We sat down with our very own Tom Aird, Project Director at Dthree, DeVono Cresa’s in-house design and build team, to talk about how they help clients transform their workplaces into a tool for talent before the design process has even begun.

With the UK experiencing record employment levels, businesses are facing stiff competition when attracting and retaining staff. As a consequence, the design of the workplace and its role in influencing workplace culture is emerging as a differentiator for top talent.

As project director of DeVono Cresa’s in-house design and build team, Dthree, Tom Aird is better placed than most to share the lowdown on this burgeoning trend. We sat down with him to talk about the varying approaches businesses take to workplace design and the challenge of designing for an increasingly diverse workforce.

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QUALITY OF WORK LIFE: WAKING UP TO EMPLOYEE NEEDS

A seismic shift in how and where employees work has occurred in recent years. The emergence of quirky and diverse workplaces, as exemplified by the current stock of serviced offices and impressive facilities that come with modern corporate working environments, means employees now have higher expectations of their everyday surroundings.

And with wellbeing initiatives such as the ‘Well’ certification – which sees diverse aspects from air quality to natural daylight provision providing the new standard for office environments – enhanced workplaces are firmly on the radar of an increasing number of employees and employers alike.

Serviced offices are among the pioneers in providing carefully designed spaces to meet these new needs and expectations of employees, as well as businesses themselves.

Dthree is firmly at the forefront of this movement in the sector, not least through its design plans for provider Venture X, whose new Chiswick office will provide a mix of shared and private workspaces.

Characterised by a design based on people and projects, rather than aesthetics, Venture X will give users access to the space they need to do their best task, as Tom explains: “It’s going to be a busy floor, but it’s designed in such a way that if you want to get some head space, and knuckle down over some important documents, you’ve got space to do that. If you want to have a very private meeting with four-to-five people, there’s space to do that. And if you need a board room with ultimate privacy and to fling stuff up onto a large screen, you have got somewhere to do it.”

GETTING INVOLVED FROM THE START

With design and build firms playing a pivotal role in enabling businesses to design their workplaces around their people, getting involved at the right stage of the planning process is crucial.

For Dthree, this involvement can happen at any stage; from the very beginnings of office search discussions, to late in the day once a space has already been secured.

Unsurprisingly, the earlier in the process we can get involved, the better. As designers and creators, early exposure to the client means the team can get an understanding of basic needs and wants and get under the skin of company culture.

Tom elaborates on why this is the case: “We’re designing not just for what they need now, but for what they think they’re going to need; it’s an amazing opportunity to identify bad habits and elements of the culture they want to change – and we can drive some of that through design”.

Once engaged with a business, a strategic approach is required to get to the bottom of the real issues with the current working environment and uncovering the best opportunities for improvement. There are no separate, set-in-stone approaches for businesses who want to redesign their existing space vs those who are moving to new premises. Instead, Dthree works on a simple premise: to make peoples day-to-day lives better.

Spending time with staff in the work environment is key to getting to the bottom of current issues and opportunities. However, it’s not untypical for workers to change their normal behaviours if they feel like Big Brother is watching them.

To counteract this potential issue, Dthree uses a variety of techniques to complement its on-the-ground employee probing, which include anonymous online surveys and face-to-face and department interviews. Each has proven to uncover opportunities to better meet individuals’ workspace needs.

Whilst not all companies are open to designers speaking to staff across the length and breadth of the business, when it does happen more exciting insights and opportunities come to the surface.

Balancing and acting on contrasting views from across the business can be a major challenge, however picking out the things that really matter is one of the Dthree team’s most important jobs. According to Tom: “If you want the best opinions, talk to those who use it every day. It sounds simple, but space users are often overlooked.”

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BEYOND THE BUZZWORD; INTO THE NEW OPEN PLAN

Not so long ago, talk of employee welfare in the context of office space design was all too often empty rhetoric. Only in recent years have we seen businesses take tangible action on such worthy everyday issues as employee mental health and wellbeing. Indeed, the first conversations that Tom and the team have with clients are increasingly around these topics; a remarkable turn of events, given that only a few years ago they would have to push to make clients aware of them.

This shift in appreciation for worker needs that go beyond basic requirements to ‘get the job done’ has been a key part in driving the emphasis on workplace design that we’re seeing. The open-plan offices of the ‘90s, characterized by banks of white desks in white rooms, were designed primarily around reducing square footprints. Whilst open plan is here to stay, the consideration of diverse employee needs means workplaces need to offer a variety of alternative spaces – providing the right environment for workers to feel comfortable in accordance with their required tasks and personal preferences.

For this reason, modern workspaces increasingly offer breakout and special designated areas such as phone booths and quiet rooms, not to mention prayer and ‘wellness’ rooms driven by the wellness agenda.

Tom highlights the importance of providing this varied space: “You say open plan to some people and typically a telesales team love it, they love the environment; it’s really busy and noisy and they thrive off it. In contrast, the introvert at this point is cringing. Then go to talk to a law firm about going open plan, the first issue is ‘it’s going to be too noisy!’ So, it’s providing the right project space to perform individual tasks and then you get into the nitty-gritty of how people work in different areas and all the interesting things that come with that.”

There’s no doubt that the big driver behind the demand for varied workspaces is wellness and agile working. However, fascinatingly, Tom notes that (at least in part) there is an increasing desire to personalise spaces. The open plan, hot desk, one policy for all is falling out of favour and we’re looking at a little bit more granular detail and how each department can work in that”.

In the modern-day office, this shift back to offering personalisation needs to be counterbalanced by the regular requirement for spaces in which different teams can collaborate. This is where project rooms and whiteboard rooms have spawned.

But when fundamentally changing a workspace, sometimes to the point where it becomes unrecognisable from its predecessor, how do you appease those of all ages and generations? Is it a case of trying to teach an old dog new tricks? For Tom, this is one of his biggest challenges: “It’s not an easy thing to do. You may have an age gap of 30-40 years so designing for that is really difficult. If you’re used to having your own office, you may think you need to keep it because you’ve always had one. Our challenge is to design that space so all those people feel catered for. There is a proper thought process – how can we help people feel comfortable and perform their jobs better because they’ve got a better environment to do it in? It’s not just ‘let’s do this because it looks nice’”.

BUILDING THE PRIORITY OF OFFICE SPACE DESIGN

The key to a successful workplace transformation is client awareness and sharing the statistical evidence of the benefits that adequate workplace design can bring; productivity, employee satisfaction, and ultimately talent attraction and retention should be the incentive to business owners, rather than ‘how many desks can I cram into this space’.

However, this ideal comes with some hurdles for office design and build companies, the biggest of which is a client justifying the expense of an office move and/or redesign. This again requires a shift in thought process – to view the opportunity of what the business can get out of its people, just by providing the right type of environment for them.

For businesses about to embark on that new search or who want to ensure their workplace is beneficial to their staff and their recruitment and retention drive, Tom has some words of advice: “Quite often people are automatically drawn to what doesn’t work about the space. It’s too hot, too dark, whatever. There are always positives in the existing space and enhancing those, is usually an easier win than trying to start from scratch”.

So, the message to all businesses thinking of making the upgrade is: talk to staff from day one and work out what works and what doesn’t in the current space. Those simple steps can put you on the path to a happier and more productive workforce – and who wouldn’t want to see those gains?

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