When offices closed in response to the coronavirus pandemic, working from home suddenly became the new normal. Now, as the world edges towards business as usual, many of us are realising how much we missed those spaces dedicated to enhancing our productivity and allowing our creativity and commercial nous to flourish.
Office design is hardly heralded in the way that home design is, yet now we all have a renewed appreciation for the benefits of an environment that allows us to be our best and most productive selves. So how can we get the most out of our working environments as we return to them, and what makes a good office great?
The future of workplace was a hot topic long before Coronavirus. With the advent of the internet enabling a generation of freelancers to work remotely and the rise of the gig economy further promoting flexible hours and locations (from cafes to kitchen tables) the relevance of a formal office structure, which dates back to the emergence of the capitalist structure in the 18th century, was increasingly challenged.
The rise of co-working spaces has been the most recent – and biggest – trend to emerge in the continuing evolution of the office, as what began as an opportunity to cut costs by sharing square metres morphed into a new take on working life. With a new breed of worker no longer tied to a desk there was also a push for buildings to be more than just fixed spaces to house employees, and flexible business environments rose to facilitate our professional endeavours.
Forget gimmicky beanbags, karaoke rooms and bowling alleys. If you want an office to maximise your productivity, a well-designed workplace should inspire creativity while fostering optimum professionalism through a range of technology and services to help you get the job done.
In Australia companies like Medibank Private, Macquarie Bank and Westpac have led the way with office spaces that look like five-star hotels and fuse elegant interiors with useful life functions – from concierge services and medical centres to technology hubs, kitchens, showers and bike storage.
In Sydney, Paramount by The Office Space brought leading architects, interior designers and bespoke furniture makers together to cater to the needs of a new breed of workers. The fit-out won the award for best designed workplace in the world at the World Festival of Interiors in Berlin in 2016.
One of the newest residents in the Surry Hills space is publicist Adam Worling, who had been working from home long before the pandemic. As others began taking Zoom calls at their kitchen tables in blazers and pyjama bottoms, Worling fronted up at The Office Space each day.
“To be honest I don’t know that productivity at home works for me at all,” says the director of AWPR. “When I decided to downsize my business 12 months ago I thought about running it from my house but I decided I needed somewhere that had all the tools and support to establish an effective and productive separation between work and home.”
Perks and lurks
Printing and scanning are among the benefits Worling enjoys in the heritage-listed Art Deco building, which also provides an elegant yet authoritative space for meetings and conferences following its rejuvenation by architectural firm Woods Bagot. A rooftop health club and a café downstairs deliver lifestyle benefits while professional amenities run from a concierge service to tech support and diary management. A 56-seat cinema hosts business pitches and regular talks and events to foster creative cross-pollination amongst resident.
“If I need to scan or print something I can’t do that at home to the quality I require without significant added expenses, and I’m a firm believer in structure and tribalism,” says Worling. “I’ve worked in a fashion-related industry for decades and I always ended up hanging out with the same fashion people, but in The Office Space my neighbours run from an international furniture business to people in the tourism industry, a barrister and a man who makes movie trailers. It’s a very well-rounded environment and in conversations around the kitchen table I always end up learning something.”
Still, the co-working model is not without its critics. Some argue whether these professional incubators are a timely innovation or real-estate opportunism. Critics of share space companies like the global We Company (formerly WeWork) argue aggressive expansion has left them, and their tenants, exposed to market fluctuations after the company lost $US1.93 billion in 2018, on sales of $US1.82 billion.
“While we believe that we have a durable business model in all economic cycles, there can be no assurance that this will be the case,” WeWork said in its 2019 filing with US regulators for a public offering. “A significant portion of our member base consists of small- and mid-sized businesses and freelancers who may be disproportionately affected by adverse economic conditions.”
Together as one
Real estate and financial considerations aside, experts say one of the attractions of office spaces – shared or otherwise – remains the fact that they boost productivity through routine, socialisation and the monitoring and sharing of work and knowledge.
“I think that [the lockdown] will make the office more important than ever,” Rahaf Harfoush, a Paris-based digital anthropologist and author told Monocle in June. “Being separated from each other has highlighted the specific values that physical proximity has on office culture, relationships and wellbeing. It’s very hard to replicate that digitally.”
Chris Sanderson, co-founder of London trend forecasting company The Future Laboratory predicts co-working spaces will continue to thrive, and says they are evolving in innovative ways:
“The changes we’ll see in the future are not so much about the evolution of the co-working space but more to do with how other spaces will evolve to include the opportunity for co-working,” says Sanderson. “Pre Covid-19 we had already started working on a number of projects which include hotel concepts for rooms with no beds – more about daily hire for private meetings, professional workspaces and the need for environments which could embrace both desk-based and other working requirements.”
As we move into the inter-CoVid-19 era, expect to see more co-working opportunities arise in the burbs, malls and strips as empty real estate is reconfigured for employees no longer required to make the daily slog of a commute but who either don’t want to or can’t base themselves at home long term.
Some of the return-to-work measures being considered by business analysts include the configuration of office spaces, wider corridors and comfortable density ratios. They also anticipate the need for back-up locations and remote offices away from Head Office, to serve as hubs for teams and client meetings. An overarching need for more flexible accommodation means that shred workspaces are also in the frame.
Boosting productivity at home
In late March, a OnePoll survey commissioned by Citrix found 70 per cent of 1000 self-isolating Australian office workers reported that working from home makes them as productive, or more productive, than they were in an office environment. However, the same survey noted that downsides included isolation from colleagues, lack of face-to-face interactions and difficulty separating work from personal life. And whether the same workers still feel as productive after three months of remote working remains to be seen.
For those who do want to continue working from home there are several ways to ensure your productivity is on a par with those who have returned to making the daily commute.
Stick to a routine, create a dedicated working area within your home and know that when you’re in that space, even if it’s temporary, you’re ‘at work.’ Equip your desk with a good light and supportive chair, make sure you have the right work tools available to you and exercise regularly. Remember to enforce boundaries and take breaks from the task at hand.
“Keep your home life off screen and keep your professional day separate from those you live with,” says Anderson.
Whether you choose to work from an office or from home, there are pros and cons for each option.
Blurring the boundaries
“New interactions and knowledge-sharing can be bolstered in the collaborative environment of co-working spaces, particularly when sharing with like-minded practitioners,” says interior designer Fiona Lynch. “On the other hand, the constant hum of action can be disruptive to work flow – it can also be unpredictable and there is certainly less control over your environment.”
The good news is that post-CoVid, the home/office divide is no longer an either/or situation.
“The pandemic has demonstrated how resilient and flexible our work practice can be,” says Lynch. “I believe there will be a move away from rigid commercial models towards a more blended approach between our work and home lives.”