The office’s social future seems assured, but accessibility must come to the fore if the typology is to continue blurring the boundaries of public and private space.

The office is increasingly expected to fulfil employees’ needs for social interaction. It’s no surprise that the rise of remote work has exacerbated general feelings of isolation – an ‘epidemic’ of loneliness has been reported in the US, with 61 per cent of Americans feeling lonely, compared to 54 per cent in 2018. It also showed men are more likely to feel lonely at work compared to women, along with junior employees, and those at executive level, who often work from private offices. In the UK, a worrying 3 in 5 people say they feel lonely at work, costing employers €4.4bn a year in absenteeism, staff turnover and lack of productivity. Nearly all visions of the future workplace agree it should facilitate more social interaction. But most are vague on how to achieve it. Nuanced thinking is required to tackle this sensitive and highly subjective issue.

Photo : Harry Godfrey

No.6 Babmaes Street in London by Fathom Architects is designed as a stand-alone social space to be used by The Crown Estate’s clients in the local area as an extension of its traditional offices. Photo: James Balston

The birth of the non-office

To attract workers back to the office, post-pandemic workplaces are replacing the usual rows of desks with unprogrammed open space to create more opportunities for interaction. This was advertising agency Mothers approach with its latest Brooklyn headquarters, which it calls ‘the future of not working’. Designed by Shadow Architect, a practice with more experience in New York lofts and coffee shops than workspaces, the 5,574-sq-m former warehouse is said to have vast floor plates filled with plants, beaded curtains and sofas for lounging, but no individual offices. Employees have assigned workspaces that change every few weeks. The free and flexible space is designed to inspire creativity and collaboration, though there are considerations for 1:1 conversations, smaller huddles and private work. 

No work at all happens at No.6 Babmaes Street, London. The Crown Estate commissioned Fathom Architects to design this stand-alone social space, which was completed in 2020, to be used by its clients in the local area as an extension of its traditional offices. Simon Harding-Roots, the companys managing director for London, states: ‘This is a new type of space for The Crown Estate. Babmaes is. . . a suitable response to an evolving world, complementing our customers’ existing office space, and designed to host meetings, enable collaboration and provide a different environment to more traditional office settings.’ Social spaces include a wellness studio that doubles up as an exhibition space, dining area, lounge and a roof terrace. The non-office trend is set to rise among companies who want to give their workers the same perks and experience as they would in a co-working space. 

Co-working space The Commons at South Yarra in Melbourne includes a makerspace among its amenities.

Small gestures add up

Creating space for social interaction within the workplace doesnt mean it will automatically happen. A small number of meaningful relationships with our colleagues can be more important to our wellbeing than numerous fleeting ones. Employers thinking of ditching workstations altogether should consider this. UK-based design collective Loneliness Lab found that feelings of isolation in the workplace creep up among those without an allocated desk or team area. Co-workers, who are used to hot-desking and finding themselves alongside different colleagues each day, ranked the second loneliest after home workers in its 2019 survey. Its not easy to form meaningful relationships with someone you cant find in the same space you did a week ago. 

The Labs report on workplace loneliness is full of ideas for smaller gestures that can improve meaningful interactions. These include digital-free zones where face-to-face interaction is encouraged, moveable rather than fixed furniture that allows people to join conversations easily, and standing-height desks without central barriers to encourage conversation. Shared facilities, like bike storage, bathrooms and kitchens, should be spacious to allow people to spend a comfortable amount of time in. The report proposes that thoughtful touches in these places could become conversation starters. Circulation spaces should also be generous to allow for chance encounters.

Beyond social amenities, those with a focus on activity – like gyms, yoga studios, basketball courts, learning and workshop spaces – could help employees bond over shared interests. Co-working space The Commons at South Yarra in Melbourne includes a makerspace among its amenities. Following on from the thinking behind the Mens Sheds community space movement, these could be particularly useful in helping employees feel comfortable engage in personal conversations side-by-side, rather than face-to-face.

Cover and above: 105 Victoria Street, Henning Larsen’s first project in London, is a prototype for what the active and social office of the future can be.

Addressing loneliness at large

Features of workspace and hospitality design continue to converge. The design of No.6 Babmaes Street alludes to exclusive members’ clubs, reflecting a growing function of the office to entertain clients and collaborators in-house, where they can soak up a companys values. Another tactic for increasing social interaction is for office developments to reach outwards with public-facing amenities such as event spaces and gardens. Corporate lobbies in particular have been undergoing a revolution to become coffee shops, co-working space or even mini-marketplaces, as Henning Larsen plans for its first London development. 

Office buildings must become more than simply a space to work, and neighbourhoods places we can truly live, work and play,’ wrote Claire Bailey, director of commercial research at Savills. Businesses need to think of themselves as public amenities with amazing experiences attached, nurturing the people who live around them.’ She believes that designing for social connection should be a new standard in development. Employees spending time volunteering in the local community could improve neighbourly connections.

However, Future Spaces Foundation warns about the reality of privately owned public space. Private landowners have the power to constrain the use of outdoor areas like plazas and parks, often at the expense of local communities. Sometimes constraints come in the form of unaccommodating amenities, like a lack of seating, which could have the effect of marginalizing a garden square that might otherwise be a site for kids to play and parents to socialize,’ it states in its 2019 report on urban loneliness, Kinship in the City. Other times its a question of access, with owners limiting public opening hours in favour of private engagements; or behaviour, with restrictions on activity in the space, like ball games or protests.’

Such a conflict emerged at the privately owned public space around Londons Kings Cross in 2019. The Financial Times reported facial recognition cameras were being used to track shoppers without consent. If offices do take it upon themselves to address the issue of loneliness at large, the public spaces generated will need to be genuinely accessible to improve a neighbourhoods social ties.