Modern Office Design

What do offices of the future look like?

Is it time for a design revamp?

6 minute read
Modern Office Design

Hames Sharley Perth Studio

Gone is the large office floor with employees packed in like sardines – new office designs built specifically to suit the needs of teams, tasks and individual preferences have emerged. 

Hames Sharley Perth Workplace Portfolio Principal Stephen Moorcroft, who specialises in office and workplace design, outlined some considerations when designing a productive environment to work in, starting with understanding the work being undertaken. 

“Our starting point for design is really trying to get under the skin of an organisation to understand their vision and the quantum of change their leadership might be interested in achieving,” he said. 

“Then we work out how we can create a physical space that supports that, in tandem with their own people, culture and technology teams, who are often looking to create a more agile workforce.”

Out with the old 

Mr Moorcroft said he had seen a lot of poorly supported open-plan layouts over the last 20 years that did the opposite of what he strived to achieve. 

“A lot of people are complaining about the open-plan environments they work in. That’s been widely reported across social media and it’s giving open-plan a bad name,” he said.

“When you go and look at them, there’s literally a sea of desks with no alternative spaces, no breakout zones and no focus areas – people are expected to do all of their tasks in this one, very open, easily interruptible, public and noisy space.

“People complain that they can't achieve anything, and those people have become very keen to work from home.

“That is really poor office design not supporting what people need, completely ignorant of spatial characteristics and the fact people also require quiet or focus time for some tasks.”

In a 2019 project for the Department of Planning, Lands and Heritage, Mr Moorcroft said the existing office was redesigned to keep the focus zones and quiet rooms away from social areas. 

He said one large kitchen was incorporated in the centre of the floor plate between lifts and surrounded by collaboration spaces to encourage everyone to get together for lunch and informal meetings throughout the day, while the focus zones were located in separate wings of the building. 

“That really worked because it so clearly addressed the needs of specific environments for specific tasks or personality types,” Mr Moorcroft said.

What does an office of the future look like?

Mr Moorcroft said while many workplaces were embracing the flexible and remote working that COVID-19 furthered, they were also trying to bring staff back into the workplace. Others headed towards extremes of the work-from-home debate.

“Deloitte and KPMG are issuing work anywhere policies, trusting staff to choose their best locations and times of work and to check in every now and then, with the expectation of collaboration and that deadlines will still be met,” he said. 

 “Others such as Goldman Sachs and Tesla have run close to insisting staff return to the central workplace.  

“Most are in between, recognising that formal meetings and collaboration can be structured remotely, however – over time – the lack of informal learning and chance knowledge sharing through proximity is leading to cultural disengagement of staff and isn’t great for organisational success or individual career growth.

“The conversation is changing – we're increasingly meeting business leaders discussing how to entice their workforce to get back into the office for a few days a week.” 

According to Mr Moorcroft, a way to get employees back into their offices includes design changes, with workplaces adopting even more domestic design cues. 

“We're seeing an increase in workplaces trying to make their office feel more comfortable and welcoming, taking some of the references from people’s homes.” 

“More outdoor space, better access to nature, better ability to individually control your environment, like lighting levels, heating, cooling and the ability to open windows.”

Mr Moorcroft said a lesson learnt from working remotely through the COVID-19 pandemic was that we were able to quickly change working environments depending on the task or mood.   

“We could work at the dining table on the computer or outside in the open air amongst the trees,” he said.

“That immediacy of change became available and there are some businesses, which are not necessarily in Perth yet, but certainly in Europe, where you're seeing co-working spaces with dramatically different environments under one roof.

“People can head towards the environment that suits either their task or perhaps their personality.”

The shift towards an office design that accommodates different tasks and personalities acknowledges introvert culture, according to Mr Moorcraft.

“We’re not simply trying to create hyper collaborative spaces, where everyone's going to be running into each other and sharing amazing ideas and writing over the walls,” he said.

“We’re acknowledging that some people would like to feel part of the collective but aren’t going to want to sit in the middle of a busy kitchen working all day.”

Is hot desking more COVID-safe than first thought? 

Hot desking is a format where staff are not allocated their own workspace but instead are given lockers to store their possessions and work in a different location each day. 

“Hot desking has been going for 40 years,” Mr Moorcroft said.

“It kicked off in Europe as a real estate saving policy, where you typically have 10 per cent of your staff on holiday and a more who are off sick or out at a meeting somewhere.

“You begin to pick up that absence in savings of square metres which, depending on where your office is based, can be quite a bit of money.”

While hot desking helped companies save money on smaller office spaces, COVID-19 protocols put this arrangement in jeopardy, with the potential to contaminate a whole floor or make close contact tracking more difficult. 

However, Mr Moorcroft said the decluttering of desks meant these offices were substantially more efficient to deep clean. 

“We had a few clients who at the very beginning of COVID-19 were concerned about cleanliness, hygiene and how to sanitise all of these desks,” he said.

“Now they've actually gone the other way, because people are moving and taking their stuff with them. 

“You don't have desks covered in clutter and they're getting cleaned far more frequently and easily.” 

A different take on hot desking

Mr Moorcroft said hot desking had largely progressed into activity-based working, though the two terms are frequently confused.

“Big European banks back in the late 80s and early 90s acknowledged that having people moving between different locations or simply working at a different spot each day started to build different connections across their businesses,” he said.

“This resulted in amazing ideas being shared and new inventions, so they began thinking about ways to socially engineer people moving around a building.

“Before COVID-19, we saw a shift to activity-based working, which is providing different work settings according to the work people actually need to do.

“Rather than turning up in the morning and going to their desk, they can think to go to a specific place to support a particular task.

“That’s still sharing a space but it’s not assuming the desk can support everything you do.

“Activity-based working will be here to stay in some form.”

Make working in offices great again

Mr Moorcroft said as the severity of COVID-19 symptoms lessened, most organisations were pushing to get employees back into the office to use the space they were paying for.

He said he expected it could take some quite extreme office changes to attract people back.

“I think workspace design is going to get that little bit more extreme as we try and provide experiences that are more interesting and exciting to get people back and working together,” Mr Moorcroft said.