Category Archives: Workplace

Do our clients see interior design as a product? Do we as an industry?

enduro cart by i k o, on FlickrFor me the next question that then follows, if our clients do see interior design (or architecture) as a product, or if we do, is that a problem anyway, and does it change the way we design?Last time I wrote I compared some aspects of the workplace to a Chanel handbag, but it wasn’t actually connected thoughts that lead to these questions and title of today’s post. The musings in this post are based upon some comments at Sydney Indesign’s WorkLife day held recently as part of the new and expanded design festival that used to be Saturday InDesign (for some highlights of the more traditional showroom side of the event, visit yellowtrace). The WorkLife day was subtitled with what has become the most popular seminar/talk theme this year – of course it was “The Future of the Workspace”. It was the third event this year I have attended with a similar title (and I missed the recent similar event hekd at the Museum of Sydney – which despite being over $400 for the day apparently sold out). I’m very pleased to see so much focus, discussion and education happening around workplace design in Australia right now, and I thought that having a more formal program alongside the indesign showroom and exhibition event was a great idea. I will say though whoever holds the next workplace design seminar probably needs to think of a different title – I will suggest you could use the “trend” key words collaboration, serendipity and authenticity instead perhaps? Certainly if you are directing your message at an industry crowd.

The format of the day was a series of 4 panel talks with time in between for networking and exploring the exhibition hub of Sydney Indesign – Galleria (at Australia Technology Park, Eveleigh). Whilst the amount of time for the sessions was fine for panel talks (around 45 mins), I felt that towards the end of the day the panels were losing focus and perhaps we could have gotten more out of the day with more prepared presentations or specific project images and discussion, in order to give the panels more to focus on. The line up of Australian interior designers and other workplace consultants was impressive including team members from most of the large ABW projects completed here in the last 10 years or so. (For the full program see the WorkLife website) Paul McGillick from Indesign did do a good job at keeping the panel members talking and trying to get contributions from everyone involved, but there are times when even the best moderators can’t stop those determined to put out their own message (We don’t really want to be sold product at these kind of events). The format of the event didn’t really lend itself to a narrative blog post summarizing each speaker and so I’ve been pondering over the last week in what format I would share it with you.

In the end, one of the discussions that has stuck in my mind the most, was during the first session of the day – “Who’s Afraid of ABW – Is the Party Over?” – with Matthew Blain (HASSELL), Rosemary Kirkby (formerly MLC, NAB & GPT) & Stephen Minnett (Futurespace). It was Rosemary who raised the suggestion that there is a danger that the term Activity Based Working has now in Australia become popularized and many organisations wanting to define themselves as progressive will start to say to their designers – yes I’ll have one of those thanks. Stephen agreed seeing that we are in danger of jumping to another stereotype. The old stereotype was open plan workstations, low partitions and a breakout area with “kindergarten furniture”. He believes that ABW will fail if done as a copy paste, within conventuals time frames without engaging with business leaders and HR. It will fail if drive by the “wombats” in FM and procurement. (I loved this comment and was very tempted to use a wombat image for this post – and in case there are any of you in FM and procurement reading – I would say the fact you are reading a blog about interior design means you can rest assured that you are not one of the wombats).

It is really from these points that my own thought process starts to take over, influenced by other comments and discussions throughout the day as well as my own experiences with clients and designers. At some level, no matter how we feel about it, I believe design is a product. Particularly to our clients. Our clients are engaging us to provide solutions to their problems – and at the end of the day – more often that it these solutions are physical spaces. This is partly because of the procurement process – if we don’t provide a physical space we don’t earn fees, but it is also because that is what we are trained in, and what we know. Sometimes as interior designers and architects we can make the mistake of thinking that design can lead a greater program of change, be that at the office of the city level. I going to be bold and say, it can’t. It can’t lead such processes, but it can be a key part of successful change. We as interior designers don’t have the business background or the necessary skills to lead our clients in changing their workplaces or their technology. If at the end of the day, they don’t engage in the idea that ABW is about their business processes at a much bigger level than just a new office – we can’t make them. As designers, we can’t change their IT systems or their management structures, or their workplace culture. We can educate and influence them perhaps, but they need to come to the party (and bring their whole management team, HR,IT, FM and the rest along with them) if they want a successful ABW solution.

Like Le Corbusiers Unité d’Habitation which inspired so many inferior copies that became the model for apartment slums, are we in danger of the same thing occurring with ABW offices – design solutions which take the physical appearances and funky furniture settings of ABW environments – but not the business change, the use data and the problem solving behind the design. Will these be the workplace slums of the future (this is an idea I’ve had tucked away for ages and had been looking for the right blog post to share it in!) I guess the real question could be, is that any worse or any different to how workplaces are designed today? As Stephen point out, ABW could be next in an already long line of trends.

I thinks perhaps this is not so much a danger, as an opportunity. Yes, ABW could end up another trend, but this is perhaps more due to clients attitudes than things we as individual interior designers or architects can control. Our clients frequently treat workplace design as a product – separate from their business. So many of them do view it as “buying a new office”, a task best left to facilities and procurement – not HR and management. Perhaps sometimes it becomes something management wants to be involved in, and they start to treat it like buying a new car or their own home. Whenever we are engaged because we are the cheapest or because the client wants our practice for their name or their brand – we truly are a product. But to me, at our end, if our firms talk about”house styles” or we specify something just because no one else has it yet, we see ourselves as a product. If we don’t understand that our clients are buying a product and we give them what we think they need without questioning or engaging with them and their business needs, then we are giving them an inferior product. If though at the end of the day, we give them a design which meets their current perceived needs, then that’s ok too. That’s a product they want to buy. If we can work with them to deliver an amazing design solution that enhances wellbeing and productivity, it doesn’t matter if we call it ABW or something else, then that’s a great outcome, but at some level – it is still a product.

Being a product isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If its a crappily designed and produced product that people don’t enjoying using and want to send to landfill the next week, then yes it is a bad thing. But consider that the iPhone is a product too – and is both revolutionary and great design. I think I’d be happy if my next fitout was compared to an iPhone – wouldn’t you?

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Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License by i k o

What could a workplace and a Chanel handbag have in common?

My first ever Chanel 2.55 by rosebennet, on FlickrRecently I attended a de.frost* event, the topic was The Future of Workspaces, featuring Natalie Slessor, Head of Workplace at Lend Lease. Firstly let me say I think the concept Frost* have putting on these events is great. I guess you would describe Frost* as a graphic design agency (but they seem to be much more than this could mean) and once a month they organise an event in their office with a speaker, put on some drinks and nibbles (all pretty low key) and invite a bunch of people that they work with ( clients, architects, designers, project managers, builders). This was the first of their events I’d been to (although it is up to number 15 apparently) and I thought it was a great event. I had the chance to catch up with quite a number of people, meet a few new ones and hear a great speaker, I thought it was a really good mix – and that they got a good balance of time between the formal part of the evening and the informal mixing and networking – which often seems to be something that event organisers find a difficult balance.

So onto the speaker, Natalie Slessor. I’ve seen her speak before (at GBCA’s Workplaces of the Future Summit, see my previous blog entry) and she is a great presenter with a very interesting point of view on the workplace. Natalie is an environmental psychologist at Lend Lease – not a consultant that is common on our workplace project teams in Australia (or I think even in psychology here – I know quite a few psychologists and I’ve never met another environmental psych working in Australia. Maybe we don’t train them? Natalie is from the UK and the only other ones I’ve met or heard of are from the UK too…)

As I mentioned, Natalie is also a great presenter, and I’m starting to see that she likes to use different presentation structures as a storytelling technique. The presentation this evening was structured around a single slide with a grid of images with each row and column connecting ideas. It was a very effective technique,and I’m sure whilst it looked simple it must have taken a lot of work to simplify such complex ideas down to a 2 way grid of 24 squares! You can view the slide below.

PowerPoint Presentation

The key question of Natalie’s talk was “What is the Workplace for”.  Now I didn’t take any notes at the talk and I’m going to try and retell the story based on the images alone. So any misinterpretations are entirely my own,and I’m sure I will have missed some great points but perhaps some of my readers will have something to add (I know a few of you were there!). Following Natalie’s presentation there was plenty of time for discussion and questions, some of which I’ve woven into the story – there was of course plenty more form many viewpoints and those of you that we’re there can add your own stories of the night to the comments. (Or even if you weren’t – now you can be part of the discussion).  I’ll also state here that the references to the Chanel handbag are my own…but you will see the link.

First like Natalie did I’m going to explain what each row of the grid represents. The first row is the history reasons why the workplace exists. The second to fourth rows are about where we have been, where we are now and the direction we are moving towards. The fifth row is about psychology and the final row is what Natalie believes we should be aiming for in a workplace.

Now the first image is easy to remember – the workplace was created as a container. A container for the tools and machines to do the work, that were too expensive, too large (or too dirty?) for us to have in our homes. Gathering all these tools and people together created efficiency (this is what the cogs represent). Until recently, work meant physical things – whether it was a product or a piece of paper – so by co-locating eve white collar workers, efficiencies were gained – I can hand you that paper rather than mail it. So the office was also for gathering people together, as shown in the third image. The final image represents the workplace as being inspirational. Creating a place, creates part of the company identity, and historically inspiring loyalty was also part of the workplace equation. This row of images was why the workplace was created, and to some extent the second row, where have we been, covers a lot of the same ground. The workplace was a manual process (film), where ever more process efficiencies were to be gained (a portrait of Taylor – well known for applying production process thinking to workspace design known as Taylorism or scientific management). Buildings were designed as statements about the companies they housed with branding part of the building design. The Money Box building in Sydney was home to the Commonwealth Bank and I’m sure you recognize the Chrysler Building, one of the most branded buildings I’ve ever come across (I recollect there are parts inspired by hubcaps as well as other car parts and the Chrysler logo, I think also it was one of the first buildings to use metallic materials that were more akin to cars at the time). Part of this design ethos was also giving employees something to aspire to – I will climb my way up to the top floor or the corner office.

Not much of this seems quite so relevant today does it? Buildings are anonymous and owned by investors not branded for occupants, and who as a Gen X or younger would ever picture (or likely even aspire to) a corner office with an ensuite? Moving onto the next row of images we are living in a digital world and over the last few years have moved towards more and more mobile technology – Samsung “life companion” pictured. (From this point in the presentation Natalie was moving down the columns not across the row). The future workplace no longer needs to be a container for the tools, however the tools are just as important as they ever were for getting the job done. One of the things that can lead to the most stress is not having the right tools (eg slow or unreliable Internet connections).

With more mobile technology and as what we do for work has changed into knowledge work, the ideas of efficiency are no longer what they once were. Work is not necessarily the place where we get our best work done or have our best ideas. Whilst many offices are laid out like a place to house computers and well suited to a life of email, they are not well suited to either focused work or face to face communicative work. Natalie sees activity based working as a possible solution. Giving people a choice of an environment appropriate to the task should allow people to get more work done, and therefore reduce stress levels. Whilst there is a big focus on collaborative work and spaces in many ABW fitouts, its just as important that ABW design solutions don’t forget spaces for concentration and focused work either (and places for email too I guess).

As the workplace has become more varied, so too have the places that we work. Work has spilled out of the offices and into coffee shops and public spaces (MLC center pictured). The choice of where the workplace is and what facilities the surrounding area offers is becoming more important. No longer do most people want a workplace that is surrounded only by other workplaces. They want access to cafes, shops, entertainment, parks, childcare – places to go during breaks or after work, access to services. New precincts such as Barrangaro (Natalie’s admitted this as her one little plug for Lend Lease), a whole new piece of the city, need to be designed to consider people’s fulfillment and wellbeing, not just as workplaces.

Balance is what many people are seeking, rather than climbing the ladder. Social responsibility is also going to become a moe important driver for future generations (for me this slide/statement didn’t quite seem to fit into the flow of the narrative). There was some discussion also of the authenticity of the workplace design, and the importance of the workplace design being meaningful to what the company actually does and represents.

What will inspire us in the workplace of the future? Can we create more buildings and workplaces that in themselves inspire us by their design? Design that helps us to get work done, to focus or collaborate, to promote wellbeing and reduce stress. And it’s of all design that inspires. And this is where the link to Chanel comes into the story. The last slide is an image of a temporary building designed by Zaha Hadid as a Chanel exhibition. It was demountable and traveled around the world. Whilst obviously not very sustainable, Natalie found the building and the project inspirational. This is where my link to the Chanel handbag comes in, I also see a connection here with the first row, the container and the aspiration to the corner office – maybe now we don’t need a workplace container, or to aspire to space, we aspire to the handbag which also happens to be a container for the technology? (For women anyway) or we aspire to some other symbol that travels with us (Shoes? Laptops? Clothing? Maybe not such good containers?). So perhaps the office doesn’t need to provide these anymore. I know I’d certainly rather see inspiration and wellbeing than corner offices in my workplace anyway.

What would you like to see in your workplace if the future? Do you think we can design to reduce stress and increase wellbeing? What would this look like to you? We know we can design buildings to inspire – what are the hurdles which prevent all buildings and workplaces from being inspiring? Or do you still want the corner office with ensuite plus parking? Would this motivate you to work harder?

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