How to design office space for 2.5 million people

There’s more to office design than desk placement and adding a couple of pot plants. The IWG plc (IWG) team gives some insight into harnessing the vital elements of a perfect workspace.

Forget ping-pong tables, meditation rooms, and even beer on tap in the communal lounge. The secrets of a truly great office lie deeper – in its fundamental design. According to reports, a good, well-designed office can boost employee happiness by 33 per cent while more than half of workers believe their productivity would increase if they could attain their ideal office environment.

Flexible workspaces and remote working improve productivity. Evidence shows workers take fewer breaks, commuting time is reduced, employees are happier, more motivated and less likely to have time off sick. In financial terms, the savings in reduced operating costs and increased economic output of flexible working versus fixed real estate can be anything between 5% and 75%.

IWG brand, Regus, understands these issues better than most. In 2017 alone, it opened some five hundred thousand square meters of new workspace around the world, adding almost daily to the company’s global network of more than 3,100 business centres in 1,000 cities in more than 110 countries.

Meeting the needs of the 2.5 million individuals who use these workspaces – not just today, but in the years ahead – is a challenge that calls for an imaginative approach to design and a profound understanding of how the way we work is changing.

Understanding the new world of work

“Great office design is a balance of art and science,” says Joanne Bushell, Managing Director and VP Sales in Africa for IWG plc. “The art is designing the space to be attractive and deliver a wow factor for the user. The science is in making sure the space works for the businesses renting the space and the employees using it.”

She points to Regus’s unique position – offering flexible space to a diverse range of customers around the world. “We have to be able to plan and position office infrastructure that works for any possible future customer,” she says. “What size space will they need? What power and data needs will they have? How long will they stay? And what happens when they leave – will the needs of the next occupant be accommodated in the same space?”

“People tend to think of office design as just about where you position the desks, but it’s so much more than that,” says Mark Dixon, CEO of IWG. “It’s about responding to when, where and how people work. Workers of all generations – not just Millennials – are discovering the benefits of co-working and becoming more mobile. Offices need to be spaces that foster productivity, creativity and collaboration.”

In a 2019 Regus survey of 20,000 senior managers and business owners across the world, a fifth selected business centres as the most popular location for remote work. “Today’s offices are moving towards being a destination-type space,” says Dixon. “It’s the place you choose to work, because it’s where you work best.”

Choose the design template

As modern office design has evolved, so too has the Regus design. Compared with 30 years ago, when the company was founded, a new Regus office looks as different today as a 2018 Tesla would to a 1989 Honda Accord. New business centres are based on one of several designs. The location and the potential future clients determine which option is chosen. “Our customers range from Millennials in tech start-ups and creative industries to professionals in finance or services,” says Bushell. “We want to offer space that is sympathetic to different business types and their needs.”

The fundamental new thinking on employee well-being is also informing office design. Studies have shown that exposure to blues and greens can boost creativity, while red improves performance on tasks that require attention to detail. And furniture isn’t left to chance. An environment with curved lines – say, circular tables in a meeting room, or desks with smooth corners – is linked with positive emotions, which aid creativity and productivity.

Consideration to optimised ergonomics is also critical in furniture choices to increase healthy productivity. It reduces downtime caused by physiological disturbances such as back and neck pain.

As wholly open-plan environments fall out of favour, offices are being redesigned to accommodate more varied work settings, known as activity-based working (ABW), and more opportunities for movement.

“Offices in the past often resembled schoolrooms,” says Bushell. “That uniformity has been replaced by a diverse range of elements, including individual office rooms, meeting booths, communal tables, reading tables, think tanks, phone booths and meeting rooms. “The key is to offer every type of space a client could want. That same client may have changing needs for different spaces at different times. The challenge is to correctly estimate the demand for each element so that the space is neither crowded nor underused.”

Prioritise social spaces

Another important consideration is the non-workspace. There’s a glut of research showing that interactions, including accidental meetings – sometimes termed ‘creative collisions’ – boost productivity rather than drain work output. A case study cited in the Harvard Business Review described how employees were given sociometric badges to track their movements and interactions. The data collected over weeks showed that when a salesperson increased their interactions with co-workers on other teams by 10 per cent, his or her sales also grew by 10 per cent.

A simple decision about where coffee machines are placed can prove critical in engineering such collisions. That’s why a café area and social space is at the heart of every new business centre – from China to Africa. “We want to encourage interactions,” says Bushell. “The café is right at the entrance when you arrive, and it’s connected to all the other areas, so that you as an individual also feel more connected.”

Provide a sense of place

The final stage involves customising the space: with furniture, soft furnishings and artworks. This is where there is most scope to give each business centre a distinct identity which resonates with its locale. A prime example is Black River Park in the Cape that is the first office precinct in South Africa to receive the Green Building Council of South Africa (GBCSA) certified Green Star SA ratings for all its buildings. The office park is situated in the “artsy” town of Observatory which is home to corporates, artists and actors.

“It’s all about picking some part of the local architecture to give a sense of place,” says Bushell. To ignore the local input on design would be a mistake, Regus centres around the world may draw from the same design guidelines and aim for a consistent quality and standard, but they use locally sourced products and are far from uniform.”

Check it’s working

From sensors under the desktops to employee wearables, the office is becoming more connected and is driving how workplaces are designed. “We have a huge amount of intelligence on how our centres are used,” says Andre Sharpe, Regus’s Chief Information Officer. “We’re like a laboratory, able to monitor how customers use our products and services – and then adapt and improve their experience based on the results.”

One such example is using booking data for each component for the office, drawn from other worldwide sites, then observing how customers use the business centre. “We can see which spaces experience high traffic – and at which times of the day. This helps us to understand if the areas are performing as well as they could be for our customers.”

“In the future, companies will be able to cross-reference information on employee movements with performance data,” says Sharpe. “The results could then be analysed to find out how the space is serving the users and how it is impacting the company.” Sharpe points out that while data privacy will be a crucial consideration, “when correctly used, these services help companies create tailored offices that encourage positive performance and collaboration”.

In a rapidly changing world, IWG also recognise the importance of using data to inform future design – and the exciting prospect of this. Says Bushell: “We’re designing for companies, but we’re also designing for people. If we can give people what they want in a workspace before they even know it themselves, it’s good for everybody.”

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