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Working space age

The explosive growth in staff mobility is having a seismic impact on the future of office design

The workspace of today is undergoing a profound shift. As human living is transformed by the modern need for greater mobility, flexibility and sustainability, a revolution is taking place in attitudes to work environments.

“Space is changing,” says Simon French, global design director at Regus. “It’s not all about the four walls around you. Technology is freeing people from their desks, and workspace has got to reflect this. This means more drop-in space, more hot-desking, and more flexible multi-use spaces. Gone are the days of one person, one desk.”

This growing need for flexibility is directly related to mobility, which remains a critical part of the global workforce. In fact, the International Data Corporation forecasts that the world’s mobile worker population will reach 1.5 billion by the end of 2014, with 40 per cent of employees in Asia forecast to be mobile by 2015.

To prepare for this onslaught of mobility, an employer should ensure that it has a framework to facilitate mobile working and a policy to guide employees and managers around the effective use of its technology.

While these technologies are facilitating increased connectivity and accessibility throughout organisations – with the boundaries between work and home breaking down – the productivity of mobile workers must be closely monitored. As employees get moving, more space will also be needed to promote informal collaboration and reduce the de-personalising of space. This is where designers come in.

Riccardo Mascia, Asia-Pacific managing director for HOK – a design, architecture, engineering and planning firm – believes a traditional office is not needed to be productive, and workers certainly don’t need to be tied to a desk.

“The ‘third place’ has reminded us that, even though we are connected more now than ever, people need physical contact with the community in order to feel comfortable. This is sometimes called ‘biophilia’,” Mascia says.

Biophilia is an innate human affinity for nature. Biophilic design in the working world is about reconnecting corporate spaces to the natural world through the use of natural light, open space, fresh air, plants and natural materials. Social spaces that comply with employees’ mobile needs are also part of this reconnect, with the provision of interactive spaces having a positive impact on professional social relationships via formal and informal interaction.

Logan Macwatt, managing director of architectural firm Aedas, knows how important good design is to an office. He believes a well-designed workspace not only ensures a return on investment, but also staff loyalty.

“It is important to allow natural light to permeate through to all work and interactive areas to promote the well-being of staff,” he says. “A great workplace environment will assist in attracting and retaining talent. A well-planned and designed workplace is a powerful tool for supporting employee performance and motivation – the main objective being the attraction and retention of talented staff – and providing the facilities for them to actively contribute to the company’s performance.”

He adds that many organisations have adopted alternative workplace strategies [AWS] which have led to open-plan office environments capable of offering flexible and mobile work practices. “Through the open-plan arrangement, collaborative work practices are being encouraged and more space is now being allocated to interactive spaces. Some organisations are heading towards 70 per cent interactive space, against 30 per cent work space,” he says.

Mascia also understands the merit of good design, and points out that the cost of designing, constructing and kitting out a new office pales in comparison to the wages and benefits an employer pays staff.

“Over the life of a lease, only small improvements in productivity and avoiding staff replacement costs can offset the investment in a better designed office,” Mascia says.

In addition, often the return-on-investment (ROI) measurement that many companies use when enlisting a design firm does not accurately reflect intangible factors such as staff morale, creativity and branding.

Expanding on this argument, Eric Legere, director of strategic planning at M Moser Associates Hong Kong, says that through design, a company should not only be looking to save money, but to boost productivity as well. “The key objective is finding the right balance between reducing costs and investing in the right types of spaces and technology to make people more productive – that elusive balance is needed,” he says.

Ziggy Bautista, associate director of M Moser Associates Hong Kong, says a workplace’s effectiveness largely depends on whether users see it as something positive. “If you get the design right, people appreciate it and their behaviour changes for the better,” he says. “If details are not correctly thought through, they notice. They end up having to improvise ways to work, almost in spite of the space. They also won’t have any respect for the space. The moment people realise that the space wasn’t designed for them, they stop caring about it.”


Tips for managers on how to get that look and feel with the help of designers

Be clear  “It is essential that managers prepare and provide a comprehensive brief of requirements which captures all stakeholder and staff requirements for the designer,” says Logan Macwatt, managing director at Aedas.

Be collaborative
  “The first and most important decision is to hire a professional, independent design firm to serve as impartial advocate from design to move-in. Together they can make the myriad decisions necessary to deliver an office uniquely suited to the client and staff,” says Riccardo Mascia, APAC managing director at HOK.

Be curious  “Designers do tend to have their own language, but managers shouldn’t be afraid to ask us to clarify things that they’re not sure about,” says Ziggy Bautista, associate director at M Moser Associates HK.