Office: Focus - Q&A: Colin Burry, Gensler

Cathy Hayward talks to designers in the workplace design space and looks at some of the most exciting upcoming projects.

Edited By Cathy Hayward

What are your thoughts currently on office design and what do clients now require from architects and designers since Covid?

There has been a significant shift that has not only impacted physical spaces but also the way businesses operate. In some ways, it has been an exciting time for the industry as it has ushered in a new era of design thinking and innovation. However, it is also quite concerning because the reality is that some clients no longer require as much space as before, leading to a seemingly contracting or stalled market.

The transition from full-time office work to hybrid models has brought about a pivotal change in workplace design, with companies exploring new approaches. We are still grappling with questions about the actual space requirements and the procedures needed to ensure that we remain connected and productive. Given that a significant portion of people’s work week is now virtual, how do we effectively manage and lead in this hybrid world? Which tasks can be carried out digitally, and which are better suited for in-person interactions, such as design charettes? How do managers need to adapt their leadership style to respond to this new reality, beyond simply monitoring the number of days employees spend in the office? Ultimately, what does this mean for physical space in our world?

Currently, and in the past few years, projects have been primarily driven by efficiency, budget and schedule, often neglecting the need for creativity and adaptability in today’s reality. We must shift towards a more strategic exploration of the purpose of the office today and in the future, in addition to considering quantitative factors. Innovation cannot solely stem from monitoring budgets and schedules.

We should be asking ourselves why people go to the office and what they need when they are there. Additionally, how can we consider a person’s entire life, encompassing both work and personal time, to design an ecosystem that enables them to perform at their best? In the past, there were clear boundaries between work and personal life, but now those lines have become blurred, if not completely disappeared. As society shifts towards the concept of ‘bringing your whole self to work’, how can the physical space, as well as best business practices, procedures and employment laws, facilitate that?

Recognising that the hybrid model is here to stay is crucial, and our clients understand that being great designers alone is no longer sufficient. Understanding the strategic component is paramount – we must act as partners, assisting them in finding the right solutions while considering the new world in which we live and work.

How proactive are clients on thinking ahead for projects for next year or beyond?

Some clients approached us early in the pandemic with a clear vision of the future in the post-pandemic world, and we developed innovative work models and standards for them. However they were the exception rather than the norm, as many clients chose to wait and observe how things would unfold. We are still in the process of formulating a strategy to optimise their portfolios and right-size the spaces for hybrid work.

This situation reminds me of the retail industry, where the rise of online shopping and the impact of the pandemic led to a significant decline in bricks-and-mortar stores. At that time, everyone mourned the loss of retail stores. However, fast forward to today, and retail has become the most thriving sector in real estate and architecture/design. In the workplace sector, we find ourselves at a similar turning point as retail did 5–10 years ago. With a shift in our approach and collective leadership in the coming years, the office sector will regain its prominence. Regardless, it will undoubtedly be vastly different from what it has been.

What would you say are the seismic changes from office design pre-Covid and now?

Every significant change or economic downturn tends to give rise to new workplace models and design trends. Nowadays, it is less about physical desks and more about creating spaces where people can come together, meet and work with digital equity, whether they are attending a meeting in person or from home.

The traditional corporate office no longer suffices, as one client aptly described endless rows of sit/stand desks as ‘seas of sadness’. People now have a multitude of choices regarding where and how they work, so the office environment must offer greater diversity. Many tech companies have successfully achieved this. Airbnb stands out as a prime example of an office environment where their mission becomes evident the moment you step through the door. Their office design effectively showcases their values and what they represent, while also providing their talent with options for where and how to work.

We are also experiencing a pivotal shift in our approach to design from an environmental perspective. Our industry accounts for 40 percent of carbon emissions, a pressing issue that demands serious attention and action from all of us. Carbon tracking has triggered a significant transformation, leading to drastically different expectations for us and our industry partners.

While this problem has persisted for a long time,people are now giving it the attention it deserves, and together, we are exploring the most effective approaches. How can we achieve this? Of course, there are various certifications clients can obtain, such as LEED, WELL, BREEAM and others. However, many companies are asking themselves, ‘What can we do beyond these checklists to make a greater impact?’. We are working diligently internally and with our clients to navigate this challenge. As a design community, we need to collaborate and pool our best practices and learnings to achieve success together.

What have been the biggest design challenges and opportunities to emerge from the shift in the role of the office in recent years?

The approach to design as a whole has changed. The days of providing large physical footprints with scattered amenity spaces and dedicated areas for desks and meeting rooms are behind us. Now, the focus is on offering a diverse range of different types of spaces.

This shift in design approach is supported by findings from Gensler’s latest workplace survey. In the UK, more than four in five office workers who have a positive workplace experience attribute it to having the freedom to choose where they work within their office. It is crucial for our clients to pay attention to this data, especially those who are keen on encouraging employees to return to the office more frequently. When it comes to hybrid workers, 78 percent of them would be willing to come into the office more often if they were provided with the right experiences, and 22 percent even expressed a willingness to return full-time. Spaces that facilitate rest, quiet individual work and creative collaboration have the most significant impact on the overall workplace experience.

Despite taking a pandemic-induced hit, offices may soon see a resurgence. Image Credit: Ben Tynegate

What key exhibitions, events or other sources help to keep you inspired?

The purpose of trade shows has evolved, much like the purpose of offices. They now focus on bringing people together and fostering a sense of community. Given the current environmental concerns, many are questioning whether trade shows are a sustainable use of resources. One global trade show that stands out is Salone del Mobile in Milan, which transcends mere commercial endeavors. It is renowned as a gathering place for the global ‘design tribe’, where inspiration flows and connections are made. Additionally, we are witnessing the emergence of local trade fairs. An excellent example is the Workspace Design Show in London, which, despite being only two years old, has achieved remarkable success by addressing the specific needs of the workplace sector.

Living in London, I find tremendous inspiration in the city’s rich cultural history and vibrant art scene. I frequently attend art exhibitions, ballet performances, symphonies and theatre productions. These experiences serve as some of my greatest sources of inspiration. As an experientialist, I believe that immersing oneself in the real world keeps the creative juices flowing. It’s essential to look up from our mobile phones and pay attention to the world around us. By doing so, we can encounter incredible moments and experiences, rather than daydreaming about someone else’s perfect beach vacation showcased on Instagram. This is how I sustain my inspiration. In many ways, the less we confine ourselves to our industry’s bubble and the more we explore outside influences, the better equipped we are to create original designs.

Can you remember Niels Torp’s vision of a new office landscape 30 years ago at BA’s Waterside? Was this the most radical thinking on offices to date?

The British Airways project was intriguing because it embraced activity-based planning (ABW), which was considered highly progressive at the time. It sparked discussions about the ‘demise of the office’ when offices were predominantly static, hierarchical and lacking inclusivity. The project proposed the concept of a central spine, akin to a runway, where a variety of activities, amenities and communal spaces were located. Branching off from this spine were neighbourhood buildings, or ‘wings’, housing traditional offices, meeting rooms and workstations. When combined, it formed a comprehensive ecosystem for work.

Over the past few decades, many design and strategy firms worldwide have built upon this thinking. Silicon Valley, in particular, wholeheartedly embraced it, and when I relocated to San Francisco in 1995, it was the prevailing trend. At the time, this approach was radical and remained relevant for companies that recognised the impact space had on their talent’s effectiveness. Previously, individuals were not catered to adequately, as there was a tendency to adopt a one-size-fits-all approach for ease of space management. ABW initiated a shift toward truly user-centric space design. It is no longer solely about meeting the needs of the majority, but about providing the right experience for every individual using the space – a concept that aligns with the current buzzword, ‘inclusive’.

This paradigm shift is currently underway, aiming to entice people back to the office by offering something distinct from what they have at home and creating meaningful experiences for everyone. As an industry, we must pool our collective expertise to guide our clients through this transition. Are we truly listening to our clients, end users and each other? Are we genuinely contributing to building a collective community?

Activity-based planning or agile work models that incorporate social and meeting spaces with a range of amenities are essential for fostering a sense of belonging. This need is more pronounced than ever, especially as a significant portion of people’s work time is spent remotely. When they do come into the office, establishing strong connections among colleagues becomes crucial. It is akin to finding one’s tribe and feeling a part of an organisation that shares one’s values. The organisation must visibly embody those values throughout the space to forge a strong connection with its members.

In today’s era, we often find ourselves in echo chambers where AI and social media algorithms cater to our specific interests, shielding us from challenging ideas outside our norm. Simultaneously, co-creation is on the rise, and we are designing alongside our clients and end users. To gain a deeper understanding of their needs, we must look beyond ourselves and establish closer relationships with the people we design for.

Which office design, or other project, has inspired or influenced your own creative thinking?

For me, this is a challenging question because I find inspiration every day from the new projects and the incredibly talented designers I have the privilege of working with. However, looking back to my early days as a young student and designer living in California, I was particularly inspired by the rise of Deconstructivism, Postmodernism and Memphis. Many of the influential figures leading these movements were based in Los Angeles, where I attended university.

As someone who grew up as a Canadian punk rocker in the 70s and 80s, I was drawn to the rule-breaking and mind-opening approach of these individuals and the new design and architectural movements they spearheaded. I couldn’t get enough of admiring the remarkable projects around me and attending lectures by renowned figures like Frank Gehry or Morphosis. They were truly pushing boundaries and thinking differently.

Later in my career, during my time in San Francisco, I witnessed fascinating shifts in design and workplace models following each recession. These transformations were driven by what were then considered ‘unicorns’ – companies like Facebook, Airbnb and Google. A new generation of entrepreneurs were charting new paths for business and driving innovation in workplace design. These tech companies had high expectations and were willing to invest in creating exceptional spaces. They saw space as a value-add rather than just an operational expense. Their goal was to attract the best talent and enable their organisations to thrive. Living through these changes in the Bay Area was an incredible source of inspiration, and witnessing our industry rise to the occasion was truly remarkable.

In the face of today’s uncertainty, we must recognise that it presents opportunities for tomorrow. As an industry, are we leading the way? Are we true partners on the journey with our clients? Are we helping them navigate the new realities of the current business climate? Most importantly, are we actively listening and embracing change? I believe that together, we can accomplish these goals and shape a better future.

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