The looming angles and metallic sheen of the US Army Corps of Engineers’ building in Seattle couldn’t be more at odds with the wilderness-lodge aesthetic going on inside, but each element, in its own way, tells a story about this landmark federal building.
Once predominantly asphalt and chain-link fences, this largely industrial downtown site has been home to the Corps, known as USACE, for decades. A workforce including architects, biologists and civil engineers previously resided in an inefficient 1932 Albert Kahn-designed Ford assembly plant – a tired setting for a federal agency whose manifesto states “environmental sustainability as a guiding principle”. Yet it also sits on the banks of the Duwamish waterway, a picturesque river with saltwater fisheries and a busy route for trade barges, making it a highly relevant spot for USACE, which is responsible for developing similar waterways across the States.
ZGF Architects won the design-build commission after an intense eight-week design competition process. It aimed both to exploit the landscape’s potential and reflect the industrial history, while giving USACE a workplace befitting of its mission statement. Around the building – snappily named Federal Center South Building 1202 – nearly two hectares of brownfield land have been turned into immaculate lawns and gardens, with a sophisticated water drainage system, and the awesome new structure at its centre is expected to perform in the top 1% most energy efficient office buildings in the US.
Inspired by an oxbow river formation, the building is essentially a large horseshoe with most of the middle filled in – a shape that Allyn Stellmacher, design partner at ZGF’s Seattle branch, likens to a salmon steak. The top of the horseshoe faces east towards the road and forms the main entrance (left), an imposing and more typically military facade coated in glass and glistening stainless steel shingles. This is the design’s puffed-out chest, complete with stars and stripes fluttering in the breeze, representing the Corps’ hi-tech work and its motto, “Building Strong”. But a wooden canopy over the entrance doors gives a sneak preview to the building’s softer core.
In their previous HQ next door, the USACE employees occupied a warren of 1.8m-high cubicles around the former car factory. “They had a very closed idea about the boundaries of their space,” says Stellmacher. “It was a strong departmental organisation and a lot of their work was done within those worlds.”
In the new HQ, the outer curve of the building is lined with three storeys of open-plan workspace with purposely low divides, giving all 700 staff panoramic views of the landscape and plenty of daylight. According to Stellmacher, this openness also allows the colonel to “walk the floor and see his people”. Everyone still has their own desks and the departments are still defined, but in a looser format, so those groups can grow and shrink when needed.
Via balcony walkways, this loop of workspace overlooks a triple-height atrium featuring a serene indoor garden. Small breakout spaces are dotted amid landscaped sections of pebbles and slate, meant to emulate meandering riverbeds, with rows of plants, driftwood and water features made of scattered boulders. These border a woodland cabin-like stack of shared resources – meeting rooms, kitchenettes and a library – clad in reclaimed Douglas fir, also used on adjoining bridges and stairs, and etched with geographic data. Whereas in the old building meeting rooms were distributed throughout the departments, here they have been pulled out and grouped together in the middle, creating a central meeting hub to connect staff together.
“By gathering all these spaces into one large kitty, we created a town square, and wrapped the workspace around that,” explains Stellmacher. “This way, the space is a conductor. People of different disciplines are integrated, and there is a new mix of spaces for people to work. We wanted to give the place a heart, and the employees a sense of wellbeing as an entity.”
Material reuse featured prominently on the eco-focused brief from USACE, as the demolition of a large warehouse on the site freed up tons of wood with the potential to be reappropriated. According to Stellmacher, ZGF explored the idea of using the material on the exterior, but there wasn’t enough, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Instead, the practice has created a rich, warm heart to the office with an indoor/outdoor atmosphere, enhanced by a steel-grid glass ceiling that brings even more natural light into the building. This channels the greener, earthier side of USACE’s corporate personality.
In addition to the reclaimed wood (which was also used in the foundations and structural system), the maximisation of daylight, and the sustainable renovation of the surrounding landscaped site, the list of eco credentials goes on. The water features and loos use rainwater harvested from the roof stored in a 100,000-litre cistern. There is 100% outside air intake – another boost to the indoor/outdoor feeling – and a built-in hydronic radiant heating and cooling system, as well as vertical and horizontal sun shades adorning the high performance glass and steel envelope.
Facing west on to the Duwamish river, both ends of the U-shaped building form harshly angular slopes. Barge workers floating past will see a gleaming, new-build that fits well with the site’s industrial past, while behind the glass, employees are having a coffee or a meeting in their cosy, wood-clad space. “It’s a contrast, but it really is a classic form-follows-function design,” says Stellmacher. “How it sits in the landscape, but also how it’s earnest, honest and personable, not overly slick. A good reflection of USACE and its work.”
Nestling unexpectedly next to Munich’s main power plant is the office of design group Designliga and its sister company, digital agency Form & Code.
Although dwarfed by the towering München Sud power station, Halle A – one of several workshops on the plant’s surrounding industrial estate – is a hangar-like 650sq m space with a 10m-high ceiling.
“We never imagined that we would have so much room,” says Christina Koepf, head of interior architecture and design at Designliga. The building’s cavernous dimensions inspired the construction of a pair of two-storey house-like structures within it. “The space is so big that you don’t really understand that you’re inside a building, so we thought ‘why not build things within it?’” says Koepf.
The smaller Gold House is constructed from brass Dibond aluminium composite panels; inhabited by Form & Code, it features a lounge on the first floor furnished with cushions and a sofa. The Gold House doubles as a giant room divider, splitting the main space into Designliga and Form & Code.
Along with a further two-storey block housing the kitchen, bathroom and meeting rooms, the Gold House and the White House form what Designliga calls The Village Square. It even has its own park bench and street lamp, and is surrounded by outlying ‘streets’ of desks.
In the morning, staff ride their bicycles right into the office through the wide metal doors, tethering their bikes in the square. “Once, we let a client drive their Ford Mustang through the office – clients love this place,” says Koepf. The village square extends into an open-plan library space, while a long, low storage cabinet winds around the periphery of the office, embracing the desk areas. “When we asked the staff what they wanted, the top two things were a proper kitchen and good storage. They got that – the cupboards are so big that they’re still half-empty,” says Koepf.
Koepf is seated in her own office on the top floor of the White House (co-founders Saša Stanojčić and Andreas Döhring occupy the ground floor). She sits at her trestle-style desk, opposite a mid-century modern domestic sideboard and homely rug, the roof sloping over her head. “I was so excited to move up into my little office. It feels more like an apartment, and people often come up here to relax and have a break.” Speaking of breaks, it’s nearly lunchtime at Designliga. When Koepf gets up and walks to the external metal staircase, she will look out, factory-foreman-style, on a vista of desks where people are busy producing logos, websites and interior design schemes for fashion, luxury and lifestyle labels including Adidas and Marc O’Polo.
Lunch is an important time of day for Designliga. A spacious, domestic-style kitchen boasts “a proper oven”, in place of the standard, slightly depressing office microwave. “Generally we have someone sending an email round in the morning saying, ‘I am cooking a meal today, with six platefuls if anyone wants to join me’,” says Koepf. “And in summer, we eat our food at the big outdoor table in our garden, where we have just started to grow vegetables and herbs. It’s great.”
Two years ago, Designliga was forced out of its home, a 1950s industrial building where Munich’s telephone directories were once printed. The place was torn down to make way for a complex of luxury flats, answering the real estate demands of a rapidly growing city. Designliga could have gone to the creative quarter of Munich, “but we wanted something different,” says Koepf. Döhring was walking his dog along Munich’s river Isar when he saw the building and thought it might do for Designliga. The group were later shown around Halle A by a concierge “who couldn’t believe we thought we could make this space into an office, but we took one look at it and said ‘this is the place’,” says Koepf. The company is surrounded by metalworking and carpentry shops, which pleases Koepf. “We like being the only design company here; we like being unique, and also to get away from design sometimes.”
In September 2011, Designliga and Form & Code moved in, having thoroughly cleaned the filthy interior. The floor was so dirty that Koepf initially thought it was all concrete. It transpired that much of the floor was wood block, which softens and warms the space. Designliga retained many original features, including bare brick walls, exposed crane tracks and the wall clock. “We painted the steelwork in harmonious whites and greys to fit in with the surrounding buildings. Also, the building speaks for itself so painting the walls lime green would have been too much,” says Koepf.
Despite its appeal, this mid-century industrial structure is not old enough to be listed, and Koepf says she can feel Munich’s properties developers “waiting around the corner” once their contract expires in five years. Munich’s ongoing property boom looks set to continue. “This is a prime piece of real estate, right next to the river,” says Koepf. She adds, “It is becoming increasingly difficult for creative companies, which do not earn huge amounts, to stay in the city, which is why everyone is moving to Berlin. We will stay here as long as possible because it has such a great atmosphere – and cities need places like this.”
KI’s Cornerstone is a new acoustic stacking screen system designed by Craig Jones. Designed to integrate with the UniteSE workplace collection and other furniture systems, the design brief for Cornerstone was to create a physical link between workstation, storage and screening to provide a natural progressive link into third space. Expansion and contraction in existing and new areas of workflow were fundamental to the design element, as was the use of acoustic materials and the ability to offer it on internal and external surfaces, allowing flexibility in colour, texture, functionality and budget.
Aberrant Architecture's Kevin Haley and David Chambers are well equipped to write about working on the move, not just because they were long nomadic workers themselves. So what can their recent research into the Victorian pub teach us about the future of public workplaces?
On the white walls of the Timberyard tea and coffee shop in Clerkenwell, a temporary exhibition called Forgotten Heritage by photographer Matt Emmett competes for attention with the flipcharts and Post-it notes brought along by a group of nearby office workers conducting an informal meeting. The use of these physical, paper-based relics appears both necessary and incongruous amid the MacBooks and iPads sitting on the nearby tables at London’s latest example of a mixed-use cafe and public workspace.
At ground level, Timberyard is a speciality tea and coffee place, while beneath, it is used more as a workspace. A glass skylight cut into the floor illuminates the variety of seating types and seating heights, from the comfortable armchair style seating to four-person tables, right up to a big boardroom-style area suitable for up to 12 people. The resin floors and bespoke furniture target a contemporary but clean design, purposely staying clear of the ‘Hoxton hipster’ vibe, explain Darren Elliott and Ruth Turner, the duo behind the Timberyard.
In keeping with the business model, Elliott and Turner have chosen to run their operation from a table on the lower ground floor – unbeknownst to many of their customers seated nearby. It is a great way of collecting ad-hoc feedback, they both say with almost guilty pleasure, since most of it has been positive so far.
Regulars to the space include start-ups and a string of local charities, mixing it up with the usual students, graphic designers and freelance journalists. “We have definitely filled a gap, especially in this area, where there is both a massive demand for meeting space and a shortage of supply. That keeps a constant trail of people coming through,” says Elliott.
Turner and Elliott designed Timberyard themselves after researching other spaces in London and what was being offered in progressive US cities like New York, Boston and San Francisco. “What we found when we went around London was that most existing sites are small and still designed in a traditional way for in-and-out takeout sales,” says Elliott. “For those with a secondary space, like an upstairs or downstairs, it tends to be a bit of an afterthought. They are places that you usually don’t want to sit in for any length of time.”
Timberyard represents a step beyond the repurposed coffee shops that only offer one type of environment and one activity. Even so, there is still much work to be done to create a viable ‘third space’ that offers a fit-for-purpose workplace in between the home and the office. Creating an effective public workspace involves far more than a congenial ambience. The focus for places like the Timberyard must be on the support infrastructure and design specifics of the office, such as security, storage and customisation.
Now that the technology is readily available, the demand for flexible working is going to keep increasing. Some two-thirds of people, both young and old, want to work occasionally from home, according to the NextGen report, a recent study by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC). The general trend cuts across all demographics and age groups, but the next generation of workers tend to view work as a ‘thing’ and not a ‘place’, the report says. For these younger employees, productivity should be measured by output and not hours spent at the office.
Home-working is the dominant type of flexible working and it has many benefits, particularly for anyone with a long commute or parents of young children. A recent report from the Women’s Business Council is urging the UK government and businesses to embrace flexible working as a way of continuing the advancement of women in the workplace.
Yet our extensive research in this area highlights the unique drawbacks a lack of human interaction can bring, such as stifled career development and social isolation among the rising number of single-person households. To demonstrate the issues that can often arise from home-working, in 2009 our practice set up a trade stand at the Shenzhen-Hong Kong bi-city biennale, selling fictional products and services that catered to the needs of China’s expanding group of flexible workers. The LunchBook mobile catering canteen provided a meal-time network for home-workers suffering from isolation and a lack of contact with colleagues, while the Commuter Computer was a set of bicycle pedals meant to be fitted beneath a home-worker’s desk to replicate the health benefits of cycling to the office. Also on offer were elevator doors that could be installed in a doorframe at home to separate home and work by recreating a sense of arrival at the office – complete with elevator music, LED lights and up to 60 floors of waiting time.
The products may have been fictional, but the issues of isolation, distraction and lack of direction were real. Over time, these issues will lead to a rising popularity of the public workspace, adding to the already sizeable number of nomadic workers – essentially a flexible worker without a fixed office; a subtle difference from the home worker, who has a fixed office, albeit at home.
A growth of public workspaces directly targeting traditional home-workers will continue to blur the lines between home workers and nomads. For example, the Treehouse in Brixton is a public workspace for parents: it offers a cafe, office and children’s play centre all under the same roof. An even more interesting development will arise if and when it becomes commonplace for the employees of big corporations to work flexibly out of coffee shops rather than home offices.
The immediate priority for these companies will surely be to protect commercially sensitive information and data security, but how much responsibility are these employers going to take for the design and working environment of these places? For one thing, optimal dining heights and working heights are different. So will we be seeing laptop wedges being made available behind the bar or counter to adjust table heights, perhaps sponsored by Barclays or HSBC?
Aberrant’s expertise in the public workplace is based on both our experience as nomadic workers and extensive research in this field, both of which are now informing our design work. Long before we moved into our Clerkenwell studio, we were living in and working out of the same building in Dalston. The drawbacks of home-working soon became an issue, prompting a local search for a suitable public workspace. The place we settled upon, Evin on Kingsland Road, is a traditional Turkish cafe, bar and restaurant, which we essentially repurposed as a public workplace. It wasn’t just the food that swayed us, so much as the fact that it had large tables where many people could work and eat at the same time. It was quiet, so we could concentrate, conduct meetings and talk about sensitive information. And we were guaranteed to get a table, a vital concern for the design of any successful third place (as much as it is a paradox: successfully meeting this criterion becomes harder to fulfil as the third space becomes more popular and successful).
For workers and businesses looking for certainty and a more office-like environment, there are a growing number of hub spaces in London. Before we moved into our own studio we worked from a hub in Greenwich. Some of the frequent irritations of a hub are storage, territory and access. Each day we would have to set up our office in the morning and pack it away in the evening, and not being able to work late into the evening was restrictive when deadlines were approaching. Ultimately, though, the deciding factor for many nomadic workers will be that these hubs look remarkably like a traditional fixed office.
It is important not to limit any discussion about public workspaces to coffee shops or hubs. For us, the third space should extend to far broader ‘public’ spaces where the same principles of design should apply, from hotel lobbies to pubs. At the same time, we should not pretend that these public workspaces are an entirely modern creation: many useful precedents from centuries ago can be applied to contemporary designs.
Until 2011, Old Street’s El Paso bar (left) depended solely on after-work and weekend drinkers. To increase the day trade we redesigned the interior to be a space suitable for nomadic workers, installing the obligatory plug points, lockers and large tables. Most importantly we created a variety of environments. A private mezzanine level, a residency area and a library offer a contrast to the open-plan public space, while a gallery in the basement hosts events and exhibitions.
We later developed these ideas of spatial division and multiplicity of usage in our pub table, launched at last year’s Salone in Milan, which is inspired by the traditional Victorian school tables with lifting tops and inkwells. The table has three modes of operation: in eating mode, it offers a large clean surface to dine and conduct meetings; in work mode, with the lid up, it provides a task light, a personalised territory and a semi-private space, while play mode breaks people away from their laptops to play a social and physically interactive game of pub skittles.
Elements of both these designs came out of the research we did a few years back when we became the inaugural architecture residents at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Searching through the V&A’s extensive library for historical examples of public workspaces, we made our main focus the Victorian pub. Lambeth’s now-demolished Elephant & Castle had a variety of different public and private environments, each with different entrances, designs and materials – from intimate comfy booths to standing areas with sawdust on the floor. Patrons chose the environment that best fitted the type of activity they were doing: a snuggery offered intimacy away from big open bars packed with standing people. Yet this was seclusion rather than exclusion, since the interior architecture allowed glimpses into the other bars and spaces, inviting the curious to explore the exciting worlds and sounds beyond every partition.
The Elephant & Castle acted as a meeting place, post office, job centre, games room, auction house, library, hotel, a bureau de change and a place where workers would get paid. Longer opening hours, from 5am to 12.30am, facilitated this intensity of use. Some pubs even acted as a kitchen, with evidence of a worker bringing his own steak to be cooked at the pub (patrons paid different prices for their drinks depending on the space they were in or the facilities they were using, and having a steak cooked in the pub kitchen required a pint of porter to be bought alongside it).
In the UK today, pubs are closing down because a business wholly reliant on drinking is no longer sustainable. Here the Elephant & Castle model of intensified usage is immediately relevant. The way the Victorian pub catered to the needs of the urban population can be repackaged for a contemporary society short of storage and living space, in which city dwellers increasingly prefer to share ownership of cars, power tools and even clothing.
To us, though, the lessons from the Victorian pub can inform the general design principle behind any public workspace. Most coffee shops turned workspaces try to squeeze it all into one space and make it a compromise all over, rather than offer a variety of spaces and variety of activities. For a third space to be an effective workspace for the modern nomadic worker, it needs to have a clear division of space and a variety of environments, facilitating multiple activities. This is where design comes in, particularly when space is limited.
Looking ahead, a key part of our focus at the moment is on customisation of the public workspace. We are already starting to see greater customisation in retail, where brands like Nike allow consumers to design and personalise their own trainer, so why not in the public workspace? We believe that a third space can be standardised and designed in a way that allows the user to modify it. Through this type of customisation, combined with a variety of environments and specific tools like lockers and laptop wedges, the nomadic worker will be able to assert ownership over a little part of the third space just like they can a car or a power drill, even if it is only for a few hours.
Aberrant Architecture will exhibit its recent research into public workplaces at the Domus Tiles showroom in Clerkenwell from 17-28 February 2014.
KI’s UniteSE is a comprehensive workplace collection made in the UK. The UniteSE collection unites KI’s proven storage ranges with new personal storage solutions, such as SpaceStation which received a Design Guild Mark award, and a new versatile workstation system. The collection combines a simple clean design with a well-engineered, highly robust and flexible construction. The UniteSE Workstations with height adjustable benches allow for flexible working whilst offering a range of options that can be tailored to specific modern day workplace requirements. The understructure of the UniteSE Workstation range provides a modular platform for the addition of multiple worksurface and screen options.
Making a third appearance at Clerkenwell Design Week, Morgan blurred the line between workplace and hospitality seating. Additions to the Modena collection included a sofa corner unit and compact lounge chair, pictured, providing versatile modularity to the range. Six new designs were showcased at the event, including the Lucca lounge chair, both with and without arms, plus a new light Soho armchair. All of the seating included a metal swivel base and identical orange fabric to highlight the unique design lines of each collection.
In its more traditional form, corporate art was often ineffectual decoration, bought to fill a gap or as an investment intended to reaffirm status. Now, developments in workplace design have loosened the reins on creativity in workplace art. Architects, designers and clients alike are realising its potential as a more expressive outlet for brand identity and an intrinsic part of an inspiring working environment.
A recent report by International Art Consultants (IAC) titled Making Art Work in the Workplace, which surveyed BCO members, says that the changing office landscape has had a dramatic impact on its artwork. Open-plan offices and flexible meeting pods are hardly ideal spots to hang a print, whereas “third spaces” provide the perfect spot to get creative – but this calls for artwork that thinks outside the frame. “We’ve definitely seen a development of new media, and the context is the changing nature of the workplace,” says Alex Heath, chairman of IAC. “There are fewer white walls, which means that there’s also less of a footprint available for traditional artwork.”
This, together with technological developments, has seen the definition of art broaden to include lighting, kinetic structures, interactive technology, graphics, acoustics, you name it – making the process of commissioning a far more populated minefield, and the experience, expertise and resources of art consultancies perhaps even more invaluable. Where studios like Jason Bruges and Cinimod are leading the way, there are plenty more cutting-edge designer/artists just waiting to be deployed on creative endeavours.
Mobile working has also had an impact, with companies using art to get employees to actually use the office, rather than working at home or in the coffee shop. “Art is now very much part of companies’ retention strategies,” claims Heath. “There is a real demand for things that will make the workplace more sophisticated and attractive.”
As a device for connecting employees as well as visitors with the space and the brand, workplace art is upping its game to make a lasting impression. “I have seen more and more ‘wow’ pieces that grab your attention,” says Rebecca Joseph, senior interior designer at Scott Brownrigg. “There’s less framed work and more installations. Designers are pushing the boundaries, and clients know they are a talking piece. If you can hold someone’s attention, they’ll remember you.” Crucially, many consultants are quick to urge that installation artwork cannot be an afterthought, as factors such as lighting and load-bearing need to be considered alongside the architecture.
Patrick Burrows, who runs consultancy Artsource (and also happens to be husband to Linda Morey-Smith of workplace designers MoreySmith) subscribes to the philosophy that corporate art should have depth, be challenging and start conversations. “When I started doing [consultancy], the art was a tick in the box. They needed art on the wall, so they’d put up a patterned rug and there was no real thought behind it. Don’t you think people expect a little bit more now?” Burrows worked with MoreySmith on the recently completed 123 Victoria Street for Land Securities, commissioning a kinetic artwork by Conrad Shawcross (left). The piece, inspired by the geometric forms of the neighbouring cathedral, not only has a wow factor but a story behind it.
This is also core to the work of collective and consultancy Acrylicize, which could also be accredited with making corporate art cool again. When commissioned by an architect or end client, the Shoreditch-based studio holds creative briefing sessions with the company staff to get under the skin of its unique brand identity. Then – either in-house or in collaboration with an external artist – it produces a fun, edgy, personalised artwork, using any type of media you can imagine, from speakers to Lego men to train tickets. “The world we live in is really saturated, so people are striving for a way to differentiate their identity,” says Acrylicise’s co-founder James Burke. “It’s not about brand guidelines it’s more about values and personality. A space tells so much about a company, and we are an essential part of that.”
The studio is currently working on a number of huge and high-profile projects (which are top secret for now), but Burke and fellow founder Paul Arad still admit the recession has made budgets lower but expectations higher. For them, like others, this means thinking more creatively with materials and production, and working with clients who understand the value of creative freedom. “I’ve found myself pleasantly surprised so many times, assuming that a traditional firm wouldn’t go for this sort of thing,” says Arad, “but actually, everyone is trying to rethink their identity.”
According to the IAC’s report, workplace art is more relevant than ever despite the economic downturn, but its motivations have shifted. Instead of being a decoration or a status symbol, companies are approaching the acquisition of art carefully and in a more meaningful way.
“Budgets for art are lower, so people want to be more creative about how they spend their money,” says Heath. Consultants are brought on board to organise temporary shows and artists in residence, or to curate existing work, rather than investing large sums on permanent work, “getting the benefits of art, but on a flexible basis,” he says.
Companies are also turning to emerging artists, to lower costs but also enhance social responsibility. For example, Michael Boitier, who runs Workplace Art Consultancy (WAC) consulted on law firm Clyde & Co’s London offices (designed by TP Bennett), which has an annual show of graduate artwork (for example Conall McAteer's QR code piece, shown above). Exhibitors are paid to take part and, perhaps more valuably, assigned a lawyer to give them free legal advice for a year. One participant is awarded a prize of £5,000. Such schemes may not have been deemed suitable before, but thanks to the shift in society’s attitude towards creativity in the workplace, they are now welcomed.
“Art is no longer just bought to match the carpet,” explains Boitier. “Clients are savvier. There are a growing number of art fairs, and people have far more access to art. This has made the job easier, as clients have an appreciation for it. It can also sometimes make it harder, but it’s never an onerous point.”
The ninth annual Worktech London conference takes place at the British Library on 14-15 November, exploring the convergence of technology, real estate and the workplace.
A range of masterclasses on day one will cover topics such as Psychological Wellbeing at Work and Living Stages: What Can Workplaces Learn From Theatre Design? On day two, a programme of talks chaired by Jeremy Myerson of the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design, features keynote speakers Chris Waugh, director at IDEO, Cisco director Peter Escery Merrens and authors Alan Moore and John Williams.
For more information visit unwired.eu.com
onoffice readers can get a 20% discount on tickets, just click here
The Workplace Trends Conference, now in its 10th year, focuses on the examination of new ways of working, taking into account technological advances, socio-demographics, social media, economic markets, sustainable construction, security and much else.
Speakers this year include Jane Abraham from the European Centre for the Environment and Human Health, Paul Morrell, the Government’s chief construction adviser, and onoffice columnist Neil Usher from Rio Tinto, chaired by Nigel Oseland of Workplace Unlimited (bottom left) and Philip Tidd of Gensler (top left).
Optional office tours will take place on 26 October at PricewaterhouseCoopers, Lend Lease (above - photograph by Will Pryce) and Unison HQ. The conference itself takes place on 25 October at One Bishop’s Square, London. Visit workplacetrends.co.uk to book tickets.
Nic Marks, master statistician, is on a mission to make the workplace happy. This undertaking falls into the wider remit of Marks’ work, heading up the Centre for Well-being at UK thinktank NEF (the New Economics Foundation). The centre, set in a converted outhouse in Vauxhall, is the largest centre implementing applied wellbeing in the world. Inside, researchers innovate to promote social change.
The driver for the centre, launched by Marks ten years ago, was the will to put the wellbeing of people and the planet at the heart of policy making. Its challenge was to develop the research methods and tools to make this shift.
“There was a weakness in the current system; of collapsing what life is about into the economy,” says Marks. “Measuring success by growth is a system that’s dependent on us consuming more and more a year; it’s a merry go round that’s hard to get off.”
His search for alternate indicators to GDP (or productivity) led Marks to create the Happy Planet Index, a global index of human wellbeing and environmental impact. Last year he delivered a TED talk, since viewed on TED’s website over half a million times, about how, on the scale of contentment versus consumption, Costa Rica comes out laughing, compared to its higher-income counterparts. “Our agenda asks the purpose of society,” says Marks. “It’s a fun question to engage with, especially when cracks in the dominant economic system are beginning to show, in Occupy and the recent riots for example. We’re not going to go backwards; you cannot imagine a world without business, and large systems in place. But we can see and grow totally new ways of working.
“The centre is not just about ideas,” he continues. “It’s about making ideas operational, giving them traction and implementing them.” Transferring hard statistical knowledge to an organisational context requires a mix of soft and hard skills. Marks has qualifications in management, research and system change and is a trained psychotherapist, but he started out in business and consultancy.
A few years ago he started to think about work. “People spend a large amount of their waking hours at work. What is interesting about a workplace is that it is a complete and bounded system; from a statistical perspective, you can measure the whole system. It is harder to reach people in work with public policy than children, older people or people who depend on the state. A good way to engage them is at work.”
Based on more than a decade of research, NEF has launched the The Happiness at Work Survey (www.happinessatworksurvey.com), an innovative tool designed to both inspire and facilitate change to work culture. Staff surveys don’t have a great reputation – research shows that although organisations recognise their importance, they are not getting value from them, and that even though 50% of workplaces carry them out, 80% of staff see no difference as a result. The Happiness at Work Survey assesses and scores the different facets of working life, and shows where you sit on an average happiness scale, based on the result of a national benchmarking survey. Participants can see their own results instantly, and view results for their team (or whole organisation) the moment the survey closes, so there’s no sense of HR going off for months to collate information and everybody forgetting it ever happened. And although results are transparent, they are also confidential.
“The survey is to put up a mirror what’s going on in an organisation, and to open a window into a whole new possible space, and a different way of working together,” says Marks. “It’s to help bring about revolutionary changes, not just marginal ones.” Once the survey is done, NEF suggests running a results workshop for participants, then creating an action plan for where to go next. Early adopters include recruitment agency The Works, the Coal Authority and North Central London NHS.
The tool was launched in spring at ad agency Mother in Shoreditch, and also at Westminster in the company of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Wellbeing Economics. In attendance was US entrepreneur Tony Hsieh, leader of the Delivering Happiness movement, co-developers of the survey. Hsieh developed an advertising network called LinkExchange, which sold to Microsoft for over $250m, with a two-year golden handcuff, but after three months he walked out and vowed never to work in an organisation he didn’t enjoy. Happiness is the business model behind his most recent venture, online shoe company Zappos, which sold to Amazon in 2009 for over $1bn. Hsieh remains CEO, operating on the motto “make people happy and great things will happen”. The two policies for his customer service staff are “be yourself” and “use your own judgement”, ie no reading from scripts or placing limits on how long a sales call can last (the longest, for the record, was eight and a half hours). “The strategy is to over-deliver on relationships,” Marks explains.
The arguments for happiness at work are synonymous for business and the economy. “When people are happier, they are more energetic, focused, better at building good relationships,” Marks explains. “People create better jobs for themselves.”
In terms of design, you can build wellbeing into space, but too often it’s done on a post hoc basis. “Creating points for reflection, points to be active, including beautiful spaces for walking and meetings are all ways of helping people lead happier lives at work,” Marks explains. “It comes back to the five simple actions that can improve wellbeing in everyday life: connect, be active, take notice, keep learning and give. Good design can free up space for social connectedness, while giving at work can be through links to local community projects, and allowing people to volunteer on company time, but it can be simpler than that – teams giving to other teams, for example.”
Using the workplace to shape wellbeing needs designers and directors to unite. Go on. Be happy.