isn’t appropriate for every business all of the time – but certainly the notion of managers needing to see bodies at desks has been a hindrance to companies that might benefit (monetarily and culturally) from trying something new.
Activity-based working (no fixed desks and a variety of work settings in an office) is a natural progression for an organisation like Microsoft (onoffice May 09) because it wanted to showcase its technology. It made sense and the company has done it for nearly 700 employees in the Amsterdam HQ it opened last year. But there are surprising success stories in other sectors such as banking – where the idea of having no designated desks and thousands of roving employees with laptops would have been laughed out of the boardroom five years ago. Macquarie Investment Bank’s headquarters in Sydney is a pioneering example (onoffice July 09). In its new building, 3,000 employees choose from a number of work settings depending on specific needs and tasks – and a post-occupancy survey has revealed that 93 per cent of staff would never want to go back to desk ownership with fixed PCs. Storage space has been reduced by 78 per cent, lift use by 50 per cent and the premises saves 8,000 tonnes of carbon a year – but such a drastic change required letting go of virtually every established notion of what ‘a day at work’ means. Philip Ross, CEO of Cordless Group and a consultant on the Macquarie project, says: “So many ‘new ways of working’ projects go wrong because they are attempts at desk sharing and they tend to ignore people in change management and technology.” People need to feel like they are being properly consulted and communicated with along the way, so that kinks can be ironed out.
Interestingly, Ross doesn’t believe that big corporations with budgets to match have an easier job of switching to activity-based working or other modes of flexible working. “If you have a company with 200 people with laptops, it’s a much easier process,” he says. “You need to bring middle management along with you and encourage them to embrace the change, but IT people also put up barriers. You see breakout spaces that have no power and no connectivity, so if you’re sitting there, you’re seen as taking a break because you can’t actually work on a computer. There are so many things you’ve got to get right.”
Luke Pearson, of PearsonLloyd, challenges the notion of breakout spaces in themselves and suggests progress is stalled by a lack of innovative product design. “Up to now there hasn’t been a product that has facilitated alternative work methods in a way that managers feel comfortable with,” he says. “The breakout area is a response because people desperately want to get away from their desks, but we should move on from it. The problem to date is that the solutions are reactionary – they’re geared toward very conventional reception and waiting area typologies that are expensive and not conducive to the working process. They’re too low, they’re not comfortable. This scenario quite often seems expensive because people can’t work effectively and managers see that.”Which leads back round to the question: can designers and management meet in the middle? Lots of designers seem willing to pass the blame on to both controlling middle management and procedural FMs.
Ian Fielder, CEO of the British Institute of Facilities Management, concedes that when an FM isn’t a strong influencer or decision maker, they probably will be risk adverse. “They know that by not taking an innovative approach, they are on safe ground and ensure that they can deliver. I would say that is a changing situation, but I understand the criticism and I’d say that in some cases it’s true,” he says. “You could go to a very staid insurance company and see the FM perhaps not be a support in moving the organisation forward in terms of its work strategy.”Fielder suggests that we be patient because the FM profession is young – it is currently morphing from an older generation who know about safety regulations and hard services, like the boiler-room and air conditioning, into a younger, savvier set who gain qualifications in their field and seem much more in tune with the wider goals of a business.
“At worst, facilities managers should have a really good awareness of design and how it influences the culture of an organisation. That’s just as important to the FM role now as the boilers were 15 years ago,” he adds, citing Bloomberg and Cisco’s office buildings as examples of how dynamic facilities management can be. “But there are as many buildings where the FM may be struggling to understand a new concept. So it’s about educating the FM to recognise how it adds value to the business. I wish I could say that it was all done and dusted and that we were there. Clearly we’re not, but the trend is that we’re slowly getting there.”