Ask 10 different people what they would want from their ideal working environment and you’d likely receive 10 different answers. For most people, the various merits of ‘Working from home’ against ‘The office’ are measured against myriad very personal circumstances – whether you have ample desk space, kids at home or stable wi-fi.
Yet, much of the conversation – and there has been a lot – ignores this. With Omicron now in retreat and restrictions being lifted, calls to come back have intensified, the argument being that employees should support London’s office-centred economy.
But the simple reality is that supporting the economy is not a large enough incentive for your average office worker. For many it is too far removed from their personal reality – a vague, abstract notion that means little as they juggle daily priorities.
This also unfairly places the onus on staff to come back to work. Many feel that they have proved they can work from home over the last two years and that the costs of commuting, now viewed as prohibitive rather than a necessity, are not worth it. They are asking not what they can do for the office, but rather what the office can do for them.
This is a fair and reasonable conclusion to make. And it is here that we need to flip the script. Employers and business owners need to take responsibility and ask themselves what they are doing to entice workers back – and we’re not talking about the re-implementation of fruit baskets and early Friday finishes – although they do help.
Instead, we need to focus on identifying the things that working from home cannot replicate.
No matter people’s personal working environments, this is often the interaction, socialisation, and camaraderie that a well-designed office can nurture. Or it could simply be getting out of your spare room and into a beautiful, purpose-designed space.
This need for socialisation is one of the key drivers to our approach at March and White Design – sitting alongside other needs like privacy, functional aesthetics and pride in your surroundings. This experience centred design, which we call EXCD, looks at the drivers behind individual human activity to create bespoke spaces.
Our work on a high-profile real estate investment firm’s London offices is testament to this. Following our EXCD process, we made ‘data-led’ changes, such as placing the kitchen and communal areas at the front of the office as the interactive space – not hidden at the back as usual. Employees know upon entry that this is a space in which they can feel comfortable and at home, while clients feel the warmth and welcome right from the start.
Spaces need to be sensitively designed to suit the unique character of any given organisations’ people. Rather than just adding breakout rooms and the ubiquitous dart board, there may be more room for amenities and offices that feel like private clubs or libraries. Wellness areas, disturb-free zoom ‘pods’, greening features and softened finishes will all help. Design choices like circular informal seating will best promote colleague interaction and socialisation – bland rows of seating facing in one direction are no longer needed.
We are amid a loneliness epidemic in the country, with many seeing their mental health worsen during the periods of enforced lockdown. The gentle encouragement to come into the office and interact with colleagues, partners and clients is of crucial importance, especially to those at a junior level who may not have established professional relationships or a strong social circle to rely on.
The responsibility should be on businesses to address these issues, especially if they are serious about the social aspect of their ESG commitments. There is a real opportunity here to refresh our thinking about the spaces in which we work and how they play their part in the wider wellbeing of the country.