Post-pandemic office design: people think differently now; so must we

Workplace Interiors Director Gavin King recently joined Chapman Taylor’s Manchester studio to reinforce and expand the company’s capability in the workplace sector. With more than 25 years of award-winning experience working as an interior designer with global clients, government agencies, academia and professional services organisations, Gavin passionately believes in working with clients and collaboratively including them in the design process. He has a keen interest in how design can support business change, believing there is a need to focus on delivering economically successful projects that support clients in their business objectives.

Below, Gavin talks about the need to put human beings at the centre of workplace interior design, post-pandemic, using the core values of an organisation to determine the appropriate shape of working environments while also considering the real benefits of retrofit.

Giving people reasons to return to their workplaces

One of the key reasons I joined Chapman Taylor was because they share many of my ideas on people-centred design and have an inspiring ambition to become one of the leading names in the workplace design and consultancy sector across the UK and beyond. In particular, combining our complementary skill sets and experience, we want to pioneer a new generation of flexible, wellbeing-friendly and user-centred workplaces for our clients.

Designers and business owners need a more organic approach, post-COVID, and will have to provide reasons for their employees wanting to come into the office; otherwise, people will often prefer to just work from home and avoid the hassle of the commute.

We carried out an attitudes survey with a recent client, and the top reason for wanting to come back to a workspace was social interaction and the ability to better communicate, such as being able to pick up on body language and other social cues. Pre-COVID, it was typically the finance team that wanted to be in the office, but they now find they can work perfectly well from home; it is the likes of marketing and design teams that want to come back to collaborate.

Individuals will be coming back for different reasons, but our philosophy is that design happens with you, not to you. We like to get to know our clients and the end users really well because we are designing for human beings, and it is important to know who they are to ensure our design is right for them. Employees returning to work need to feel that the design of their workplaces reflects them and their values.

Wellbeing

The trend towards creating a “home from home” feel in the office was under way before the pandemic, but it is now becoming more important. The emphasis is now to show employees that things which affects mental and physical wellbeing, such as air quality and acoustics, are being tackled in office design.

Key elements of that approach include relaxing colour and material palettes, comfortable furnishings, natural light, biophilic elements such as plants and water features and interesting or fun design details. The combination of these elements will vary from one project to another, and it is always vital that the end users themselves are involved in the process of choosing which combination works best for them, given that it is they who will spend the best part of their week within the environment we design.

In terms of physical health, we have been talking to several clients who are interested in how offices can adapt to cut down on the spread of germs, including potential new forms of virus that might emerge. We are considering a diverse range of approaches, including looking at materials that have anti-microbial properties and easy-wipe surfaces. Tools at our disposal include:

  • Incorporating copper and copper alloys, which are naturally anti-microbial
  • Silver ion coatings for fabrics, metals and other surfaces, which also kill microbes.
  • Anti-microbial fabrics and filaments such as Trevira (which is silver-based).
  • Air filtration to remove pathogens from the interior environment – well-chosen filtration technology and well-placed exhaust outlets are key. New, proactive technologies such as photohydroionisation are very effective.
  • Touch-free, sensor-controlled functionality, such as for lights and doors.

The pandemic has been hard on everyone, so a bit of whimsy, like a billiards table in the corner of the office, can be a great thing if it helps contribute to the overall wellbeing of the people who use the space. However, it must be backed up with strategic thinking, where the resulting environment helps people to do their jobs better and enjoy them more.

Our workplace designs reflect some of our key Responsible Design principles, including working towards WELL® Building Standard accreditation in many cases. This approach offers further opportunities to boost the wellbeing of the end users of the spaces we design, with all the benefits that delivers in terms of contentment, productivity and attracting/retaining the best talent

Reimagining the working environment

The design of working environments is crucially important; not just in terms of physical and mental wellbeing, but also in terms of the functional efficiency and culture of the business. Offices will need to be more bespoke for clients and an embodiment of ideas that they hold dear.

We truly relish working with businesses to expand their understanding of the sorts of spaces they need as an organisation, while getting away from the tradition of people or departments working in silos. Our experience has been that clients really do need, and appreciate, our help in this area. It is not just about what you need to function adequately, it is about what environment you want to create for the best performance in your organisation.

Workplaces are grappling with profound changes, which were already occurring but which the pandemic has accelerated rapidly. Many companies are rethinking their space needs and their layouts in response to the sudden mass-acceptance of remote working as part of the working week. Offices will evolve more rapidly to support the culture of its tenants while offering a more agile, more flexible and more attractive way of working for both employers and employees. This will mean that we, as designers, must approach each design, whether a new office or a refurbishment, without preconceptions, looking to create bespoke solutions which suit the people, culture and working style of each specific client.

Our job as designers is to ensure that people don’t have to battle the workspace; you do not want to put anything into an office that prevents workers from doing their jobs well. It is all about empowerment and encouraging behavioural change. Individuals need to be able to move between spaces, if their task requires it – perhaps to a quiet area to think more clearly, or to more collaborative spaces to discuss ideas with colleagues. I hate the concept of “hot-desking”; I would rather have “not desking”, so people can move around more freely. Thinking in terms of desks is counterproductive.

Universities are also experiencing change, including a move away from the concept of academics working in one-person offices, with all the impact that format has on heating and cooling emissions, particularly when they are only used 10% of the time. The goal should be to build only the amount of space you need to use and to be sustainable and climate-aware. One-person offices are not environmentally or financially the best solution.

Behavioural change also covers teaching people how to get the best out of their new workplace. Acknowledging the need to manage the changes in how people work is key to the success of a project. People need support during the transition to new ways of working, and that is even more important as the commercial workplace sector attempts to reassess what an office needs to be.

* This is an expanded and edited paper based on an article for which Gavin was interviewed by the Future Cities Forum in July 2021.

Gavin King

Director, UK

Gavin joined Chapman Taylor in 2021 to help reinforce and expand our capability in the office sector, in which he has more than 25 years of award-winning experience working as an Interior Designer with global clients, government agencies, academia and professional services organisations.

Having worked on projects with a diverse range of well-known clients, Gavin has extensive experience of leading multidisciplinary teams and is frequently invited to contribute to roundtable discussions and networking events. He is able to quickly build strong relationships with clients and end users and excels at briefing and engagement.

Gavin passionately believes in working with clients and collaboratively including them in the design process, and he has a keen interest in how design can support business change, believing there is a need to focus on delivering economically successful projects that support clients in their business objectives.

Areas of expertise:

Interiors / Office / Mixed-Use / Project Leadership / Client Liaison / Delivery

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