In the 1999 comedy "Office Space," the soulless arrangement of individual cubicles along with his employer’s staid and dreary culture ensured that Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston) had arguably the most uninspiring workplace known to mankind.
For those seeking dynamic and vibrant environments, this was an example of what not to do.
Yet as the millennial workforce pushes its way up the corporate world, many commercial developers, landlords and designers are asking how they can maximise the attractiveness of their assets to help tenants harness the power of this generation.
These issues were discussed during a panel session at the recent Design Build expo in Melbourne. The panel involved Colliers International national director, research, Anneke Thompson; CoreLogic commercial research analyst Eliza Owen; Techne Architecture and Interior Design director Nick Travers; industrial designer Tim Philips; and Deakin University Professor of Architecture Des Smith.
Several themes emerged.
Before talking about how to design the space of the future, Smith questioned whether this is something we should indeed be focusing on given the lack of certainty as to how that future will evolve. We should bear in mind, Smith argued, that many human beings themselves are adaptable – as evidence by the ways in which older spaces have been reimagined.
Given costs associated with building upgrades, he questions whether buildings should adapt or if in fact people and workplace culture should drive adaption and innovation.
In addition, Thompson encourages landlords to think not so much of the workplace of the future but in fact the workforce of the future. People coming through offices now, Thompson says, are different to those who did likewise 15 years ago. For this reason, she encourages landlords to focus less on functionality and more on the people who use buildings. This includes understanding their preferences and how they best like to work.
Indeed, Thompson says, when we focus on functionality without understanding the people for whom we are building, that functionality might not represent what those people actually need.
Another issue involves the merits of the trend toward a more industrial look which can be achieved by, for instance, the conversion of former warehouses in inner suburbs such as Collingwood (inner-east Melbourne).
On this score, Travers says Techne (which has roots in retail and hospitality design) is often engaged by office landlords to introduce a retail and hospitality type of atmosphere to the workplace. Often, this involves stripping down the building’s shell and tapping into ‘romantic’ spaces of inner Melbourne areas such as Collingwood and Richmond. Typically, this is achieved by pulling back plasterboard and exposing concrete columns and ceilings. ‘Softness’ can be added through acoustic material.
Landlords who seek such arranagements are trying to introduce a retail and hospitality mindset and to promote greater casualisation within the workspace. Peeling off the commercial interiors, he says, promotes a sense of honest expression.
Thompson, meanwhile, says a common refrain from leasing agents at Colliers is that whilst demand for the industrial type setting of a converted warehouse is strong, many clients who were initially enthusiastic about this discover within a year that they have challenges surrounding functionality as spaces felt dark, cold and noisy.
A further theme is the need to foster interaction among workers. To promote collaboration, Phillips says it is important for staff to get along socially. Many of the breakout spaces being provided, he said, provide not only quiet time but also common areas for people to collaborate or socialise.
On this score, Thompson cites the example of her successful efforts to headhunt a promising 25-year-old purely on the basis of the woman despising her previous work environment. The lady was a high performer who enjoyed her work. Nevertheless, the office layout modelled around individual cubicles was such that it was possible to go entire days without speaking to anyone. For a millennial who grew up with social media, this was a foreign concept.
Another theme is agile working spaces. According to Travers, many of his jobs involve empowering people to adapt their workspace to suit their needs. This can include features such as adjustable height desks, retractable roofs, and mirrors which can be adjusted to optimise the environment from a seasonal perspective. Large financial institutions, especially, embraced this way of working.
Smith, however, cautions about going too far too quickly. These ‘groovy’ workspaces might work well now but could become problematic if and when belt-tightening is required.
Moreover, he questions the need to adapt the building space as opposed to having people and cultures perform the adaption. This is a question not just of a financial cost but also costs to the environment in materials and processes needed to perform retrofits.
“This change, I think particularly in the architecture world, we have to be careful that it is not simply fashionable,” he said.
“I’m not going to be surprised if Mr and Mrs ANZ will find that their groovy open space workplace might not work so clearly for them when they have to tighten up. I can point to lots of fabulous office spaces in the world which were done in the 50s and 60s which still operate really well because the bones are completely beyond denial.
“I’m just going to put that vote in for the rest of the planet. I think we have to be conscious of how much it costs to change and how relatively cheap it is for us to change.”