Rita de Brún looks at contemporary office design in the context of health, well being and the enrichment of lives.
Imagine a workplace with sliding walls, movable desks and transportable meeting rooms; a flexible space in which the ideal working environment can be created with ease. Imagine a glass and light-filled place; one with translucent internal walls. Imagine that this super-modern structure is attached, lean-to glasshouse style, to the side of a skyscraper, its futuristic design, softened by a wall of plants growing at great heights on super-sized wall-hung trellises.
This vision is just part of the imagining of Sean Cassidy and Joe Wilson, whose refreshingly original and hugely-creative Organic Grid+ design won Metropolis Magazine’s Workplace of the Future 2.0 design competition this year.
Tasked with redefining the office and showing how it might evolve over the next 15 years, the duo jettisoned the open-plan office format, then focusing on sustainability, ergonomics, on how technology and nature could work in harmony in the workplaces of the future, they placed the wellbeing of employees at the core of their design.
Describing the Organic Grid+concept, Wilson says: “It completely reinvents the workplace and tackles in a creative, innovative and unique way, problems such as land being a finite resource and the challenges of food production, rising obesity rates and longer working hours.
“We envisaged a workplace environment that was semi-translucent, plentiful in natural light and surrounded by greenery; a space in which wearable technology is part of everyday life.
A glance at the Organic Grid+ concept reveals copious edible plants growing along trellises fixed to the internal glass wall of a central atrium encompassing a super high-tech sky-lounge . A closer look reveals plant-watering individuals suspended at great heights on what we can only hope are sturdy harnesses. Surely they’re not the office staff?
“They are,” replies Cassidy. “Plant-tending encourages them to be physically active, so in our design, workers are required to climb up and down the harvesting wall, to collect the food they need for a balanced, healthy life-style.”
As for the simple grid system that is part of the design, Wilson says it can be plugged into any office space, to create sustainable, flexible solutions. “Flexibility is key,” he says. “The desks and walls are movable to allow employees to customise and configure the space as required.
Another who agrees that multifunctional spaces are part of the changing workplace landscape is Dana Kallo of Black Fox Design. “Companies are incorporating temporary flexible dividers into their work spaces and using them to create private meeting spaces as required,” she says.
When planning their offices, progressive companies are looking beyond desks and chairs, according to Kallo.
“They’re budgeting for recreation spaces, green areas, games rooms, comfortable sofas and private booths. They’re also providing workers with silent and call rooms. They’re doing this so workers can position themselves in the type of space that best suits their job and their mood. This development is an acknowledgment of the fact that employees can be inspired in a variety of situations and not just while at their desks.”
As for what it is that most of her clients are looking for in office design, Kallo says that for some it’s the delivery of originality and atmosphere while for others, the priority is making the office feel like home.
Nobody who works in an office cubicle could ever mistake that space for home. Agreeing that these spaces are often less than attractive, Dervilla Griffin whose Feng Shui Matters business is based in Carrigrohane Co Cork, believes they’re also bad for workers. “Apart from the lack of privacy, those sitting at cubicles tend to have their backs to the flow of foot traffic in the office. This can be psychically unnerving and can cause employees to lose concentration.”
Desk position is also important for other reasons according to the Feng Shui master. “Workers should not sit for long hours under a heavy lighting fixture or an unfinished ceiling with exposed beams and air ducts. Both can cause headaches and an oppressive feeling in those seated beneath them, so should be avoided.
“It’s also worth remembering that most of us work better when seated with our backs to a wall, facing the major part of a room.” Of course there’s more to extracting optimum performance from office workers than merely facing them in the ‘right direction’.
Griffin says she gets called in when a highly-paid professional with an excellent track record is hired, then for reasons unknown, fails to perform well, or starts missing work because of illness: “In my experience the workplace energy is usually the cause,” she says.
For all its limitations, there’s no sign of the open plan office disappearing from the workplace landscape anytime soon, but Kallo reminds us that they’re favoured by employers who rate them highly because they encourage communication, creativity and competition. “That said, for balance, private areas or quiet rooms should also be provided,” she says.
The office desk on the other hand may one day be a thing of the past. “With the continuing development of electronics and gadgets, we think that the typical desk will eventually become obsolete; not extinct, but rare.”
What’s the solution to the fact that nobody perched at a desk eight hours per day can be productive for all of that time? “Most of us like to work from laptops, iPads and phones, so we believe in providing employees with comfortable spaces in which to work while at the office, whether that’s a cosy sofa or somewhere quiet to have a coffee while on a Skype-call.”
Factoring in small spaces in which employees can burn off steam is becoming increasingly common. “This can range from a hammock to a basketball court or an outside space for working,” says Kallo. “They understand that employees need a workspace that’s flexible and joyful and we agree.”
As for how best to do that, she says: “We don’t believe in cubicles and grey offices. Contemporary workplaces should be ergonomically designed with what’s best for the workers being made priority. Colour should be used with a view to positively influencing the state of mind, and nature should be used as a resource with which to recharge the creative energies.
For Dervilla Griffin the importance of providing good lighting and mirrors in staff bathrooms is a simple but effective technique which raises the mood of workers.
“Staff should be helped to feel good about themselves while they’re at work,” she says.
“When they leave their desks and peer at distorted, poorly lit reflections of themselves in inferior, badly-lit staff bathroom mirrors, they feel dreadful and their mood gets low.” While light is important, so too is sound, according to Mark O’Donovan, a director with Tony O’Donovon Office Interiors in Ballincollig, Co Cork and he should know, having trained in building acoustics.
“At concept stage, architects tend to include acoustic absorbing ceilings and wall panels to stop noise travelling around the place,” he says. “But it’s possible to retrofit an established office to stop noise rebounding off hard surfaces and travelling all around the space.
“We fit out managers’ offices to ensure what’s said in there won’t travel outside the door. We provide 3 walled pods covered in acoustic-absorbing material in which which workers can talk without being overheard. We also provide noise-absorbing screens which can be used to trap the noise of a photocopier in use or to enable private conversations held within the screens to remain that way.”
There’s no doubt that these improvements are very well received by the workers who have the benefit of availing of them and for those who will do so when they move into the three floors that Mr O’Donovan is currently fitting out in Cork’s swish new development at One Albert Quay. For the rest, working in a slick employee-focused workplace will remain a constant dream.
O’Brien’s Office Services, Cork/ CJM Furniture, Cork/ Mullen’s, Bray, Wicklow; Murphy’s Liquidation Furniture, Dublin, Carlow, Gorey, Naas/ Original Compulsive Design, Dublin and Kilkenny http://www.officeinteriors.ie
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