Magnetic Workplaces: Can Design Bring Us Back Together?

Reviving workplaces after global work-from-home orders is presenting challenges for employers and designers. How can we create spaces that are as magnetic as hospitality destinations, as personal as homes, as democratised as virtual worlds and that help employees to perform?

In 2020, the working world experienced the largest cultural shift since the industrial revolution. The rapid adoption of remote working brought with it a reality check for workplaces, which found themselves instantaneously replaced by video-call ringtones, novelty backgrounds and the promise of accomplishing more without the need to commute or congregate.

Now, as businesses seek to draw employees back together to create a sense of belonging, unity and momentum, real-world environments are having to work harder, in different ways.

Visiting employees expect privacy and comforts borrowed from home environments. Blended workforces technology needs to make the real and virtual experience seamless. Hesitation about the future of work combined with shared spaces used for a wider variety of tasks means that flexible facilities are paramount.

Paradoxically, workplaces are having to cater to more varied and individual demands made by a workforce that is accustomed to autonomous choice, every moment of the working day, however chance human interaction is one of the key return-to-work drivers.

Magnetic Workplaces - Hub Flinders St, Melbourne Designed By Hassell Studio - Design Show Australia
Hub Flinders St, Melbourne, Photographer: Anson Smart, Designer: Hassell Studio

Rebecca Trenorden, Associate Director of Melbourne based architecture and interior design studio Carr emphasises the return on effort barrier that exists post-Covid.

“The workplace is now a destination whereby the commute needs to be earnt. A workplace precinct that offers workers access to numerous facilities, from health, retail, social and events is in demand, as is one with greater social function, rather than individuals working alone.” 

Pablo Albani, Principal of Interior Design at multi-disciplinary agency GroupGSA cites the ‘three C’s’ as guiding principles for evolving workplace design; collaboration, connection and culture. 

“There is less emphasis on the neighbourhood and ownership of the desk. Instead, organisations are increasing the allocation for space for collaboration to up to sixty percent, which also means the expectation of alternative amenities to attract people to the office. This is not necessarily ping-pong tables but diverse spaces with an uplift in the design aesthetic.”

Magnetic Workplaces - Computershare Melbourne Designed by Hassell Studio - Design Show Australia
Computershare, Melbourne, Photographer: Earl Carter, Designer: Hassell Studio

One of Albani’s clients in Western Sydney has commissioned a head office due for completion in 2024 that heroes the decentralisation of departments and hierarchies. The space houses destination levels that cater to different functions, such as cross-team collaboration and training, with collaboration being the building’s primary purpose, instead of completion of individual tasks.

While cynics might see dining facilities as a ploy to keep staff working longer hours, Domino Risch, Hassell Studio’s co-director of workplace and commercial projects believes borrowing from age-old dining rituals instigates the necessary bonding for professional teams to perform.

“Earlier this year, we surveyed 2,500 office workers around the world about their attitudes to and experiences of work. When we asked about features that would be likely to attract them back to the office, the most popular in every city and region around the world was ‘free food and coffee’.

It’s a very human desire for people to come together over food; to celebrate, bond and share in meal. Like the idea of the kitchen being the heart of a home, large scale internal kitchens or café spaces are becoming the hospitality, social and collaborative ‘heart’ of tomorrow’s workplace.”

Seclusion, privacy and greenery were close runners-up in Hassell’s study, reflected in the growing demand for green spaces such as terraces and rooftop gardens, and tech-free rooms, acoustically sheltered alcove seating and spatial design that traps sound rather than carrying it. 

Design Show Australia exhibitors Acoustica Projects provide bespoke consultation for workplaces and Burgtec and iOctane both provide flexible pod solutions. Burgtec’s Australian-made systems include single-occupancy pods ideal for phone calls and enclosed meeting booths that cocoon employees in acoustic dampening walls. 

Both blended working—employees participating in the real-world and virtually—and an increased understanding of inclusivity, especially neurodiversity are driving product choices.

“In a hybrid meeting, there is a disparity between those that are present and those dialling in,” flags Albani, which is driving changing attitudes to on and off-line inclusion.

“The notion of the standard design for a meeting room has been redefined and reshaped to create equal footing for those in the room and those that are remote—something we have never embraced to such a level before.”

 Listening to learnings about individuals’ work habits formed during time away from the office has enabled businesses to gain a deeper understanding of how they can support their workforce’s neurological needs. A renewed understanding of what Domino calls the ‘invisible’ diversity spectrum means future workplaces will respect and cater to introverts, extroverts and neurodiverse individuals, without feeling segregated.

GroupGSA’s research body The Working Brain exists solely to further the architecture and design industry’s understanding of neurodiversity to inform projects that the group undertakes. Primarily partnered with the University of Missouri, the team also includes clinical psychologists, autism activists and street artist Jeremyville, who collaborate on new concepts for inclusive, psychologically safe spaces.

Magnetic Workplaces - Financial Services Organisation, Sydney - Design Show Australia
Financial Services Organisation, Sydney, Photographer: Nicole England, Designer: Hassell Studio

Carr expects consultants across accessibility, change management, indigenous representation and elders to be commonplace as businesses seek to be truly inclusive in respectful, informed and actionable ways. 

If anything, the last 24 months has reminded businesses that the future is uncertain. The ability to move with both macro-influences and employee micro-expectations contributes significantly to a business’s resilience, but only if underpinned by a culture that embraces change in all facets.

“Clients want flexibility and mobility to anticipate change but it’s easier said than done. It requires an organisation shift that companies are not necessarily ready for,” reminds Albani. Those that are ready will lead the charge.

This article was provided by Design Show Australia’s content partner, Trout Creative Thinking. Trout is Australia’s only living brands agency—a creative agency dedicated to servicing businesses within the homemaker, renovation, build and construction sectors, to shape how we live and work. 

Clare Acheson from Trout is speaking as part of Design Show Australia’s program.