“It’s clear that 10 Downing Street isn’t fit for purpose and much of the muddled decision-making afflicting the U.K. Government may stem from not having a proper office to work out of.” So said Andrew Mawson, managing director of global management consultancy, Advanced Workplace Associates.
It is a valid point. Numbers 10, 11 and 12 Downing Street comprise a cramped seventeenth-century complex of over 100 rooms, including the Prime Minister’s flat. “No major corporation – or indeed government department – operates from a largely unreconstructed 300-year-old building or has the CEO living above the shop,” Mawson added.
It gives rise to the question: How does modern office architecture impact working relationships and decision making, and what does the optimum workspace look like for today’s cohort of more demanding, increasingly hybrid, workers?
Digital technology company, Sensat has redesigned its office in Old Street, London to accommodate its post-pandemic hybrid working structure. Due to open in September 2022, it has been designed around the idea that when teams meet physically, it should be solely to interact and mingle. “We believe that to best support our employees when we come together to work and socialize, this space should promote collaboration and the celebration of our culture and achievements as a team,” said Sophie Martin, senior people partner, Sensat. “The new space will feature coffee bars, sofa areas, thinking spaces and more meeting rooms.”
It will also feature fewer desks. Instead, people will gather primarily for planning sessions, blue sky thinking days and Team Power Hours. Sensat is not even labelling the new space an “office” – Martin said they want a café vibe and have instead named it, curiously, The Dog On The Moon.
A reduced number of desks is a trend being seen globally. Jonathan Webb, director at Wisconsin-based KI, which manufactures innovative furniture and architectural walls for corporate markets, said fewer workstations is one of the biggest changes he has seen in the U.S. “Prior to the pandemic 99% of KI’s clients were 1:1, meaning for every FTE [Full Time Equivalent] hired they provided a personal workstation for that employee.” The advent of hybrid working has changed this, and Webb said organizations are recognizing the importance of creating spaces that promote interaction and engagement.
Employee experience platform, Nexthink has also redesigned its headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, with hybrid and flexible working at its heart. “The older office style was not conducive to the flexibility we now need ‘post-pandemic’,” said Meg Donovan, chief people officer, Nexthink. “The number of employees in the office changes drastically day-to-day, so we needed a space that could be agile enough to keep up with that.”
The Nexthink HQ now has 196 workstations, representing one workstation for every 1.5 employees. The company will have many collaborative spaces, meeting rooms, bubbles and soft seating spaces where each person can work. “We can therefore easily accommodate the 300 employees we currently have in Lausanne, but also Nexthinkers from abroad,” said Donovan.
More informal workspaces are certainly growing in popularity. Lucy Minton, chief operating officer and founder of London-based managed office platform, Kitt, which has helped companies including Oatly and PZ Cussons create hybrid workspaces, said many companies – particularly scaling businesses – are adapting a 3:2 split with three dedicated in-office days. “When you’re growing a business at its early stage, off-hand communication and over-the-desk hearsay can be extremely valuable. With this in mind, office space should focus on providing flexibility for these teams, prioritizing spaces for collaboration and innovation with the addition of soft seating areas, touchdown points and meeting rooms.”
She added that Oatly’s London HQ now incorporates different “zones” including multiple areas for group work and a Scandinavian coffee-shop-inspired meeting area. “Collaboration has been the buzzword of the return to the office conversation, but it’s not as simple as just opening up the floorplan – it’s about understanding what types of collaboration happen between teams and building the space around that.”
Key to this is recognizing which teams interact most closely or frequently. For example, Nexthink’s Lausanne HQ is organized into “neighborhoods,” grouping each team with the teams they collaborate with most. Lucia Prado, design and consultancy project manager at Paris-based international commercial interiors specialist, Agilité, whose clients include LinkedIn, said, “While the layout of the space may be reflective of the organizational chart – with a nod to company objectives and growth plans – there needs to also be thought given to clustering, and the need for easy connection between departments.”
But companies must not only find compelling ways of attracting existing employees back to the office: There is also a fierce war for talent, and a state-of-the-art workspace will help to give businesses the edge. A global survey by Protiviti and NC State University in December 2021 showed that attracting and retaining top talent is one of the top five concerns of business leaders this year and in the coming decade.
This relies not just on embracing hybrid working, but in creating a modern and inviting workspace. Prado said, “The workplace design challenge now centers around making a space which employees want to visit – beyond the need to turn on a PC, reply to emails and do their online work. Because we know that now can be done from the comfort of their home.”
She added that the office needs to be repositioned as the beating heart of a company, where colleagues spend face-to-face time with each other, clients and management. “In short, the office should complement what the home can’t provide. That could be privacy, a space for concentration, open communication, fast internet, well-being zones, or even psychological safety – due to the ‘opening’ hours of the space.”
Fun is also important, according to Laura Stephens, junior designer at Bath-based workplace design company, Interaction, in the U.K. “We’ve always campaigned to banish boring offices and the good news is most employees will no longer put up with a sub-par workplace.” She added that the best talent is being snapped up by organizations that give people the best of both worlds – the freedom to work from home and an office-based community with which to connect.
In May 2022, Interaction built an indoor scooter circuit for Bristol, U.K.-based cyber security company, Immersive Labs, enabling employees to set lap times around the office. It is a feature that doubtless would have been welcomed by the current incumbent at 10 Downing Street – could it even have altered his fate?