Creatively designed office building with people working across lots of different spaces

Spaces that work

From hybrid spaces to workplaces as an expression of company culture, Universal Design Studio discusses the future of the office

It may be hard to imagine this right now in some parts of the world, but there will be a day when we will be allowed to go back to the office. We will be able to talk to our colleagues at the coffee machine, and hold meetings in real spaces rather than on Microsoft Teams.

Despite much discussion about the perks of working from home, the pandemic has proven that there are many reasons why we still need the office. Humans are social beings who need interaction to thrive.

While technology may mean that many people will be able to choose to spend less time in the office overall, it is safe to say that we are yet to see the death of the office.

More likely the events of the past year have presented the office with an opportunity for a rebirth. Can we reimagine workspaces as places that (pun not intended) work for us, that are imbued with our values and beliefs, and adapt to changing needs? We examine three takes on how offices could change for the better:

A human-centric approach

A general shift in how we see work itself has started to shape the spaces we occupy to do it. We are shifting away from the standard 9-5 towards a more fluid work life that focuses on personal fulfilment, growth, purpose and life-long learning. Non-linear careers have become the standard rather than the exception. To many, the idea of working eight hours in an office, every day, seems more and more absurd – a feeling that will have deepened through the pandemic. We want to feel connected with our work and who we work for, we want to feel part of something bigger. For workspace design, that has meant a move from functional design to something that is more comfortable and friendly.

Research supports the notion that in order to be our most productive, we need to have spaces for focussed and solitary work, as well as spaces for interaction and serendipitous encounters. While the twentieth century has been all about open plan workspaces, it is slowly coming to light that this may be counterproductive to work, generating too much noise, distraction and anonymity. No one type of environment is right for all types of work, instead a more balanced approach that gives workers a variety of spaces to choose from is required.

To this end, the choice of materials and furniture is as important as aspects such as acoustics, air quality and light levels. Warm and natural materials instil a sense of calm and comfort, while light levels can dial our energy levels up or down.

What is becoming very clear is the role that workspaces play in our societies. They are the places where people meet, discuss, share, and where decisions are made. They are the cornerstones of our economies, but also the stages for our collective endeavours. They bring people together from different age groups and different walks of life. They expand our horizons and provide a shared sense of purpose. The digital space is yet to create the same sense of camaraderie that a simple shared lunch can provide.

We have missed the rich experience of collaboration in physical shared spaces during the pandemic. Without the possibility to meet and exchange in person and the chance encounters that leads to; we lack the more intuitive creativity and socialising that enriches our working lives and our relationships beyond the home. For us, providing for a range of stimulating spaces that offer different modes and paces allows us to dial up or down a particular quality or experience and can lead to a more intuitive creativity. Our workspaces should support this more agile approach

Paul Gulati, Universal Design Studio

The experience of living through the pandemic will have us emerge with a heightened sense of what we want from life, and has heightened the importance of spending our time well. The collective experience of crisis will accelerate people’s need for purpose and meaning, and the architecture that we inhabit will need to nurture us and engage with us on an emotional level. Workspaces that foster connection, exchange – of knowledge, skills and ideas – that give back and create meaning for users will lead the way in the future.

Workplace design as an expression of company culture

Offices have long stopped being solely functional spaces – they have licence to be characterful, beautiful and comfortable. Following the lead from coworking brands like WeWork, NeueHouse and The Office Group, which use design-led spaces to galvanise their tribes around them and stand out from the crowd, businesses are recognising that their workspaces hold the potential to express what they stand for through architecture and design, as well as to attract and retain top talent.

The current crisis might actually accelerate the need for offices to become company homes: places for employees to reconnect and re-engage with each other, clients and industry specialists. These spaces will provide a feeling of belonging to an increasingly remote workforce, a place to visit less often but with more intent.

One of the most notable examples of this is Apple’s campus in California, the impressive, large donut-shaped building, is set into a lush, landscaped park, and is in line with the company’s ethos and values of the highest design quality, innovation and relentless attention to detail. Like an oversized Apple laptop it emits a sense of perfection and seamless operations, while the majority timber-lined shared spaces feel accessible and collaborative.

Workspaces are the cornerstones of our economy. They are the spaces where people meet, collaborate, make decisions and affect the path of their company and the economy. Design can be transformative in its effects, impacting our daily lives in small yet meaningful ways; making a task easier or more enjoyable and heightening our concentration or allowing for productive teamwork. Design can also express, and in turn, shape a company’s culture positively.

Our work with British Land on its flagship project 100 Liverpool Street has transformed the way we think about a corporate lobby space. Instead of building a traditional space which can be cold and intimidating, we tried to view it as an extension of the public realm, inviting the public in, in order to humanise an otherwise potentially uninviting experience. An espresso bar will provide a point of activation – socially as well as olfactory – and signals the shifts happening in corporate culture.

The shape of our spaces shapes our thoughts and feelings. Being cooped up in your house might not be the most nurturing ground for ideas – you need to counterbalance this more introspective environment with one that gives you a different, bigger perspective

Cathrin Walczyk, Head of Design Research, Universal Design Studio

New hybrids

Our existence is becoming increasingly fluid as we constantly switch between identities and roles. And the future of the office lies in making sure that it is not siloed to a solely work function. Decades from now, we may see standalone office space as a thing of the past – ‘the place where I work’ may be replaced by ‘one of the places where I work, and where other activities happen, too’. We believe that hybrid typologies will form a key answer for the future resilience of buildings.

Businesses have started responding to this shift by merging and mixing functions. Some do this intuitively and organically, like the now ubiquitous typology of the bike shop-café, others in more calculated ways, like large fashion brands which increasingly include food and beverage areas in their stores to increase dwell time and footfall (Arket in London’s Covent Garden, for example).

At a macro scale, local neighbourhoods are also starting to mix functions again. Urban farms and micro fulfilment hubs are an example of this. We are seeing new ways of using the fabric of the city in response to economic and environmental conditions. The current ghostly state of the once buzzing centres of business is a stark reminder of a need to review our cities’ monoculture of functions.

Two people sitting on the floor watching a screen showing a green light

In the context of workspaces, the hybrid approach might well mean that they will merge with other spaces – retail, hospitality, or education. As we all look to working locally, spaces which traverse multiple uses can take shape as ad hoc working environments. If we design spaces that are able to transform and flex, that can be used by a variety of user groups for a variety of functions, then we are writing adaptability, resilience and sustainability into their very DNA.

Like the shiny espresso machines we see in many fashion boutiques nowadays (a hybridisation of hospitality and retail that seemed radical when it first appeared, but has since become a common feature) an inventiveness and creativity in mixing functions might transform the way we do everyday activities.

Can we use hybrid workspace typologies to generate social innovation? Can we find new mixes that will respond to today’s economic and societal challenges? Can we imagine workspaces that serve local communities, satisfy our need for purpose and engagement, and fix some of the world’s ailments in the process? We would like to think that we can.

Learn more about Universal Design Studio and how they can help rethink your workspace

Universal Design Studio

published on

04 May 2021



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