Here are 5 guiding principles to consider when designing a flexible workspace.
I’ve tried as much as possible to keep them high level so they will be relevant to a range of projects.
Principle 1: v is for variety
Debate rages between the merits of open plan vs closed office layouts. But often the answer isn’t to follow either of these extremes but land somewhere in the middle. Ingrid Fetell Lee, Author of “Aesthetics of Joy”, explains it’s important to consider both ’prospect and refuge.’…
“This theory, developed by British geographer Jay Appleton, suggests that humans evolved to enjoy open landscapes with broad vistas, but that we also need places to take refuge, like trees to climb or clusters of shrubs in which to hide. I believe that one of the reasons why open plan offices are so disliked is that they are all prospect, no refuge. Providing phone booths, quiet nooks, and other screened and protected areas affords employees spaces of refuge for personal conversations and focused work, while maintaining the connectedness and flow of an open layout,”.
Well said Ingrid.
And the data backs her up. All the current research of the modern worker shows there’s one thing they value highly above all else: variety. To a certain extent this is a bit of a luxury that can only adequately be provided if you’ve got some scale to play with. But still, it’s worth considering at 5,000 ft as well as 50,000 sq ft.
Principle 2: KEEP IT FLEXIBLE
No matter how much research is done in the preparation stages, any business upon launching a product quickly realises it needs to make tweaks. Coworking spaces are no different. So where possible it’s worth incorporating ‘adaptive architecture’ into the design – which is a slightly obnoxious way of saying flexible spaces which can be easily reconfigured.
As soon as a space launches, you can start getting feedback from members. Allowing for flexibility in the design (creative wall systems, dividers, modular meeting room configuration and phone booths) will mean you can alter the space according to how members actually want to use it.
There is a balance with how adaptive you can go though. Having too many floating elements can also detract from a sense of permanence and groundedness.
Principle 3: QUIET IS THE NEW COOL
I remember years ago visiting a Google office for the first time and thinking the person’s desk I was walking past could have either been a product manager on the Adwords team or Larry Page. This wave of open office design, based on egalitarian principles with an emphasis on collaboration, has been extremely refreshing.
But that said, there has been another cultural phenomenon in the last 10-15 years which is on the rise and often goes unchecked.
In the digital age we live in we’re bombarded with stimulus and ‘distracted from distraction by distraction’ (T.S. Eliot). This particularly applies to coworking for freelancers and small businesses. They join a workspace for the very reason of getting away from busy cafes, or their home office where their small children are treating them as a climbing frame.
A major selling point of all workspaces should be the capacity to do highly productive work.
In fact, the office environment should be a place where people can do the best work of their lives. Somewhere that people can go beyond replying to emails and completing basic admin lists, and do what Cal Newport refers to as ‘deep work’. Focussed and undistracted work where they can be their most thoughtful and creative selves.
The problem is that often spaces are designed with an obsession purely on what it will look like. This may be great for the instagram shots, but the focus should be on how people work, over how things look.
If the design is shallow people might be instantly impressed but they’re unlikely to stick around. Within a fairly short period of time they’ll realise they can’t get much real work done.
If it’s a toss up between cool or quiet, the latter must win.
This isn’t necessarily an attack on open plan offices. The benefits of collaboration and connectivity still remain strong. And as already mentioned we need ‘prospect’ space.
But high energy design, with abrasive colours, neon lights, poor layout, bad acoustics and ‘vibey’ music being played too loudly in the background will make people feel more like they’ve entered a nightclub, not a place where they can get great work done.
This design principle needs to be taken into account with the entire office design – but it’s also relevant to how the space is managed.
Quiet is the new cool.
Principle 4: DESIGN WITH YOUR CUSTOMER IN MIND
This sounds obvious, but it’s extremely important to not just follow the current trends if they don’t actually apply to your target audience. Having a crystal clear idea of your customer will help in the design process.
Who is your customer and why specifically will they want to join your workspace?
This plays into both the product mix and the brand.
From a product mix perspective…
If, for example, you’re launching an affordable workspace then it’s best to focus on natural light, reliable internet and strong coffee. People aren’t paying for an extensive list of amenities, meditation spaces or nap pods so there’s no need to provide them.
From a brand perspective….
People are happiest when working in a space where they have shared interests and common ground with others.
Your brand will be a rallying cry to gather and provide community for a certain group. The workspace itself is obviously a huge part of this, and so it should be a physical expression of your core brand DNA.
The first job of an interior designer you hire will be to harvest your values and mission, and bearing in mind your target audience, translate all of that into a visual concept.
Here are a few examples of how design reflects a coworking spaces values and culture:
Four of WeWork’s core values are ‘inspired’, ‘tenacious’, ‘entrepreneurial’ and ‘authentic’. You can easily spot these values in the design – which often feels raw and direct – as seen below with this bold and creative signage, and the playful features of a football table – which speaks to their belief mission about not making just a living but a life.
Uncommon care mostly about wellbeing and making space for you to be de-stressed. Hence the soft colour palettes chosen of blues & greens, the rounded corners and extensive use of plants.
Fora believes comfortable workspaces best aid productivity and focus. They’re forward thinking, professional, premium and basically want to make you feel a million dollars. You can see this through the beautiful aesthetics, minimal design, use of rich colours in the detail, bespoke joinery, cast iron staircases and chic flooring/lighting.
A friendly neighborhood workspace in Leeds, passionate about creativity, collaboration and individuality. The colours are bright and varied, the office pods are quirky and not aligned (most likely an intentional feature). There’s a noticeable absence of raised flooring, instead having exposed services running along the wooden ceiling.
The Wing’s mission is the elevation and empowerment of women through community. All their workspaces have curved, plush lounge furniture in jewel or pastel shades (often custom and from female designers); pale wood tables you might find in a Scandinavian coffee shop; bookshelves arranged by color; touches of terrazzo, marble, and custom wallpaper; and arched doorways. As such the spaces feel feminine, classy, bold, and empowering.
Principle 5: KEEP IT NATURAL
In the words of The 5th Dimension, ‘you have to let the sun shine in’. This will depend on your building to a certain extent, but in our experience you can’t overestimate the value people put on natural light.
Allowing light to flood through a space and, if possible, providing unobstructed views of nature on the other side of large windows, will contribute to productivity.
Coworking spaces tend to have a reasonably high density so making sure they don’t feel stuffy and having good air flow is also important to productivity.
‘The quality of air within commercial spaces and coworking spaces makes a huge difference. The WGBC report confirms that commercial spaces that produce “high levels of carbon dioxide and volatile organic compounds (VOC)” create air conditions that make workers feel languid and unable to think quickly on their feet. In a 2011 controlled laboratory test, researchers found that enhanced ventilation increased workplace productivity logarithmically by about five percent.’ Matt Smith, New Yorker Magazine.
Basically what you’re trying to avoid is this:
So to round up…office design should be partially adaptive, include a little variety, prioritise productivity, be done with your customer in mind (reflecting your brands DNA), and be kept as natural as possible.
Of course this will look very different depending on the brand, culture, location etc. And obviously one style doesn’t fit all. But the goal has to be creating an environment where people look forward to coming in on a Monday morning.