Choosing the office of the future: a time for quality, not quantity

Released today, Deloitte Real Estate’s London Office Crane Survey reports a 50% reduction in the construction of new office space in central London in six months. Yet even such a significant reduction in supply may not be enough to offset a greater reduction in demand. As a result, there is likely to be an oversupply of office space in central London. 

Mike Cracknell, director at Deloitte Real Estate, said, “By transforming outdated buildings into COVID-safe, high-quality workspaces, developers are looking to upgrade and futureproof their offices in a market where occupational demand is increasingly discerning.”

Indeed, in a buyers’ market, what matters is quality not quantity. And not only the functional specification of office space in terms of health and safety – such as air quality, general environmental cleanliness and the presence or not of touchless interfaces – but also in terms of organisational performance: is this an office in which my organisation can thrive?

When evaluating their needs, organisations must consider the fundamental purpose of an office. 

It is no longer enough – if ever it were – to think of an office as a place that’s big enough to get most people together to give them a place to work from where they can occasionally gather in large rooms for group meetings. That can all be done, to some degree of success, on Zoom. Nor is it about having a desk where everyone can work from. For most, a kitchen table or home office may still be good enough. 

No, what matters is everything that doesn’t get programmed into the working day: the incidental, the serendipitous. Sometimes thought only of in terms of ‘the social side of things’, the informal interactions that occur in offices are actually the hard currency of operational effectiveness. Offices that ‘buzz’ are places where ideas are born and shared. Where people not only want to work but want to stay working. And where outsiders want to visit, bringing with them their own ideas, their own colleagues and, in so doing, enhancing the melting pot of creativity.

This is not only the stuff of ad agencies and design studios. It’s also what matters in banks, in legal practices. It’s as important in a barrister’s chambers as it is in a digital startup. New ideas, overheard conversations, unplanned introductions and seemingly random encounters are what drive the productivity of any organisation.

All companies looking to move back to where they were, refit what they had or move to a new office need to think whether the space they’re looking at is fit for purpose. Because going back to the office – any office – won’t automatically bring the buzz. This special and necessary kind of magic dust isn’t sprinkled evenly. Some offices do it better than others. Some don’t seem to do it all. 

Our work in the design of buildings and estates at Space Syntax has identified some of the key ingredients. Here are four that recur from project to project:

The importance of corridors and stairs

These seemingly humble parts of the jigsaw aren’t simply the means of getting from A to B. They are where ‘it’ happens: the chance conversations, the introductions between people: the sparks of ideas. These elements of connective tissue need to be ‘dressed’ to encourage and take advantage of the brief encounters that can happen within them: places to sit down and chat so that a passing nod can be extended into a thirty second conversation. In many organisations that we’ve surveyed, we’ve observed that the majority of workplace interactions (outside of formal meetings) last less than a minute – these are the essential communications events of businesses without which information would not be transmitted on. 

Corridors and stairs should be places to work in as well as move through, so that someone who does so can maximise their chances of bumping into people. We see people doing this all the time: choosing where they work from so as to anticipate the unpredictable. But only in offices that allow it to happen. That design it in.

The importance of a simple spatial layout

It should go without saying that you don’t want people to get lost in your office because as soon as you start to think about ‘navigation’ you stop thinking about interaction. But so often we carry out spatial audits on existing offices – or review designs for new ones – with cranked corridors that confuse users, or with stairs that can’t be seen from reception, or departments separated from each other by cores and partitions that, for the sake of a nudge, could have opened up glimpsed views to the benefit of wayfinding and occupier awareness. So many conversations in offices begin with a nod from distance. We’ve seen people say ‘hi’ between the floors of an atrium them mouth ‘coffee’ and end up sat next to each other a few minutes later having a conversation that neither had planned but from which both will benefit.

Fortunately, flow modelling tools can describe the difference between a labyrinth in which people lose their way and an open layout in which they don’t. We’ve used these to shape the design of new offices as well as to help clients shortlist candidate new spaces.

The importance of context

While so much that matters happens inside the office itself, what also makes a difference is its location – first, of being easy to get to, especially on foot, by bike and public transport; second, of having nearby places to work from: bars, cafés, parks and public spaces. Work is a continuum and so accessibility, convenience, conviviality and flexibility all matter. 

Does the office building itself contribute to its urban setting? How does it meet the ground? In cafés, restaurants and galleries or in faceless slabs of polished stone? Can the public come in to the office to share some common facilities? Is there a common central space or roof terrace?

A great office set in a sterile landscape is unlikely to add up to an appealing work environment. It’s easy to see an existing location and make your mind up as to its likely contribution to organisational effectiveness – are there places that people can go to at lunchtime and, even, are there parks where meetings can be held as an alternative to the office. It’s more difficult to know whether a new development will deliver the ‘urban buzz’ but again spatial analytics help to forecast the likely performance of new urban planning and design proposals.

The importance of ‘common rooms’ & public realm

All offices bring people together but many leave it at that. You step through the front entrance in the rush hour company of dozens of others and then you barely see a soul until lunch. The better ones will bring people together and keep them together in shared spaces where the noise of gentle chatter is expected. And not in rooms filled with seried rows of desks. If anything, desk work will be the minority activity. Conversation will be the principal activity. This is why we need offices. Not to sit on our own – we’re now very good at doing that from home or near home – but to sit together. To socialise and, in doing so, to exchange the ideas that drive projects, drive business relationships, drive industries.

Not even to sit with only our colleagues – we soon get to know each other. But instead to mingle with ‘strangers’ – people from other departments in our organisation. People from outside our office who have been encouraged to drop in and hang out.

So we need to think about the space we need to do this and the management practices that make sure we use it properly – that work against territoriality and that encourage inclusivity.

Cellular offices are a thing of the past. Lines of desks in open space are a thing of the past. Instead creative businesses – which means all businesses – should aim for offices that feel like lounges; club-like spaces with some ‘loud rooms’ where solo phone calls can take place (in the company of other people making calls) and ‘quiet rooms’ for the writing up that needs to be done then and there and can’t wait until you get home or near home. But, aside from these special spaces, the default spaces should have the look and feel of a good café cum bookshop: with people coming and going, with excellent refreshments, with small clusters of human activity, with furniture arrangements that can allow for smaller or larger groups to gather.

As organisations roll out the end of their leases or consider enacting their break clauses, these are the spaces they should be considering. Do they have the buzz where they are or do they need to find it elsewhere? Are they being offered it in the 50% less space that has being constructed? Can they find it elsewhere in an existing building? Or should they wait and support working from/near home until the office market shifts gear to meet the expectations of its discerning client base?

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