Office: Focus - Q&A: May Fawzy, MF Studio

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?

The Covid-19 pandemic has significantly impacted the way we perceive and design office spaces. Clients now prioritise measures that promote their people’s health and wellbeing and put them at the forefront of a project. Great consideration is given to improving the quality of space; fresh air, natural light, ventilation, integration of nature and biophilic design, integration of ergonomic furniture, standing desks and spaces that promote physical activity, are all now considered essential for creating healthy work environments.

Flexibility and adaptability is another important topic that we discuss with every client we work with. Clients now require spaces that can easily adapt to the changing needs of the business and the people, allowing for collaboration, focused work and private conversations while keeping the layout flexible and the space versatile so that they have the ability to reconfigure layouts as needed.

Clients expect designs that encourage communication, teamwork, and spontaneous interactions among employees. Open-plan layouts, shared spaces, and collaboration zones are being prioritised to foster a sense of community and to facilitate knowledge sharing. Environmental sustainability has gained more prominence in office design too, with an increasing desire for designs that incorporate sustainable materials, energyefficient systems and strategies for reducing the carbon footprint of their fitout. The brief is certainly becoming complex and more involved.

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

Clients’ proactivity can vary from one client to the other. It also varies based upon their sector, the economic climate, their requirements, their timescales and also their experience. Many recognise that building materials, fittings and furniture may have longer lead-times than we were used to, which in turn prompts clients to start the planning stages earlier to ensure that the quality of the design is not being compromised.

Early planning also gives the added benefit of having a contingency plan in place in case the approval process took longer than anticipated. We always advise our clients to spend time planning the project, so they can reap the benefits of early planning when the project is at the construction stage, ensuring they end up with no unpleasant surprises.

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

We can all agree that the office purpose has significantly changed post the pandemic. With the remote and flexible working, we are all capable of undertaking focused individual tasks from home. We expect to interact and collaborate with our peers and colleagues when we are in the office. This shift in mindset informs the design solution, and therefore the way the office presents nowadays is very different from when you compare it to how it did a decade or so ago.

Users require an environment that supports collaboration, wellbeing and inclusivity. There is an increasing need for spaces that foster interaction and socialisation. Designers are tasked with creating inviting common areas, breakout spaces and social hubs that encourage communication, idea sharing and team bonding, while also providing individual spaces for deep thinking and focused tasks. There is a major focus on wellbeing of occupants within the workplace. Designers now, more than ever, are putting people first; prioritising on their health and comfort. Human-centred design is taking centre stage, with a big emphasis on providing an environment that integrates good natural light, ergonomics, biophilic elements and access to outdoor spaces. Wellbeing in the workplace is no longer a ‘nice to have’, it is becoming a necessity.

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

The most significant opportunity for me is clients understanding and wanting to implement activity-based working within their spaces, recognising the benefits that lie within ABW and buying into the concept of movement and flexibility. Clients realise that people now go to the office not only to carry out individual focused tasks, but also to meet their peers, their team members, to interact and communicate in person and, to achieve this social aspect, the office has to offer different setups to support the different activities and tasks carried out by the users.

Many years back, activity-based working required some convincing for some organisations, where collaboration and breakout areas were seen to be a waste of prime real estate, whereas now, such spaces form a fundamental part of any brief we receive from clients.

One of the biggest challenges is attracting people back to the office. With the convenience of avoiding the dreaded commute, businesses are finding it more difficult to attract people back to the office. This puts a lot of emphasis on the importance of the quality of the office environment provided by employers. Clients are expecting the designers to think about all users individually and collectively to create a space that supports their needs and fosters collaboration.

Everyone works that much better when they’ve had some time to relax and recharge, even in the middle of a busy day at work

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

There are a few exhibitions that I plan on attending every year for inspiration and to keep updated with the current trends; Clerkenwell Design Week in London, Salone in Milan, Orgatec in Cologne and the Workspace Show in London. I also like to take part in and attend webinars, panel discussions, roundtables and listen to real estate podcasts to stay up-to-date with the current movements within the industry. I also attend quite a few CPDs to reach the 40 points I need annually to retain my full member title with the British Institute of Interior Design, as well as attending wellbeing CPDs to retain my WELL AP title. All this helps massively with my development and progression as an interior designer.

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 concept of openness, flexibility, collaboration and breaking the hierarchal model was one to applaud and laid the foundation for the modern office as we see it now. The building had open plan workspaces, collaboration areas, gym, restaurants, cafes and outdoor spaces – which are all very current and fresh concepts that we still implement in our modern office designs.

With the whole movement towards human-centred design, Torp seems to have nailed it back then, with large glass windows to maximise natural light, the outdoor spaces with access to nature and fresh air and the integration of biophilic design – all great wellbeing concepts that enhance the quality of the space and help increase productivity and overall happiness of space users.

As radical, ground-breaking and visionary Torp’s vision was, I believe that the office design has been ever-evolving to respond to the ever-changing needs of people and organisations, the technological advancements, societal movements, pandemics and the ongoing pursuit of designers and clients to create the best workplace environment that reduces stresses and enhances productivity.

One could also argue that the co-working office concept is also very radical and could change the landscape of how we perceive the traditional office as a place of work. Co-working spaces have gained popularity in recent years and have disrupted the traditional notion of a dedicated office space. It has challenged the traditional office setup. It has created an ecosystem where professionals can work flexibly, collaborate and build a supportive network. This concept has had a profound impact on the work landscape and will likely continue to shape the future of work.

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

I have been involved in a project recently, where our client was a technology giant. They had their own workplace team who carried out various researches on people’s habits and behaviours and linked them to productivity in the workplace. They have created innovative and progressive workplace strategies, aiming to build environments that foster creativity, collaboration and employee wellbeing. Recognising the importance of adaptability in the workplace, they prioritised creating flexible spaces that can be easily reconfigured to accommodate the changing needs of users and promote different types of work. They required spaces that encourage interaction, featuring open-plan layouts, shared work areas and communal gathering spots, but not forgetting the need for focus and deep-thinking spaces.

This approach inspired me to create versatile layouts, movable furniture and modular elements that can adapt to evolving work styles and activities to create office interiors that facilitate communication, teamwork and a sense of belonging. Providing a variety of deep-thinking private spaces and quiet rooms to enable staff to carry out their tasks with no disruption from noisier environments.

This experience has challenged my design skills and required me to push the limits to reach the client’s aspiration. The end result was a great success and it is a project I will always remember and will keep inspiring me to push boundaries.

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