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Workplaces and the war for talent

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Tech companies need a new kind of office environment to attract and retain the best staff. In association with ISG, the AJ invited a group of high-profile practitioners working in the commercial sector to discuss the forces shaping tomorrow’s office interiors

Are we witnessing the death of design in the office?’ asks architect William Poole-Wilson of Pringle Brandon Perkins+Will. ‘No. In fact it’s completely the opposite. Design has never been more exciting.’

The workplace is changing. And fast. Hot-desking, not-desking and home-desking are here to stay, replacing the traditional office with its static silos for a diminishing number of 9-to-5 workers. 

And, with companies using their workspaces as physical advertisements to attract and retain the most talented staff, there is a huge opportunity for the architectural profession.

As Paul Finch, editorial director of the AJ and chair of the recent ISG-organised office-trend roundtable at MIPIM, says: ‘We are just starting on an extraordinary new journey, where all bets are off.

‘The good news is that, when all bets are off, it usually means wonderful creative futures for architects and designers.’

ISG Roundtable

Explaining her own experience of this paradigm shift and how the world’s largest companies are rethinking their working practices, Karen Cook of PLP Architecture says: ‘The corporates which once had rows of desks want to be more like the outfits which had beanbags and slides. Meanwhile, the people who had beanbags and slides are realising that’s not enough to retain staff.  They can’t chain staff to battery chicken-style desk arrangements.

‘It is about the quality of the workplace and identify. So we are looking at taller floor-to-ceiling heights and shared community spaces in the building, ranging from the publicly accessible to those shared by multiple tenants.’

There isn’t much character you can build into a big, half-acre office floor

Adaptability and flexibility remain key issues. The modern office must be able to support different kinds of working at the same time – and that impacts as much on the fixtures and fittings as the space itself.

As Gary Mason of  furniture manufacturer Tsunami Axis explains: ‘We recently sat down with a big tech company that employs 37,000 people globally and looked at the way they worked.  We came up with 20 different settings of furniture and [the overall solution] wasn’t a desk.  I think a desk comes into about three of the settings. The rest are skyping areas, or private areas and so on.’

ISG Roundtable

Flexibility has to be honed, however. A generally loose fit is not enough. Graham McClements of BDP explains: ‘In every office you get different groups of people whose days vary hugely, from those providing support activities to the complete nomads, who just wander in two days a week.  You have to carefully consider that, map it out, then shape a solution which hasn’t got one-size-fits all. It has to be tailored – almost to individual needs.’

Jon Taylor at ISG agrees: ‘Within an organisation you have got a series of employees who will all want to work in different ways. It’s not just about the organisation’s choice of working environment; it’s actually about those individuals.’

The people who had beanbags and slides are realising that’s not enough to retain staff

Moreover, office set-ups that work in one country may not do so elsewhere.  This is why ISG promotes the use of ‘test-floor’ prototypes – especially where global companies are opening up outposts in new locations.

Matt Hurrell of ISG explains: ‘Some of the bigger companies that have really engaged with flexible working space find that when they bring [that model] to London and do a test floor, it doesn’t necessarily translate in the same way. So we find ourselves helping to get those early test floors done and then the company lives in those test floors for a period of time to see if they work out.  Even within a business which recognises flexible working practices, one solution doesn’t always translate to different campuses around the world.’

ISG Roundtable

David Partridge of Argent

It is a challenge for a developer to plan for these individual needs way in advance and come up with solutions for problems as yet unidentified.

For David Partridge of Argent, the driving force behind the huge King’s Cross scheme in London, the bedrock of successful schemes is creating a desirable external ‘place’ – or ‘outside living room’ – rather than second guessing the bespoke interiors.

He explains: ‘There isn’t much character you can build into a big, half-acre office floor. So you have to put character into the bits that you can. And that’s outside. King’s Cross is a great example, where we don’t actually advertise the office buildings anymore, we market King’s Cross as the “place”.’

He adds: ‘Once you are inside the office, it’s not the main event, in many ways. That’s outside.’

But is a central office – a corporate ‘mothership’ – even needed today? Some companies have already begun offering new staff bigger salaries in compensation for not giving them an actual desk.  The extra cash is effectively the employee’s bursary to cover his or her own workspace needs.  That could be in a shared office, coffee shop or at home – the emerging scenario of the office being ‘nowhere’. 

Andrew Earwicker of Studio Seilern says: ‘The generation at school and university now are using social media and becoming far more introvert people. Are we actually developing a society which in 20 years doesn’t need an office? They are quite happy to work on their own as a business and will work in the Cloud.  They might use somebody in Brazil to do some tasks; they might pull in somebody else from China.’

ISG Roundtable

Karen Cook of PLP Architecture

‘Isn’t the office just a hangover from medieval times?’ asks Earwicker. ‘A physical marketplace for social interaction?’ It is an issue that concerns Jo Bartle, of Purcell. She says: ‘Employers expect a lot from their employees.  We expect them to be engaged online, all the time, so the boundary between home and work is very, very blurred.  Where does that boundary lie?’

But Michel Mossessian believes there is a swing back towards the office campus and a move, especially by larger tech companies, to try and tempt employees away from using their homes as remote, after-hours workstations. He says: ‘At the start of the internet and the new technologies, there were people like Larry Ellison at Oracle. This guy was pitching himself by his swimming pool with a computer. As a result, a lot of start-ups were hiring houses in Miami so they could reinvent the world from the side of their swimming pools.

Focusing on creating healthy and happy workplaces enables people to concentrate

‘But today the big providers of this type of stuff are building big campuses and saying, “You don’t take any work home”.’

Geoff Rich of Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios agrees. He says: ‘Recognising we are human beings is a great starting point, and focusing on creating healthy and happy workplaces is a key thing to enable people to concentrate and contemplate on what they are doing.’

And the emergence of corporate concern for the happiness and health of employees is adding a new level of consideration into the layout of the modern-day office.

Poole-Wilson predicts that prevention of ill-health among workers will be a growing responsibility of the office environment. He says: ‘Health and well-being is a very new part of design. 

‘It is about educating people as to how the office works and how we move around the office.’

He adds: ‘The chair is incredibly dangerous. It is terrible for your heart. But, for instance, some traders are looking at how you could lean back into it, make it more comfortable, and free up space. In fact there is a whole raft of really interesting new design interventions which could actually transform the office.’


  • Jo Bartle Purcell
  • Karen Cook  PLP Architecture
  • Andrew Earwicker Studio Seilern
  • Matt Hurrell ISG
  • Garry Mason Tsunami Axis
  • Graham McClements BDP
  • Michel Mossessian Mossessian and Partners
  • David Partridge Argent
  • William Poole-Wilson Pringle Brandon Perkins +Will
  • Geoff Rich  Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios
  • Jon Taylor ISG
  • Paul Finch  Architects’ Journal
  • Richard Waite  Architects’ Journal
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Readers' comments (1)

  • The key to a successful workplace, as with most things in life, is balance. People need spaces to concentrate, collaborate, and communicate, and the balance between these three varies between individuals. Flexible and remote working - Notdesking - give individuals more control over the balance in their own working lives. The role of the office should be to enhance that balance.

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