People-centred research conducted by creative studio Space & Pepper reveals how the traditional office should be reimagined to better fit the radically changed needs of the modern worker.

For Hana Ahriz and Franziska Heuschkel, the Berlin-based creators of ‘human-centric concepts for community and shared spaces’, the COVID-19 crisis sparked creative thinking. With the launch of The Curiosity project, the duo set out to brainstorm and prototype design solutions for a better future in all areas of life. First up: work. To find out the main incentives for people to return to an office when they have the opportunity to work from home indefinitely, they conducted a series of in-depth interviews. With this, Ahriz and Heuschkel were able to identify the fundamental needs that most of our current office set-ups fail to fulfil. 

‘We are craving social interaction, in-person teamwork and learning from real people and real stories,’ says Ahriz about the outcomes of their research. ‘As we take a look into the future, we see a need for a more mindful balance between the freedom of remote work and the restriction of traditional office hours. Commuting will no longer be a fixed part of the work day, which changes our everyday time division. Outdoor spaces for work and social gatherings will experience a new high. And, as business travel slows down and focuses on more intentional trips, we will experience a rise of "workations" and hybrid-location models. Third spaces will rise as valuable break-out options to work, meet and create.’

The forecasted rise of the hybrid and multi-location work models will have implications for the role of the hub office, too. ‘Offices will need to be thoughtfully redesigned around principles of human interaction, which in turn will need to be addressed on an operational, physical and mental level,' Heuschkel adds. This is where the studio’s concept for the 'Two-Day Office' comes in. Shining a new light on office space, the ‘prototype’ is based around limited, yet more targeted and more collaborative time spent with co-workers. ‘We imagine a more people-centred future for the physical office, with a multitude of usages, always placing human interaction at the heart of its operations.’ Three principles derived from the interview process guided the conceptualization. Here, Ahriz and Heuschkel explain what they envision with the design of a two-day office and share a set of actionable takeaways that will help workplace designers and patrons adopt their philosophy.

Socialization takes centre stage

WFH has reduced our in-person interactions to our inner circle and transferred a big part of our communications to Zoom. However, online meetings lack the organic and unforced nature of face-to-face meetings. 'Ever since I started working from home I feel less connected to my colleagues and like I miss out on what’s going on,’ an executive of a software company shared with us. Social interactions and gatherings seem essential for employee engagement and motivation, so it’s key to create an office environment that fosters socialization in its many forms – from a quick post-meeting check-in with a colleague to an unexpected run-in with a higher ranking executive. Shared spaces must be revisited with the goal to allow not for one, but a range, of communication opportunities. Activating unused hallways or waiting areas as casual meeting points or rearranging open workspace with a homogeneous table set-up into more clustered zones can help in achieving this goal.

 Takeaways

- Replicate coffee-shop vibes by centralizing action around a community table and introducing a people connector in a barista role.

- Provide a variety of seating, allowing people to adjust according to the time and depth of a conversation and amount of conversation partners.

- Introduce conversation starters in the form of screens and magazines showcasing changing industry news and company events.

Imagination replaces routine

As we reduced the radius of our mobility and variety of our activities, the word ‘ routine’ gained an increasingly negative connotation. There is a sensation of  ‘losing time’ as big parts of our waking hours became repetitive. The result is a strong urge to ‘beam out’ of our known environment – a ‘prison break’ from our routines. ‘I don't have a sense of time anymore when I work from home. Sometimes it’s like I’m trapped, seeing the same things around me all the time,’ a single mother working full-time for an e-commerce company commented. ‘What I miss most lately is a place to breathe fresh air. I loved the patio at my company. Those evening barbecues in the summer were a game-changer,’ mentioned a software engineer. What lies behind these comments is more than just a different tapestry to lay our eyes on. People seek variety in their experiences and emotions, which results in the perception of a more fulfilled life. The office cannot and should not replace third spaces or travelling. However, even with a generally fixed floor plan, offices can adapt areas to support temporary activations and displays. Further, there are many opportunities to sprinkle experiential highlights throughout employees’ work day. Offices should provide change from what is known and expected, bringing in elements of novelty and positive surprise.

Takeaways

- Opt for flexible furniture that’s modular and adjustable. Different spatial experiences can be generated by avoiding fixed or built-in furniture.

- Redesign with your human resources. Shared and social spaces can be reimagined once a year by inviting employees to give a voice to their preferences.

- Promote pop-up activations. They can provide a quick escape into a world of inspiration. 

 Flexibility is foregrounded

One of the human talents that suffered most during the pandemic is creativity. While creativity has different faces, for many it surfaces easier while collaborating with people, using proper equipment or having a dedicated place to ideate. Remote work leaves fewer opportunities to physically interact with subjects of work and inspiration. ‘I miss seeing and touching what I’m working with. I miss the buzz I get from working with my colleagues, the magic of creating new stuff together,’ mentioned a product designer. In most cases, the home office is stripped of dedicated places, tools and people needed for creative co-creation and collaboration. ‘Using a whiteboard is a bit old-school but I find it convenient for ideation,’ observed an employee from a fashion brand. ‘I love our workshop space, it’s like tapping into a different world. Being creative, being in the moment, surrounded by inspiration.’ The creative process happens differently for every person. When it comes to office space, we therefore need to design for flexibility, thus facilitating as many areas and occasions with potential to foster creative work as possible.

Takeaways

- Provide modular and flexible workshop space with pull-out equipment for spontaneous ideation. Creativity and innovation often happen improvised and off-schedule and such spaces can help facilitate these moments.  

- Create opportunities for employees to physically interact with products or services. It will allow them to tap into their senses and spark new ideas. Think of showrooms with interchanging exhibitions and activations such as product testing.

- Support a range of creative working styles with a mixture of isolated, intimate one-person booths, collaborative workshop rooms and more.

For offices to emerge stronger from this crisis, they will need to identify the core activities that employees consider most valuable to happen in that physical office and (re-)design their interiors accordingly. This, Space & Pepper believes, ‘will ultimately help us manoeuvre away from the generic Monday-to-Friday, nine-to-five operations and steer us towards a more targeted, human-centric and time-conscious solution’.