New London Architecture

What would happen if we lost the office permanently? asks NLA Expert Panel on Work

Wednesday 28 October 2020

Katrina Kostic Samen

Head of Workplace Strategy and Design
Savills

2020 has clearly been an extraordinary year for the workplace. Office usage became front page fodder and the ‘death of the office’ widely proclaimed by the media. We are possibly in the midst of the greatest and most rapid change to the way we work that we have ever seen. But what are the short-, medium- and long-term impacts of this transformation? 
 
Members of the NLA Expert Panel on Work split into subgroups to discuss different themes covering occupier trends, workplace design transformation and base building design impact. On Monday 19 October, the whole group reconvened and asked: what would happen if we lost the office permanently?
 
One thing is clear across our experience, the disappearance of the office is not the likely end game of the pandemic, although it will almost undoubtedly change. The consensus between panellists is that largely occupiers are not yet clear on what this change means for them. Clearly there are some tasks that can be done effectively from home but others that are not. If you cannot work in an office, where do you come together to collaborate, build relationships or develop talent?
 
If the office was lost, the home would need to respond to fill the void. For many people home is not a long-term option as it is not conducive to effective or productive working. Therefore, third spaces will need to evolve. What these are will be driven by the needs of people, which will all be very different. This presents opportunities to re-purpose space (such as high street retail) to meet some of this new demand. 
 
Offices are increasingly the embodiment of the corporate brand. Loss of corporate culture was cited as a driver to pull Yahoo and IBM back to the physical workspace earlier this century. These examples highlight the challenges in maintaining corporate culture without a physical place for people to come together. Critically it also makes it hard to feel connected to the business itself, and aligned to its mission and purpose which is an increasingly important part of work-life for millennials and Gen-Z. We have seen primary networks strengthened but secondary and tertiary networks weakened. The process of forming new relationships will need to adapt. Spaces, virtually or physically, are needed to support the chance encounter that prompts the cross pollination of ideas and sparks new relationships. Surveys show that learning is also being increasingly impacted as a result of prolonged home working. Whilst formal training can be held virtually, the real loss is around the informal and passive learning. Different types of people naturally gravitate to different working environments but how can we bring these people together to ensure decision making is strengthened by diversity?
 
The panel unanimously agreed that the office is not dead. The office will remain a critical driver of culture, learning and personal connections. Businesses will inevitably consider their occupational strategies – how much and what kind of space they need, how do they recruit and retain the best talent and where do those people want to work. They will need to consider how to take care of their virtual workforce, protect employee experience, company culture and support transition back to the physical workplace.
 
In the short term the focus on hygiene and wellness is already playing out as workplaces embrace bio-security – no-touch surfaces, density and distancing, cleaning and maintenance, and the importance of outdoors and nature. The experience required to attract employees back to the workplace will become increasingly important, it must add value and provide enrichment. Moving towards a partnership approach, recognising the employee as the customer and decision maker and responding to their needs. Enhanced and diversified service models: real estate plus.

Fluid Workspace, Nex— © Jim Stephenson
Covid has caused a physical and mental health crisis. This is an opportunity for businesses to focus on how they can support their workforce as the implications of this continue materialise. As mental health challenges grow, consideration must be given to how can the physical and virtual workplace support wellbeing, and resulting performance, of employees.
 
Workplace trends were already evolving rapidly, but exacerbated by the effects of the Covid pandemic, is there a bigger revolution now taking place? We are working remotely at an unprecedented scale right now. This is not likely to last forever, with people starting to return to physical office spaces over the coming months. But the impact on office design will be lasting. The office will never be the same again. 
 
Office design will undergo the kind of transformation that the retail sector experienced around five years ago in order to drive footfall – spaces will have to be fun, engaging, social and collaborative. This will bring challenges for employers and designers. Design to combat Covid has introduced a number of temporary interventions – 2m distancing, 1 person per lift, etc – but longer-term, employees are going to want environments that are reassuring and domestic, as a relief to the harsh clinical realities being experienced now. Employees will demand more bespoke ways of working to tempt them back into the office. There will be a desire for a more domestic scale of comfort in the workplaces, where people can feel ‘at home’.
 
If our attendance at ‘work’ in a physical sense is no longer the default but becomes reason driven, then the surrounding built environment could be considered more important than the workspace itself. And it’s the peripheral activities to ‘working’ that support the city to function; morning coffees, working lunches, after work drinks with friends, industry and social events. Leisure and cultural activities create vibrancy, support local economy, contextualise ‘work’ and give us reasons for being there in a physical sense.
 
The city centre will not die but it is likely to get smaller and there will be significant change in the way spaces are used. Companies will use their offices more as a club, a destination, a place to be. Hospitality models will be referenced to create more diverse, interesting and creative workspaces. The provision of large, collaborative, flexible spaces has been a massive influence on office design on recent years, providing staff with greater amenities. But how much office space will London need over the next 2 years?
 
Mono-functional locations are likely to be challenged and a partnership approach between private and public sectors will be needed to identify strengths, address weaknesses and implement tangible changes that respond to immediate impacts and support longer term evolution. There will need to be more collaboration between building owners, managers and occupiers and every building will be expected to ‘add value’ to the organisation(s) it houses, whether that is through the connectivity, liveability or culture of its location, the community it fosters or the brand values it promotes.
 
Square metres per person and ratio of workstations will become an outdated method of defining needs and requirements. The opportunity to challenge densities and the scale of provision of typical base build items, that often get stripped out at fit out anyway, may even unlock commercial benefits for developers, although flexibility to incorporate bespoke occupier arrangements is likely to be increasingly expected. We expect a sustained loosening of the ‘standard’ base build specification and inevitably, lots of trial and error but from rapid change and vast uncertainty results liberation and opportunity for innovation.
 
See the full report of the session put together by Savills here

NLA EXPERT PANEL ON WORK

Occupier Trends
Katrina Kostic Samen, Head of Workplace Strategy and Design, KKS Savills (Chair)
Alison Webb, Head of Workplace Futures, Lendlease         
Beth Kay, Programme Director New Ways of Working, London Borough of Haringey  
Tim Hyman, Architect, Derwent London 
Helen Causer, Office and Investment Lead (King's Cross), Argent LLP          
Steven Skinner, UK CEO, HB Reavis        
Caroline Pontifex, Director, Workplace Experience, KKS Savills
 
Workplace Design Transformation
Katrina Kostic Samen, Head of Workplace Strategy and Design, KKS Savills (Chair)
Ben Adams, Founding Director, Ben Adams Architects
Earle Arney, CEO/Founder, Arney Fender Katsalidis 
John Avery, Director, LOM architecture and design
Julie Lecoq, Consultant, HOK London Studio         
 
Base Building Design Impact
Katrina Kostic Samen, Head of Workplace Strategy and Design, KKS Savills (Chair)
Toni Riddiford, Associate Architect, Stride Treglown 
Duncan Swinhoe, Managing Principal, Gensler      
Ruth Duston, Managing Director, Primera


Katrina Kostic Samen

Head of Workplace Strategy and Design
Savills


Work

#NLAWork


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