Who needs offices? - Creating consumer-driven “places”

Posted on in BrandBlab

When it comes to office design, or the more acceptable term workplaces, like every other sector consultancy vested interests inevitably kick in and terminology converges. Offices are, or should be, consumer products. As in retail, in real estate you now have to be consumer-driven as the empowered consumer is king. The property industry has belatedly had to accept that markets previously developer-led must now respond to ultimately the end user. In the case of a shopping centre, if the shoppers and visitors see no reason to come then the tenants, the retailers, will equally be absent. Retailers have had to rethink their offers and physical real estate requirements due to the internet with less shops, more experiential formats. That dreadful word “phygital” sums up the new era of retail and developers with centres previously geared to traditional shopping are now investing in click and collect, food and entertainment to meet the needs of a changing consumer.

Similarly, the tenants for offices, large and small companies and organisations, need to satisfy their “consumers”, i.e. their staff and visitors to compete effectively in the market. In a competitive market you need to mean the standard mantra of attracting and retaining the best staff. And to do this means satisfying the changing needs and expectations of employees when it comes to where and how they work.

“Workplace” is an interesting concept in conveying the potential importance of creating “places”. Those involved with branding and real estate have been increasingly referring to the need to create destination brands – venues and locations that are defined “places” where people want to be, to visit and inhabit.

The retail sector is a useful model for office design. Developers need to be in the right place at the right time with a relevant offer to meet the “new consumers’” demands. To compete effectively, the destination brand proposition needs to be defined – what are the added values, emotional and rational, that will create a sustainable first choice product and service. Understanding the changing trends and dynamics of any market is critical.

As a frequent conference speaker on branding issues, the similarities between sectors whether banking, retail or real estate, the convergence of terminologies at conferences is striking. Everyone, it seems, is having to rethink their activities to best meet the demands of the Millennial generation who we are told will soon represent 75% of the workforce. The new values, attitudes and expectations of this tech-savvy generation are the subject of countless consumer reports and analyses.

A classic role model of a Millennial in London works in the TMT sector, cycles to work, wants showers, a safe place to store their expensive bike, 24/7 local facilities that are cool, have a buzz and meet the blurring of work and play exemplified by this sector. An old factory in a trendy up-and-coming area is far preferable to a hermetically sealed A-class office in a boring city location.

The very concept of an office is now up for debate. Do you need one? What’s the point? Are they just an ego trip for management who care about their image, or vital creative hubs where people thrive, collaborate, support and nurture a distinctive internal culture that positively separates one company from another. “Work is where you are” is a common theme whether at home, a hotel, business lounge or train, as is the counter argument that people need to be with people to interact and communicate effectively. It depends on the specific criteria and mindset of managements, employees and the nature of their business.

The downsizing of offices by many companies is a direct result of changing work patterns, the cost of real estate and the like. Not many companies can afford to create Google-type facilities and work communities that provide, work, rest and play environments 24/7. Everyone accepts that you need private space and communal spaces for different activities but in smaller offices one person’s “breakout” zone and habits represents another’s frustrating interruption to private concentration and focus.

One common thread of true sustainability is the key principle of adaptability. As office functions change so do people’s attitudes and needs. It is good that many managements now talk the talk about creating workplaces that will engage, motivate and inspire their staff. Finance directors can be made to see the point of investing in improved facilities when offset against the costs of staff churn and recruitment, especially when balanced against the benefit of hoped-for improved efficiency and better quality staff. But expensive workplace fit-outs and architect-designed interiors can miss the point that to create effective “places” spaces need to be easily changed and updated. Architects talk about branding but their approach is so often about creating relatively rigid fitted-out designed environments involving remodelling, fittings and furniture and trendy lighting but with no distinctive character or recognisable sense of place and ownership. A more marketing-department-led approach is based on simple, graphic-led makeovers, which can completely change the ambience and atmosphere of an office without major disruption but which can then be easily changed and refreshed.

I admire the approach of stage set designers who create “places” with often minimal props and effects that can be easily reconfigured and changed ready for the next production or even within the same play. Lessons from art gallery “installations” are perhaps a more relevant way of looking at creating offices as more flexible spaces easily changed to create different moods and atmospheres to suit different activities. Unless it is an advertising agency or creative studio, so many entries in office design competitions could be anyone with no clear sense of a distinctive brand personality.

For many branding is all about what it says about you and when it comes to company branding and image development, the treatment of workplaces should be a direct reflection of the values and culture of that organisation. The danger, as with any form of branding, is delivering the promise – image and reality need to be synchronised to avoid the dangers of cosmetic packaging. There is a lot of hot air and fine words when it comes to internal brand culture development. Ethos, beliefs, visions and values are talked about but ultimately the true behaviour and intentions of an organisation can be quickly seen once you get past maybe an impressive reception. Closed corridors and doors, sterile rooms and spaces, unnecessary cellular offices with luxury board rooms and top management facilities divorced from the general workplaces are too often still prevalent.

Because people are people, hierarchy, tradition and fear of change are human realities. That goes for consultants, suppliers and company departments that have a vested interest in maintaining and promoting their particular activity and offer. Creating places where people want to be needs an input from a range of skills – from HR to IT to real estate and marketing. It is a tough management challenge to manage both in-house departments and external consultants and suppliers to ensure a positive synergy of approach.

Perhaps Facility Management, the traditional sector in charge of offices, can start to see their role more as real “facilitators” creating places that are true consumer-led destinations, which can be easily reset, redesigned and adapted – a new way of looking at offices as “theatres” where people can perform, play an effective part and take pride in their involvement. I look forward to seeing some successful new workplace “productions” staged soon.