Office: Focus - Q&A: Neil Thomas, Workplace Creations

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?

In my 25 years experience, office design has never been more exciting and varied. Clients are more considerate of their workforce and are embracing a hybrid evolution providing choice and flexibility. More than ever, the workplace environment is driving a positive change focused on supporting the end user.

One style no longer fits all where each opportunity is unique, assessed on its individual merits with the visible promotion of ESG values and DE&I (diversity, equity and inclusion) in their environments. As designers and thought leaders, it is more important than ever for us to understand the business, how it operates and, more importantly, to know the end users.

Workspaces need to support two distinct thought processes: those who embrace hybrid working and those looking to return to the office. Clients embracing hybrid working want to identity the office as an attractive proposition for the time they’re in the office, promoting social and collaboration facilities. For those returning to the office full-time, the office needs to be a destination mimicking the home office, promoting ‘resimercial’ designs. All solutions are underlined with a focus on operational enhancements, wellbeing and inclusive design.

Increasingly, clients require the workplace to be neurodiverse, tailoring the workplace for all, particularly for those with a hidden disability. Spaces needs to reflect the diverse makeup of organisations promoting variety and choice, creating spaces that will help retain staff and attract the best staff differentiating their workplace and business from the competition.

Task-based settings are centric to the progressive workplace, where the furniture industry has excelled creating products previously limited to built facilities. Freestanding solutions provide clients with greater flexibility and adaptability, enabling them to positively react to fluctuations in business and society – after all, who knows what is around the corner; we certainly didn’t in the autumn of 2019.

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

While some businesses remain clear on their occupational strategy, at Workplace Creations we continue to see clients conflicted and at a crossroads on how best to move the business and their workplace forward. Consequently, we find flexibility and adaptability as key KPIs. The ability to efficiently change their workspaces in the future is intrinsic to most clients.

Economic challenges are driving value add solutions and economies of scale. Whether downsizing or releasing space to sub-tenants, lease events are being realised more than ever. Clients are assessing their options more frequently.

The world of design and build maintains a fast turnaround. Clients, however, are more receptive to and making time to engage and empower the end user through workplace questionnaires. Integral to their internal communications and change management strategies, clients are adopting a more consultative and engaged approach when defining spatial use and design. Data-driven solutions are at the heart of the workspaces.

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

What is normal post-pandemic? The continued speed of change reinforces that there isn’t a norm within organisations and across business sectors. Working patterns and office occupancy and utilisation varies, with offices often near empty Monday and Friday.

It’s recognised the pandemic has fast tracked hybrid working and the importance of the third space. Office designs are less fixed or built solutions. Freestanding furniture solutions are more prevalent, offering adaptable plug and play solutions.

The workplace aesthetic has changed significantly. Spaces are less corporate or branded, promoting ‘resimercial’ design and with a greater emphasis on the inclusion of artwork and biophilia. Clients are bolder and braver with their choice of colour and range of materials. The choice of material and infrastructure is increasingly sustainable too, supplementing wellness in the office.

Clients promoting a full-time return to the office are adopting a ‘resimercial’ approach to design, making offices as residential as possible for their workers

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

What is the role of the office? Is it to give businesses an identity, to connect people, to provide a work-life balance, establish workplace standards or to form a transactional base. The answer is less defined than ever and has to be investigated for every client and location.

Keeping pace with change is a proven challenge for clients, including how businesses facilitate growth and adaptability. In conjunction with hybrid working, how clients optimise the use and efficiency of the office on Mondays and Fridays, typically the least occupied, continues to be a hot topic. A reduction in social interaction impacts rapport and employee wellbeing. Without an established office base, new starters and graduates are impacted as their learning, nurturing and networking is compromised.

However, for architects and designers, the shift in role of the office has influenced more varied and dynamic solutions and arguably the industry has never been more exciting with infinite possibilities. When did you last see the variety of colour, texture and work settings in our workplaces?

The influence of the hospitality sector in workplace design puts the emphasis on the user experience. The importance of the office to support social interaction and employee wellness is critical, supported by enhanced operational services. Clients are more receptive to artwork and plants, where both are human interventions proven to improve mental health and productivity. Neurodiversity is better supported in the range of settings and environments designed to stimulate a broader demographic.

With flexibility and adaptability critical to most refurbishments and fit-outs, the reliance on freestanding furniture has grown supporting plug and play solutions that are easily interchangeable. Employees are actively encouraged to move the fixtures, tailoring the environment to individual and group needs. Supported by greater investments in new technologies and innovations, smart IoT (Internet of Things) solutions enhances the connectivity and intelligent reporting of offices now and in the future.

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

We are blessed with amazing thought leadership within the A&D sector. Leesman insights, JLL Trends & Insights and the MillerKnoll Insight Group are a few of the organisations we refer to, providing access to experts and a comprehensive insight to industry and sector trends.

Websites such as Office Snapshots provide access to global office designs and occupation strategies, a source of inspiration and visibility how other cultures approach progressive office design.

Exhibition and trade events including The Workplace Event, Workplace Design Show, Surface Design Show and Clerkenwell Design Week enable us to network and identify new industry products and innovations, while social media – particularly LinkedIn – keeps us abreast instantly of broader industry trends, innovations and insights.

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?

Having visited BA Waterside at the turn of century, it was clear this was not just an office but a new community concept. Bringing everything and everyone under one roof not only consolidated real estate bringing everyone together but catered for the end user with a wider variety of spaces and services.

Network Rail developed a progressive version of Niels Torp’s vision in 2012. The Quadrant: MK reinforced the value of a community with a greater emphasis on agility, forming a destination of shared spaces that also excelled in its approach to efficiency and sustainability.

Fast forward another 10 years, and in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic, the workplace has fundamentally evolved. Shared spaces have a greater significance in real estate, with the serviced office sector bigger than ever either including the newer Cat A+ sector providing fully furnished workspaces for small businesses.

Niels Torp’s vision has been further deconstructed and proven to be scalable. The workplace has advanced from the classic requirements of desks, offices and meeting rooms to a broader combination of tasked based settings. Add to this the mix of social and wellbeing spaces, Torp’s legacy has evolved as an accessible and flexible concept visible across the A&D industry available to every business.

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

Whilst the original Google concept of a slide in the office has become clichéd, in its own right it has inspired clients to challenge the norm and drive positive change and inspiring designs.

Some of greatest influence and inspiration to me comes from seeing the progress in the design for corporates. In my 25 years experience, I consider this sector to have changed and developed the most. A great example of this is JLL’s office in Manchester. Smaller but perfectly formed, the project and concept break the corporate mould for space utilisation and design. Personally involved in the original planning, the project prioritised reuse and refurbishment and is the first WELL Platinum certified project outside London and the first UK office to simultaneously achieve WELL Platinum, BREEAM Excellent and SKA Gold in one fit out.

It’s great to see how commercial interiors and other sectors has diversified, benefitting from and integrating behaviours particularly from the hospitality industry. This has led to more creative and exciting interiors, prioritising and improving the user experience.

Northeastern University developed a new UK campus design concept aligned with their global values. The brief was to create ‘a space like no other’, through the use of sustainable materials, functional zoning and flexible furniture solutions. Creating a destination students and faculty staff would want to attend was fundamental, as well as inspiring and attracting the very best of international students. Promoting wellness and biophilia, the result is a vibrant multi-function campus that optimises views overlooking The Thames and Tower Bridge.

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