This month we were delighted to welcome workplace design experts Zoe Parr and Nathan Harris from Interaction to a special in conversation virtual roundtable discussion about the impact of COVID-19 on the future for workplace design and collaborative spaces.
No strangers to the industry. Nathan and Zoe have been recognised previously in the “30 under 30” rising stars by Mix Interiors. In fact, they were named best in class in consecutive years; a proud moment for Interaction.
With a reputation for reimagining workspaces to reflect the unique goals, cultures and ambitions of their clients, the design team at Interaction create innovative spaces that foster a sense of community, improve productivity and support staff retention.
The coronavirus pandemic has had an unprecedented impact on workplaces and the way we interact with our employers, colleagues and customers. Many of us now hold a more flexible approach to office and home based work and there is no doubt that the implications for workplace design is likely to be felt for many years to come. How do you see the future evolving for collaborative working spaces?
Nathan: The need to collaborate will lead a return to the office environment. When we are isolated in separate working spaces, or “Micro Silos”, with conversation and body language interrupted by technology, it feels off-kilter and less efficient. To enable employees to work collaboratively businesses will still need an office-type space where people can get together and bounce ideas off each other. If anything the need for such spaces has become even more apparent.
Inevitably businesses are going to want to re-evaluate their office space and the working experience that they offer employees. Are you finding that businesses are already looking for greater flexibility in their workspace designs to help them meet the needs of their teams for both individual and collaborative working?
Zoe: Absolutely. Our clients’ outlook on their workspace has already changed and there is an acknowledgement that they no longer desire open-plan offices without breakout areas. We are increasingly being commissioned to design stand-out destination workplaces that will keep a company’s culture alive, where employees can go to work together on collaborative problem-solving projects and for the experience of meeting with others.
To ensure that employees can be safe, and feel safe, it is clear that workspaces will require additional consideration for infection control such as hygiene stations and provision for social distancing. Do you see any challenges to combining these facilities with a welcoming and inspiring interior?
Zoe: After years of reducing individual desk space so that more people can share an open-plan office, we are now planning for much bigger desks and larger circulation areas to enable people to choose how they use their workspace. Designers need to acknowledge that people’s sense of personal space has changed significantly this year and we need to allow for that breathing space with flexible designs such as non-solid divisions that can be moved as required.
Over recent years we have been seeing hospitality venues diversifying their businesses to appeal to local businesses and residents as well as their traditional market for tourism. Do you think there is an opportunity for these settings to offer flexible collaborative working spaces and are you seeing clients are interested in using alternative temporary office spaces?
Nathan: Following the relaxation of planning laws to enable more flexible use of town centre buildings we are investigating possibilities for urban commercial spaces. We are exploring combinations of office, retail and residential space to revitalise our high streets. Also we have been developing a vision for hub and spoke offices to enable businesses to recruit locally, either on a temporary or permanent basis.
For example, employees might travel to a workspace for a week or so, staying there overnight, so that they can work closely with colleagues for a concentrated period of time before returning to working at home. The flexibility that businesses have needed this year has allowed us to explore such accelerating visions at a much greater pace which is really exciting for the industry.
Our experience of working remotely has highlighted that workplaces offer not just collaborative spaces which facilitate professionalism but also support important personal connections, creativity and mental wellbeing. How do you see collaborative spaces playing a part in wellness and wellbeing and how can this be integrated into the new way of working?
Zoe: Coming together in person is important for both human and environmental connections, providing positive attributes for wellbeing. We are designing very individual designs that are a physical representation of each company and reflects their culture. This increases staff engagement and helps people work together more constructively. In this way businesses can promote their brand and culture, attracting and retaining the talent they need to succeed.
Nathan: Clients care about the wellbeing of their employees and understand the need to bring people together physically in an inspiring and creative environment. We are definitely seeing a need to get people together to ease mental drain. It is important to create approachable designs with central collaborative spaces where people can meet with colleagues in a way that is not intimidating for introverts.
This year has also highlighted the importance of sustainability in buildings and in our working lives. With the UK’s commitment to net zero carbon emissions by 2050, and challenging targets for 2030, are you finding that these issues are now higher on clients’ priorities and are users challenging the sustainability of designs?
Nathan: Our clients are now raising the issue of sustainability much earlier in the design process and this is key to their decision processes. In the past, there has been a sense of box ticking but now clients and landlords are keen to meet BREEAM and Well Standard for their buildings, focusing on both the physical space and finishes as well as health and mental wellbeing. There are concerns about commuting and travel for work and businesses are keen to reduce mileage with a range of options including flexible working and car sharing.
Finally, do you think there will be the same acceleration towards more sustainable choices in terms of materials as the 2050 deadline for zero emissions looms?
Zoe: Clients are increasingly keen to specify from suppliers that can provide sustainable materials which is driving demand for products such as recycled furniture and non-toxic finishes. There are currently few suppliers that meet all these requirements so this will push other manufacturers towards improving the impact of their production processes and final product to catch up with this increasing demand. One definite positive that has come out of this year is that clients are pushing suppliers (and designers) to do the right thing.
Thank you so much to Zoe and Nathan from Interaction for taking the time to speak with us about these key issues. You can follow their work @interaction_offices.