Article: The Essential Office Network

Heather McLean

by Rodi McLean

April 2022

As we face the reality that we can return to our workplaces, for office occupiers, the questions being asked have shifted. The answers to, “What kind of space will support us?” and, “How much of it do we need?” are still relevant. However, what is now also being asked is, “How do we get our people back into the office?” To answer this, we need to recognise the benefits of working from the office and how we can make this attractive to our people.

Our workplaces are constantly evolving. Several factors influence this ever-changing landscape. Workplace culture, health and wellbeing, globalisation, product innovation, sustainability and workplace demographics all play a major part. In recent years, by far the largest catalyst for change has been the prevalence of mobile technologies and digitisation.

This technological revolution has enabled society, businesses and organisations to operate successfully throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic, which still presents significant risks to how we live and work, has turned much of what we took for granted about our workplaces on its head. In essence, we have all become adopters of hybrid working practices, a methodology that embraces mobility, activity-based workplaces, and champions, “Work is a thing we do, not a place to which we go”. Through working from home for the past two years, we have accepted that we don’t need to be in the office to carry out certain tasks if we have the appropriate technology.

If we accept that the way we work has changed forever, and that hybrid working is here to stay, and we consider that the office still plays a vital role in helping us live fulfilling and productive lives, then how should we design our offices to be essential and provide maximum benefit? We are at a point where we need to see a new era of workplace design. There is so much to consider but, if we break it down to the core space types, there are four key environments required within the office that facilitate successful hybrid workplaces: Collaboration, Focus, Support and, most importantly, Socialisation.

Most businesses recognise that the office needs to provide Collaboration Space, or meeting space. This is the type of space everyone sees immediate value in as we return to the office, especially for bringing remote workers together to find a solution. These spaces can be enclosed or open, with or without technology, large or small. Whatever the design, they will be an essential space for the hybrid workplace. When you have finished collaborating, there will inevitably be actions that need to be progressed. For this, you will need Focus Space. Places where you can get your head down and concentrate. Space where you can communicate with a colleague who is working from home or someone else not in your office. We will also need these spaces to support people who can’t work from home or have difficulty doing so. We will continue to need Support Space. The back of house space that supports our hybrid working methodologies. Showers and changing areas, bike stores, recycling areas, mothering rooms, office service centres. The functionality behind our workplace environments.

However, the most important types of spaces to create, the areas that we should give more attention to, are Socialisation Spaces. These spaces will be crucial for attracting people back into the office. They will create a sense of community and a culture of belonging. They will provide a soft-landing zone to the workplace. They will facilitate the informal collaboration that gives immeasurable benefit to the work we do. We have spent the last two years making our homes more like offices. Socialisation Spaces will help us create offices that feel more like our homes.

During the pandemic our surveys, work and analysis have established what the key drivers are for people wanting to return to the office. People are missing social interaction, learning and support, and healthy environments to support collaboration. We need to recognise these factors when we design our workplaces, especially the importance of facilitating socialisation.

Humans are social beings – we are not designed to be alone. Our bodies produce higher levels of the hormone oxytocin when we share moments of companionship, such as an embrace or when we work together successfully on a common goal. Humans have evolved in communities, and we survived because we worked together. Businesses that create a sense of belonging tend to retain their staff for the longest periods. Creating a sense of community and a culture of belonging, whilst working remotely, is very difficult and made even harder when there is no opportunity to regularly socialise.

Another huge benefit of working from the office is what we learn through ‘osmosis’, by being around other people, seeing and hearing them dealing with situations. This cannot happen when people work in isolation. This is true for everyone, but especially for people starting out in their careers. The learning and support you receive in the office, and specifically by being in close proximity to your colleagues, cannot be underestimated.

Working from home, for most of us, the difficulties relating to physical space, suitable technology and work-life balance have been addressed. Consequently, the decision to commute to our place of work is the first question we ask ourselves when we wake. Why take onboard that additional stress, cost, aggravation and, let us not forget, risk to health, when I can work from home effectively? At a human level, working from home, sometimes in isolation, has been a negative for many people, and we have seen cases of anxiety and mental health issues increase in home workers during the pandemic. Clearly, the convenience of working from home is not necessarily of benefit in the long term. Jumping into a cold shower or a cold plunge pool is difficult, but the health benefits are clear and well documented. Committing to the office commute is sometimes not desirable, but it gives us time to set our minds, helps us separate our work and life rhythms, and enables us to engage with society.

Our offices need to act like a magnet, a honeypot, attracting people to come together and connect. They need to inspire us, invigorate us, and give us a sense of belonging. They need to be the physical representation of our workplace culture and our purpose, and they need to provide much more space for social interaction so that, when we are in the office, we are happy, comfortable and engaged.