An online seminar hosted by Schüco and Architecture Today explored emerging trends in workplace design.

Among the many changes brought about by the Coronavirus pandemic has been the upsurge in people working from home. This has accelerated a trend that began more than two decades ago and shows no sign of slowing post-Covid. An online seminar hosted by Schueco UK and Architecture Today explored the latest thinking on a return to the office, the importance of design for work in the most significant new workplace – the home – as well recent examples of innovation in the commercial sector. The panel comprised Dr Frances Holliss, Workhome Project, School of Art, Architecture & Design, London Metropolitan University; Mat Hunter, Co-CEO of Plus X; and Carl Turner, founding director of Turner Works.

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Speakers (from left to right): Dr Frances Holliss, Carl Turner and Mat Hunter

Mat Hunter began his presentation by identifying three ‘forces of innovation’ that are shaping today’s workplace. The first is demand: what skills are required of the workforce? Here the ability to innovate and work collaboratively rank highly. The second is supply: who are businesses employing? A new generation of millennial workers is bringing about cultural change related to work-life balance, career trajectory, learning and even the meaning of work itself, explained Hunter. Last but not least is the acceleration of new trends bought about by the Coronavirus pandemic.

We need more from our workplaces not less

Hunter explored how these drivers are impacting the design of ‘knowledge workplaces’ through Plus X Brighton, a recently completed innovation hub in East Sussex, designed by Studio Egret West. He explained how the building is able to support uncertainty, attract diverse talent, foster collaboration, drive productivity and support its purpose through a range of organisational, infrastructure and cultural imperatives.

“I think we need more from our workplaces not less,” concluded Hunter. “Too often there has been a knee jerk reaction; traditional workplaces don’t work anymore, so we need to work from home. There is no new ‘one size’ to replace the old ‘one size’. This is not about physical infrastructure, its about organisational culture support. We have to evolve our businesses; be more collaborative, innovative, agile and resilient. The workplace has to facilitate all these things.”

According to Francis Holliss, the shift to home-based working was a ‘big story’ even before the Coronavirus pandemic, with around 14 per cent of the UK’s workforce (4.2 million people) already working from home. “Covid 19 has been a massive global experiment in working from home,” she said. “Nearly 50 per cent of the UK population are currently working from home-based offices, and statistics show that 70 per cent of them are equal to or more productive than before, with 88 per cent wanting to continue post Covid, due to factors such as reduced stress and better work-life balance. The trouble is,” she continued, “houses are traditionally designed for people to cook, eat, bathe, watch TV and sleep – not work.”

One size absolutely does not fit all”

A relatively small study undertaken by Holliss of 76 home-based workers from a wide range of occupations and geographic locations revealed eight different categories of worker. “Recognising the extent and complexity of the workforce is the first step in being able to design for it,” she said. “One size absolutely does not fit all. There are four variables: occupation, nature of the household, available space, and personality of the home-based worker.”

Holliss went on to identify three key design themes that can better support home working: spatial generosity, agency – the degree to which people can adapt their environments to suit their needs – and visibility. The latter aims to reduce social isolation and issues related to occupational identity by making dwellings less inward looking and promoting shared community spaces. In the final part of her presentation Holliss explored these themes in practice through two innovative residential schemes in Holland by MVRDV and Jo Janssen Architects respectively.

Covid means that people have rediscovered localism

Carl Turner presented three of his practice’s ‘local workspace’ projects, all based in London: Pop Brixton, Peckham Levels and Hackney Bridge. Conceived as a ‘mini-city’, Pop Brixton uses 60 up-cycled shipping containers to form a walled campus with a central communal courtyard and outdoor dining space. Built in collaboration with a local construction college, the business incubator allows companies to begin with just a desk in a shared workspace, before graduating to a shipping container, and then leaving the complex as a sustainable and established entity.

Building on the success of Pop Brixton, Peckham Levels is a significantly larger project comprising more than 7400 square-metres of flexible workspace. Occupying part of an existing multi-storey car park, the development includes creative studios, shared workshops, co-working and kiln rooms. “The scheme tests notions of what is temporary and what is permanent,” said Turner. “It’s a platform for local people. We asked, what do people really need in order to progress their businesses? Covid means that people have rediscovered localism.”

The final project, Hackney Bridge is located on a brownfield canal-side site close to the Olympic Park. Organised around a central courtyard, the campus-like development forms close links with the surrounding urban area. Drawing inspiration from local industrial buildings, the five steel-framed warehouse structures are conceived as affordable ‘blank canvases’ for the tenants. Equally important are the spaces between the buildings, which can be used for daytime making and evening events. “Developing workspaces is thinking more about the possibility of what might happen, rather than being too prescriptive,” concluded Turner. “It’s all about the people. The buildings are there to create opportunities for them. As such, the structures aren’t too precious; life should be able to take over.”

The webinar provided a range of viewpoints on a highly topical subject that affects most people’s lives and is constantly evolving.