Our understanding of the kinds of workspaces employees require is changing and this will result in offices that are more flexible and responsive to the varied needs of their occupiers

James Maddock

We have long got used to occupiers of office buildings choosing open plan spaces because they are considered to be more efficient and adaptable, plus they’re better for collaboration and team work. In fact, a British Council for Offices (BCO) report published in July last year (Making the Business Case for Wellbeing), confirmed that assigned open-plan seating is the most common type of working environment, making up over half (54%) of workplaces for UK employees, with private offices used by a further quarter (26%). Hot desking is also popular, with unassigned open-plan desks now accounting for 15% of workplaces.

But a new edition of the BCO Guide to Specification foresees office spaces of the future being increasingly flexible, varied and dense. This will represent a challenge to those tasked with building these spaces.

With increased density and sharing of space comes more pressure on the building in the design and the flexibility it must offer, in the strength of its services, in maintenance and cleaning. According to experts at a recent CoreNet facilities management and workplace event, one of the biggest challenges with unassigned desks, for example, is the unwillingness of desk occupiers to report problems. This can be down to several factors, from staff being unaware of their responsibility, to the office culture not encouraging care, respect or responsibility for the workspace. However, most problems can be relatively easily addressed by setting staff expectations, selling the concept positively and encouraging community ownership - “more we, less me” - by grouping teams to create neighbourhoods.

We should listen to all users and find out what they need to be productive, effective and healthy at work, then provide the appropriate range of
spaces where possible

Noise is another problem, not least because it can be a major distraction and source of frustration. Nick Jones, acoustics expert at Hilson Moran, says dense, open plan environments require expert precision in managing acoustics. “Ideally, the design mitigates noise issues from the outset, which can then be supplemented by furniture solutions that don’t require service alternation or additional fire risk measures. There were many circular meeting pod solutions - round is better for sound absorption - on display at the recent 100% Design show [at London’s Olympia].”

No matter what the issue, it falls to design, construction and facilities management professionals to help occupiers deal with them. The construction industry also increasingly has to demonstrate the positive impact of its work on the users of buildings, whether this is in relation to productivity, encouraging behaviour that helps overcome the challenges described above, fostering community in unassigned areas or furthering overall wellbeing.

It comes as no surprise that open plan environments nurture and respond to extroverts, who need stimulation, but did you know that almost half of us are introverts? According to Sarah Cain, who gave a TED talk about introverts and the quiet revolution, many introverts feel unsupported at work, forced to work in environments where they don’t feel comfortable and where they can’t thrive. And even if we’re not introverts, some of us have roles that require quiet concentration because accuracy is of paramount importance - just look at your own businesses.
In response to those who need space free of distraction, we’re seeing a resurgence of cellular-style spaces where staff can find some peace and quiet. When it comes to wellbeing, we’re seeing a huge interest. It is now widely recognised that our built environment can and should support our physical and mental health.

“Health and wellbeing is not a fad,” says Linzi Cassels, principal at Pringle Brandon Perkins+Will. “We spend more and more of our time indoors - 90% of it if you’re in the US - and so how our buildings are designed has a critical role to play in supporting our health and happiness. This link is not just seen by academics and researchers, it is also felt by users of buildings as a BCO survey report entitled Making the Case for Wellbeing proved. In light of this, we as an industry need to consider our environments more holistically in terms of how they deliver comfort, natural light, calm, stimulation and general health.”

There is a shift occurring, with companies perhaps acknowledging that we’ve moved too far the other way - to vast open plan floors with no room to think. At our conferences and committee events we often address the need to try and accommodate different needs. We should listen to all users and find out what they need to be productive, effective and healthy at work, then provide the appropriate range of spaces where possible.

Today, it’s about first defining then creating a positive workplace experience. That experience should be full of variety and wellbeing.

James Maddock is president of CoreNet Global UK chapter and international director and head of the EMEA global corporate services team at DTZ. CoreNet’s next 1 Big Day conference is on 5 March