As a jury member asked to judge latest office concepts for Office Next, a major office event in Moscow recently, I had a unique insight into latest trends and concepts in the Russian market. Workplaces are in the state of change. Everyone it seems wants more flexible work arrangements. ‘Work is where you are’ is now a generic comment on how different sectors are reviewing how they can attract the new office worker – hotels, cafes, airport lounges as well as business centres are targeting how to attract business people on the move. Traditional offices can be just part of an employee’s workplace experience or still their fulltime business environment.
There is growing awareness of the importance of developing a positive internal company culture and the potential role of the workplace to enhance performance and motivation. While this may be recognised, many organisations still miss the point indulging in sexy receptions and premium luxury boardrooms but leaving the ‘back of the office’ working spaces in between as sterile boxes with closed doors, featureless corridors and an atmosphere more applicable to a hospital.
Ironically while open plan is the democratic approach to offices, senior managers still strive to maintain their status and private space. Justifying office space that it is only used odd days but remains empty the rest of the week is clearly sending the wrong signals within any organisation that purports to practice contemporary brand values of openness, transparency and accessibility.
In retail, customer centricity should be a given and research on customer attitudes and perceptions is key to staying relevant and ensuring the right offer. In the same way banks have looked to retail for improved customer focus. Perhaps the same approach needs to be adopted by organisations when seeking to better understand and satisfy their employees – internal ‘customers’ when it comes to the workplace design. Architects and designers are very keen to show lovely shots of interiors usually devoid of people. Does this reflect the apparent absence of the most important judge of a space’s success – the user? When judging the photographs provided for the office competition I was highly aware of the danger in simply judging a slick company image rather than understanding whether the emotional and functional needs of the occupants were being fully met.
As a brand consultant and designer it is vital to understand the desired positioning and profile of an organisation and how this will positively differentiate from the competition. However, image must match the reality of the experience as this creates the reputation that ultimately defines the perception of any brand. A cosmetic approach which does not meet the needs and expectations of the target audiences can be counterproductive. Architects have famously awarded gold medals to buildings the public, audiences and users dislike. Is this a triumph of design over function? ‘Form follows function’ is still a valid architectural principal if functions involve meeting emotional aspirations as well as practical and intellectual needs.
Freshness, flexibility and change should be inherent features of any environment where people work. We all need to be inspired and stimulated as well as allowed to concentrate and focus in private or in a team situation. While many of the offices I viewed appeared contemporary interesting environments I would have been more comfortable if I could also have judged the feedback of the ‘tenants’ – the company’s management and staff. For example, sustainability is not just about green buildings. It is also about creating positive working environments and communities which can sustain best performance and motivated employees.
Retailers constantly monitor their customers’ perceptions to improve and focus their approach. Is this a lesson for those responsible for briefing and developing office refurbishments or new concepts to become more sensitive to meeting the needs of their ‘consumers’, the staff?
Certainly applying the user test should be a key factor when making judgements on what is ‘the best’. Management equally should be able to measure productivity improvements, less staff churn and the benefits of a successful brand culture.
Competitions are great to highlight best practice and improve standards. One of my future tests will be seeing photos of people clearly enjoying their workplaces bringing the vital human factor that ultimately makes or breaks a workplace reputation and effectiveness. I suggest a new generic saying ‘work is how you are and wherever you are…’
Measuring happiness, wellbeing and ROI could be interesting.