Author: Dr Garry Emery, Designer and member of Hurst Advisory Board

Reflecting on the pre Covid ‘inclusive workspace’. Looking backwards to understand and anticipate how to go forward:

I do not claim to be an expert on this topic, but as I understand it, in the 90s British architect Francis Duffy, a leading thinker and practitioner in office design, proposed the ‘inclusive workspace’: or in other words ‘the new office and new ways of working’. (Maybe it was James Calder, Duffy’s Australian prodigy who coined that phrase?) Either way, the ‘inclusive workspace’ they advocated, was an effective corporate communications tool aimed at integrating technology and the experiential, to fulfil the needs of business: the specific objectives being to project the corporate image and identity of an organisation, to provide stimulating places for clients to visit and inspirational workplaces for employees.

Duffy claimed that collaboration was the driving force in this endeavour and technology was the enabler. He proposed that space planning be designed for maximum flexibility to facilitate the changing nature of contemporary business and technology. This changed way of working was determined by an unprecedented combination of global economic pressure and extraordinary advances in information technology. The designer of the ‘inclusive workspace’, he said, would need to understand the client’s corporate identity and culture, as well as the business sector they operated in, how it worked and how it could work better. The designer would need to incorporate the latest research on global workplace trends. Combined, this information would provide the essential knowledge for the designer to evolve a meaningful brief for the development of a particular version of the ‘inclusive workplace’.

Before the ‘inclusive workspace’ was introduced into the corporate mindset, spatial planning for offices was typically arranged on a rigid grid, with rows of employees at desks organised much like a production line, whereas with the ‘inclusive workspace’ workstations are arranged strategically and organically with a sense of informality. Historically, there was an emphasis on the importance of corporate hierarchies, an attitude which has been superseded by stripping away status distinctions (or the illusion of doing so) to encourage employee engagement and motivation. There is a corporate objective to instil respect in the individual employee, to provide them with the freedom to personalise their workspace and the option to work on tasks in variable interior locations that have different physical characteristics and atmospheres, such as at a cafe table or in a comfortable quiet space as opposed to a workstation or a conventional office.

It will be news to no one, that equipped with smart phones and personal computers people can choose where and when to work, the part time or more itinerant worker can temporarily touch down and plug in at non dedicated space, rather than each person being allocated a particular workstation or office.

Mobility and circulation in large offices has been reconsidered; in the conventional office circulation space was minimised to save rent, we now see primary circulation spaces in corporate offices designed around the idea of the ‘street’, as places where people come in contact with each other informally on their way to and from other places. ‘Streets’, which are either horizontal or, vertical circulation paths (typically a grand stair), are designed for chance conjunctions between people, to encourage conversations and the exchange of information and ideas, they are spaces planned not only for people movement but as transitory meeting places encouraging social interaction in unexpected convivial circumstances. In some ways similar to the traditional American office of the past, employees gathered together informally around the watercooler, a place for the cross fertilisation of ideas, located where basic needs were met; to eat and / or drink, to visit the toilet, or for small breaks for rest and recreation. There has as well been recognition of the need to improve employee wellbeing, for the provision of fresh air and natural light and an acknowledgement of the personal and corporate benefits of maintaining fitness and good health. The implications of ‘the new office and a new way of working’ has been far reaching for business, employees, office design and real estate consultants. The global pandemic has forced us to stop for a while, to be aware of what we are doing and where we are at, it will challenge existing ways of thinking, designing and constructing office space and propose new directions for the future.

Where to with workspace post Covid 19? No facts, opinion only, all based on anecdotal information.

The fear of the Covid 19 pandemic is rooted deep in history, as with the Black Plague in medieval Europe,1346 to1353, which took millions of lives. I imagine most would agree that ours are times of uncertainty, fragility and unrest and that loss of work, or the fear of losing work and income is potentially closely followed by a loss of dignity and selfesteem. During this time, family relationships may be damaged, or alternatively, on the positive side, some may see the ‘lockdown’ as an opportunity to reevaluate their employment and work arrangements, whereas the unemployed may harbour resentment for those with work. Relationships between two people working from home may be re-evaluated and recast, and for people living alone, social distancing and isolation may be lonely and difficult. Some will cope with change and anxiety better than others.

With the virus, we understand that we are all at risk of becoming mildly sick or very sick, and potentially permanently incapacitated, or maybe even die. People appear to be struggling with change and the new constraints placed on everyday life, then there are those using the pandemic as a vehicle to confront other unrelated social issues and some are reluctant to comply with health and safety regulations. Then there are the pandemic deniers. There is a general sense of despair, helplessness and anxiety.

The need to connect emotionally and intellectually during extraordinary times is normal and understandable, but in this instance, it has been denied to us by the necessity for social distancing and isolation. The psychological impact of the pandemic is significant and revealed in the steep increase in people seeking psychological help. Engagement strategies will need to be put in place to bridge the physical and psychological gap created by social distancing and isolation. It is clear that in these uncertain times employees will look for leadership, reassurance and financial assistance.

The experience of living through the pandemic will influence people’s attitude psychologically, which in turn will influence their behaviour, their expectations and their relationships to work and workplaces. For those who have worked remotely and successfully, they may question the validity and the future of working from the office. With potentially fewer people in the office, there may be a corporate move to reduce the size of office space, although there will at the same time, be the need for those remaining in offices to be more distant from each other than before and therefore, there will be a need for additional space.

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg stated that he did not intend for his workforce to return to normal after Covid 19. He saw it as advantageous for his employees to voluntarily work from home without the disincentive of relocation, and for the best employees to be sourced from a world-wide market and work in remote locations. In the post Covid era there will, I assume, remain a need for social distancing and the management and maintenance of employee health with the tracking and monitoring of people’s everyday movements and interactions with others. The hierarchy of needs for office design will inevitably be revised to accommodate a changed world of different imperatives. For example, it provides an opportunity for working parents with children to economically benefit from not relying on Childcare, a significant impost on young families, and a disincentive to work within a formal working week and hours. Consider also, that perhaps rather than performance being (at least in part) measured by when an employee ‘clocks in and out’, that the creation of a more rigorous performance regime, based on output rather than attendance, may be beneficial to both employers and employees.

Consideration for the wellbeing and the care of employees, customers, service providers, communities and those who deliver essential services, has perhaps never been so critical or top of mind. The virus brings us face to face with our mortality, we acknowledge that everyone is vulnerable. It brings into sharp focus that life is finite. Some, I imagine, will be daring and take risks with their lives, whereas others will despair, become introverted and depressed, or at best become more conservative in their outlook. Working from home under lockdown, some may feel a sense of alienation and loneliness, whereas others may flourish and feel a sense of freedom, given the opportunity to organise their time to better suit their lifestyle, they may feel liberated, independent and autonomous.

Distance working will never replace coming together to find comfort, mutual support and a sense of common purpose, nor will it fulfil the social need to be part of a team and bond with one another. Distance working dilutes a sense of belonging and makes comparative performance evaluation more difficult. We often need to work together, to make plans, to set horizons and validate our worth. Face to face interactions assists collaboration and idea generation and will not easily be completely replaced by zoom meetings, where the screen, compromised image quality and being deprived of context, can be a barrier to communications. Some tasks benefit greatly from face to face interactions, such as those that depend on input of diverse knowledge sources, the influence of a hierarchical participants and the understanding of complex topics and situations requiring subtlety. Direct eye to eye contact has purpose.

Some people define themselves by their work and value the physical attributes of the office as a familiar business place to occupy and enjoy the halo effects of corporate power and importance. They may prefer visible hierarchies with an understanding that shared space is easier to supervise, with the illusion of control that can assist the planning and structuring of work and the observation of work in progress.

With distance working, management must trust that the work will get done. First reports suggested that more often than not, work produced remotely had been done with greater efficiency and improvement, as employees feel fulfilled in doing so and believe it enhances their quality of life? More recent studies suggest that the first rosy reports are now under scrutiny. It is speculated that some people may have worked very hard not because it suited them to self reguIate, but because of the threat of losing employment and the consequences that accompany such loss.

To be explicit, it is worth considering that there are two different models of people in the workplace:

  • One model sees people as driven only by ‘stick or carrot’ strategies. These people are untrustworthy unless supervised. Motivation is extrinsic, that is, I work because I need to live.
  • The other model sees people as self-motivated and wanting to give and get the best from whatever activities they engage in. This model assumes that people can be trusted because their motivations are intrinsic.

I can imagine that post Covid, there will be significant changes to people’s attitudes towards work, the way they think and feel about it, which will inevitably drive change in the way we work and the nature of workplace environments. These changes will be a catalyst for new thinking from corporations, workplace space planners, architects, designers, fit-out construction companies and real estate consultants. It offers opportunities for experimentation in space planning and improved relationships between employers and employees. We need to listen to understand what people are thinking, to ensure we provide a meaningful next generation of the ‘inclusive workspace’.

Dr Garry Emery,
Designer and member of Hurst Advisory Board

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Dr Garry Emery

Dr Garry Emery has served on international juries for design and national juries for architecture and urbanism. He has lectured extensively internationally and was the founder and creative director of EmeryStudio. He is highly awarded, published and exhibited and internationally recognised for communications design in 2, 3 and 4 dimensional spatial environments. He was the experiential communications design consultant for the world’s 3 tallest buildings of their time. Burj Khalifa, Petronas Towers and Taipei 101.

Designed in 1985, a view of the EmeryStudio workspace from the external courtyard. The space planning coincidentally paralleled many office planning principles that Francis Duffy implemented in corporate offices of the 90’s, including those in Australia.