As companies restructure for an era of continuous change, they are placing new value on user experience. In the planning of new workplaces, that’s leading more designers and architects to adopt a co-creation approach.

More than just helping people feel seen and heard in the design process, co-creation is about users taking ownership of their space, and actively managing change in their work environment. Gathering employee insights is key to ensuring workspaces stay relevant for longer. Typical of the UX approach is not to see the end-result as fixed, but in a continuous feedback loop with users, subject to regular re-appraisal and improvement.

US firm Elkus Manfredi Architects co-created a Boston headquarters for Publicis Groupe. Its designers spent 12 months engaging each of the building’s 1,500 users, figuring out their motivations and frustrations, habits and hopes. ‘Co-creation is designed to unleash the hidden creativity, opportunities, and unique cultures of companies to create flexible, human-centric workplaces,’ wrote director Elizabeth Lowrey for Work Design. ‘It addresses elements of successful workplace design that are often not associated with architecture, such as culture management, open innovation, and agility.’ She describes the co-creation process as: listening and facilitating; prototyping, testing and revising ideas quickly with end users; and documenting and sharing the creative process openly. 

Cover and above: Publicis Groupe's Boston headquarters was designed by Elkus Manfredi Architects in collaboration with its 1,500 users. Photos: Eric Laigel

By positioning itself as both strategist and designer, the firm was able to translate wider employee insights about workplace culture right down to the tangible details. The idea of working from ‘home neighbourhoods’ and unique ‘joy spaces’ – informal cafés for each floor where staff come to relax, collaborate and feel inspired – are both features of the final project that were derived from employee feedback. The choice of colour palette, finish and theme of these spaces were down to the employees. Also on the wish-list for Publicis employees were major social spaces that people would be drawn to – a double-height amphitheatre that looks out onto Boston Harbour, and a rooftop terrace and lounge.  

Studio Banana uses the same user-centric design process across all its work, including architecture, graphics, product and service design. Founders Key Kawamura and Ali Ganjavian have employed the approach to create ‘work habitats’ for clients including Ernst & Young and McCann World Group. Based on weeks of staff interviews, an initial discovery phase is used to define the company’s purpose and strategy, done by creating user profiles and scenarios. These are analysed to form the key drivers and vision for the project. ‘Like most good ideas, it sounds simple enough, but co-design isn’t as easy as sending out a survey and getting a ping pong table. To do it right you need to watch employees work, talk to them about their needs, and identify those hard to pinpoint habits which make each workspace a unique ecosystem,’ the founders explain in their studio journal.

Studio Banana reimagined McCann's colourful Madrid offices to be more creativity-inspiring and collaborative. Photos: Rubén P. Bescós

Before 500 McCann employees moved to a new space in Madrid, Studio Banana’s process revealed a lack of creativity and community among staff who were working on different floors in heavily subdivided spaces. Employees are involved in the concept design too, which is visualized and simulated to test out scenarios from all users’ perspectives. The resulting design for McCann was defined by open floorplates that maximize daylight. Shared facilities like brainstorming rooms are housed in ‘huts’ that carry a local flavour in materials such as ceramic tiles or woven basketry. The office has bespoke desks that allow staff to personalize them. They can also arrange the desks’ acoustic panels according to their privacy preferences. Once the project is completed, there is a period of aftercare that involves training staff to get the best from the space, ongoing evaluation and impact assessment. 

Like the Publicis headquarters, the McCann workspace benefits from an end-to-end process where the designer has a total role in gathering information, interpreting it and implementation. For large companies the task of employee survey and analysis is usually done by external consultants and handed over to architects and designers. A more bespoke and targeted space can be achieved when the process is carried out holistically. For small and medium companies without the budget to work with a workplace consultant, designers and architects can provide added value by embracing UX methodologies in their approach. That’s a win for clients and the continued relevance of the spaces we create. ‘Beyond aesthetics, good design is about understanding and shaping an employee’s experience within a space,’ say Studio Banana’s founders. ‘Yes, it boosts productivity. And yes, it gives employees buy-in. But even more importantly, it creates an environment that encourages creative ideation and news ways of working, both crucial elements in the knowledge economy.’