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Design: Archi Banal
Design: Archi Banal

BusinessApril 8, 2022

What should a post-pandemic office look like? Ask the people working there

Design: Archi Banal
Design: Archi Banal

As more businesses begin to encourage staff back to the office, many are rethinking how these workplaces look and function. But for a redesign to be successful, employees need to feel heard – and their bosses need to listen.

Over the last two years Auckland traffic has started up and stalled like a teenager learning to drive a manual. Locked-down residents deserted motorways once bulging with congestion, which then roared back to life once restrictions eased, only for the emergence of new Covid variants to stem the flow again. 

Now we’re on the up again. This week, interior architect Lizzi Whaley says she noticed how “nuts” the traffic was on Auckland’s roads, a sign that more people were returning to the office, spending money downtown or simply getting on with their lives. “I’m probably one of the rare people that will go ‘Auckland’s back!’” she says.

As chief executive of Spaceworks, a design firm helping businesses create modern, inclusive work spaces, Whaley has also noticed businesses grappling with what a post-pandemic office should look like. A “remote work revolution” is the future some envisage, while others see the value of working from home and in the office. Simply figuring out how to coax people back to the office is a quandary for many employers, but the solution is simple, says Whaley: talk to them. Even if it’s simply asking employees their preferences and pet peeves, the conversation can lead to a plan to improve or even transform their workspace over the next few years. “The biggest failure of businesses right now would be not to do anything at all.”

Spaceworks CEO Lizzi Whaley (Photo: Supplied)

Many of today’s workplaces are outdated, Whaley says, and the result of old-fashioned ways of thinking. A decade ago offices were designed to separate people – clients and customers would enter in the front of an office and conduct their business there, while an open-plan “battery farm” of workers would backend it. Function-based design, where spaces are dedicated to certain work activities, provided an improvement – but even that hasn’t succeeded at generating a desire to remain in the office for many workers. To become places employees actually want to be, Whaley reckons tomorrow’s workspaces must address people’s feelings and needs.

This kind of human-centric design – the name for a problem-solving design process that involves people at all steps – might strike some as sounding a bit airy-fairy or even “woke”. The language of therapy has pervaded people’s everyday vocabulary – we’re smooth-talked to find comfort in the discomfort, we joke about seemingly benign things as “triggers” and we process, heal and move through the world as (hopefully) better people. It’s no longer a taboo to open up about our mental health and wellbeing  – including in their work environment. In this context, considering the extent to which an office serves people’s needs makes perfect sense. In fact, emotions are becoming as important a design consideration as aesthetics and functionality, says Whaley. “You don’t think of commercial buildings as something that is an emotive experience. Now we’re starting to talk about emotions in your office.”

So what do people want and need? It depends on the business. What might be inconsequential to one group of employees, such as full-length mirrors and hair dryers in workplace bathrooms, might mean the world to another. Small and medium-sized businesses, lacking the war chests that their bigger counterparts possess, might focus on simple, affordable options such as providing a refrigerator for people’s lunches or storage to hold gym bags and personal items. Even within the same sector, businesses’ needs can differ widely. Spaceworks was in charge of fitting out retail stores for Spark, and it’s doing the same thing for the telco’s rival, 2degrees, Whaley says. Yet their markets, messages and priorities were so different that the design outcomes were miles apart. “You can’t apply a cookie-cutter model on to an office and think ‘cool, that’s perfect, that’s going to work.’”

One big trend many of us have seen in our own offices is the forgoing of dedicated desks in favour of hotdesking or even private work-focused areas. This is a trend that isn’t going away anytime soon, says Whaley. Employees must be empowered to understand and properly utilise their altered work spaces – not least because productivity might be at stake. One Harvard study found workers in open-plan offices report significantly more difficulties with concentration than those in private offices, as well as lower work engagement and job satisfaction. Mishandled consultation is likely the reason why business owners won’t see improved output following a redesign, Whaley says. “You can’t throw people out one day and go ‘here’s our great new office’. We have to teach people how to use it.”

As a member of the rainbow community, Whaley also urges businesses to see their offices as places that can serve as gateways to better understanding and support for age, race, ability and disability issues, and other facets of diversity. An inclusive built environment might be based on design choices – gender-neutral facilities, elevators and ramps or a room for prayer, for instance – or utilise design-led channels of communication, such as name tags displaying a person’s preferred pronouns. “If you want people to be creative or innovative, you need to allow them to show up as their true self,” she says. “If people feel seen and validated, they will see and validate your customer, their other colleagues.”

Feelings and needs can drive people to decide whether they’ll leave the creature comforts of their home office set-up for the water-cooler conversations of a work office. While many employers might be confused about what to do to make their offices places people want to work in, they shouldn’t fear making mistakes, says Whaley. Every step refines the eventual outcome. “Just don’t do nothing. Do something.”

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