Modern workplaces, such as Sky’s London HQ (pictured) feature different places to meet and work. Photo: Sky Central ©Mark Cocksedge Modern workplaces, such as Sky’s London HQ (pictured) feature different places to meet and work. Photo: Sky Central ©Mark Cocksedge


Drab, featureless offices, devoid of social interaction, are disappearing. Today’s modern working environments are not only encouraging collaboration, but are being kitted out with design and architectural ideas that are improving wellbeing and productivity.

21st May 2019

Flickering fluorescent lights, temperamental heating and air-conditioning, grey meeting rooms with polystyrene ceiling tiles wilting at the edges… The dreary old office is, in most places, a thing of the past. Instead, modern, sustainable and tech-driven buildings are ticking all the boxes: they are good for your health, good for business and good for the internal culture. 

The movement towards rethinking office design goes back decades. Open-plan environments – formerly soulless rented spaces that squeezed as many people as possible into featureless rows of desks – began incorporating features that enhanced employees’ comfort and happiness.

Notably, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Johnson Wax HQ in Wisconsin, built in the late 1930s, was spacious, warm in colour and had a firm nod to nature with tree-like columns creating a forest effect. Skylights rather than windows let in light, but without the dispiriting views of the surrounding industrial park. 

Skip forward to the 1950s and, in Germany particularly, businesses wanted to help employees move past the trauma of the second world war by creating sociable and flexible office landscapes (Bürolandschaft). The style broke up long banks of desks and grouped together employees – including their managers – in a logical way to encourage conversation and collaboration. And with these groups separated by screens, filing cabinets and tall plants, offices started to show a little character.

By the 1970s, more employees might have looked forward to turning up at the office had designers not taken the Bürolandschaft concept to extremes. Many workplaces favoured cheap, tall padded screens as the partition of choice – handy for pinning up pictures of loved ones, as well as internal contact numbers and work schedules – but this led to the appearance of cubicle farms that stunted social interaction.

Office design based on trust – not surveillance

Towards the end of the 20th century, with technology modernising our personal lives, office designers took influence from the home and outdoors, with the aim of creating welcoming environments that would retain and attract talent and help employees feel good at work.

The office environment was being purposely structured to enable a culture of trust, rather than command or surveillance, to flourish. In 1996, when flexible working was still something of a curiosity to most managers, Netherlands-based insurance company Interpolis encouraged employees to work wherever suited them, with a motto “as long as the work gets done”. It moved staff into a new head office in Tilburg and created themed club houses for work, meetings or eating and adopted flexible working practices, allowing home-working.

In California, Silicon Valley companies began offering a range of staff perks, guided by the belief that creative, collaborative workplaces result in happier, motivated staff. Beyond the milder gimmicks of corporate toy town – the between-floor slides, pool tables and internal log cabins – sustainable design, natural sunlight and brainstorming pods signalled a new approach to marrying up wellbeing with effective, collaborative working.

The “breakout space” was becoming an essential part of every corporate building.

Impact on culture

Nowadays, where we work is almost as important as the work itself. “Employees are becoming more design-literate,” says Anna Woodeson, director at LTS Architects. “They won’t tolerate the old-style working environment of poor lighting, implied hierarchy and lack of interaction that we saw on TV in The Office.

“And by giving your workforce natural views, adequate oxygen and light, and comfortable seats – so that they’re not just staring at man-made construction – the impact on your culture, employee wellbeing and, therefore, your bottom line can be substantial.”

Businesses today realise that a pleasant and practical environment not only helps employees be productive, but they have one less reason to move jobs.


Time to open up

In the UK, the open-plan office is changing shape. Offices such as media company Sky’s north-west London HQ are updating the Bürolandschaft concept, with open, agile, activity-based environments.

Neil Usher, executive consultant and author of The Elemental Workplace, worked on the Sky Campus, where new ideas come to life in the provision of a wide range of work settings, a landscaped environment and amenities that make life simple and easy for occupants.

“What we’re seeing is increased levels of comfort and multiple work styles within the same building,” says Neil. “The physical workplace is part of an organisation’s culture rather than something separate, and this is now being recognised.”

Being able to do your job in an inspiring office shouldn’t be a big ask. Versatile spaces for discussing and brainstorming projects away from the usual interruptions can help teams quickly find solutions. Equally, some workers benefit from areas where they can be alone to quietly flesh out ideas or blast through an urgent task.

Kimberley-Marie Sklinar, a change communications consultant, says: “Even if you don’t have your dream job, if you work somewhere that feels safe and welcoming, you’re much more likely to do a good job. It’s particularly helpful to work somewhere with different workplace settings. Sometimes, your own desk is distracting. It helps to have the option to work somewhere quiet with headphones on, or have an informal meeting in a breakout area rather than a stuffy meeting room.”


Aiming for higher standards

In 2016, engineering consultancy Cundall refurbished its London offices. With green, living walls improving air quality, light-level sensors increasing natural daylight and deeper sinks to prevent germs from spreading, the Cundall building became the first in Europe to achieve the WELL Building standard, which rates buildings on how they seek to affect the health of those inside.

Staff turnover has reduced by 26 per cent and Cundall has recorded a 30 per cent drop in absenteeism since it re-opened its state-of-the-art office. Meanwhile, by monitoring CO2 levels – high carbon dioxide levels can cause workers to feel lethargic and even fall asleep – office productivity has increased by two per cent.

“We monitor CO2 and study it,” says Julian Sutherland, a partner at Cundall. “You can see on good days that we get a boost in the office. If the CO2 level comes up because of some situation, we see people quickly become less motivated and a bit less energetic. You can change the design in new buildings for the right amount of outdoor air to make sure you’ve got low CO2 levels and high productivity.”

The “star of the show” in Cundall’s office, adds Julian, is the Town Hall, a refectory space at the front of the building. The WELL standard prescribes a certain number of seats in terms of getting people out of their desks and into a more sociable environment at lunchtimes.

“That space is often completely packed,” says Julian. “We didn’t know that was going to happen. There are a lot of people sitting there having a chat and a bite to eat. That has been massively successful as a breakout space or for having meetings. It works as a great introduction for agents and suppliers.”


Sick building syndrome

Poorly designed or constructed offices could be making us ill. Sick building syndrome is a mysterious condition causing headaches, nausea, irritated eyes and noses – symptoms people only get in a particular building and attributed to issues such as poor ventilation and lighting, mould, dust and fumes, and excessive noise.

Kimberley-Marie has fallen prey to office-related ailments. “I used to get chronic migraines triggered by sensory stuff,” she says. “Thankfully I don’t suffer any more, but on one occasion, it got so bad I had to ask my team to stop wearing perfume, and for my company to remove air-fresheners from the toilets.”

Bright lighting affected Kimberley-Marie’s health so much, she had to wear sunglasses in the office and asked the facilities team to remove lights from the roof above her desk.


Percentage of employees in the UK who believe their working environment has negatively impacted their physical and mental wellbeing. 89 per cent said they would be less likely to take a sick day if they worked in a favourable environment.
Source: Oktra, 2018

Seeing the light when it comes to wellbeing

Accommodating individual requirements might seem costly, but it could be a critical strategy for retaining talent.

With British firms losing an average of 30.4 days of productive time a year to sickness, at a cost of billions of pounds, businesses have an incentive to ensure the office design is not having a detrimental effect on their staff’s mental or physical health. For example, encouraging employees to move around the office and rack up the recommended 10,000 steps a day can help keep hearts healthy. Walking meetings are said to aid creativity as well as circulation. And sit-stand desks, which adjust to allow you to work seated or on your feet, are said to help reduce back pain and fatigue, and improve focus and productivity.

Office designers should consider employee wellbeing in the initial plans – where natural light seeps in; where staircases go and what devices can make them more inviting; the psychological affects of certain colours – rather than later rearranging desks and chairs in an attempt to drive a positive and healthy culture.

Flora power: greenery, as in the Cundall office (above), is said to have a positive impact on morale. Photo: Dirk Lindner and Cundall

Green days

Biophilic design attempts to keep office-based employees connected to the natural world by making the most of available sunlight and introducing greenery – from plants to living walls. Research suggests biophilic workspaces can reduce stress and absenteeism, and improve productivity, creativity and cognitive function. Even artificial plants are thought to boost morale – while, of course, being easy to maintain and preventing allergic reactions.

Poor artificial lighting can make employees feel tired or cause headaches or eye strains, which can contribute to stress and affect concentration and, therefore, performance.

One study from Northwestern Medicine and the University of Illinois suggests employees working in natural light during the day get 46 minutes more of sleep a night than those who don’t. Where the office, or parts of it, simply can’t let in the sun, consider installing circadian lighting, which echoes the day’s natural light-dark cycle and, as a result, the body’s sleep-wake rhythm, keeping employees alert when they need to be.

Some companies even permit tired staff to sleep in the workplace. Google installed sleep pods, with built-in sound systems to pipe in music. Elsewhere, Procter & Gamble’s lighting systems regulate melatonin – aka the hormone that helps people nod off.


Only the homely

If foliage, contemporary colours and cosy dens to grab 40 winks make it feel as if the workplace is morphing into an extension of workers’ homes, then you’d be right: “homely”           has become the new office design buzzword.

“There’s this whole thing about the workspace becoming homely,” says Anna. “You’re seeing it with bookshelves, low tables, more comfortable seating and better-equipped kitchens.”

If work-life is becoming increasingly like home-life, it’s probably because more people are working from home than ever before: 4.2 million of us in the UK, according to the Office of National Statistics.

“The boundaries of work are eroding thanks to the way in which we’re working – Skype, video-conferencing, cloud technology,” says Andy Lake, director of and author of The Smart Working Handbook. “It’s producing results – both in terms of productivity and for the company, as flexible working saves on premises costs.”

Remote control

Stanford University found that remote workers are 13 per cent more productive and take fewer sick days. However, as any home-worker who toils away on a laptop in front of Homes Under The Hammer will attest, it doesn’t automatically translate to a better work-life balance.

“We’re working longer than our predecessors ever did,” says Anna. “They came in at nine, left at five, and never worked at home. Maybe they’re the ones who got it right.”

Remote workers are possibly craving more interpersonal contact too, which could explain the rise of co-working spaces. Around 1.7 million people work in co-working spaces worldwide, according to Deskmag estimates, many attracted by their energetic, entrepreneurial vibe. These co-working spaces offer much more than free wifi; they’re a synergetic hive where freelancers can boost business by networking, exchanging skills and meeting clients.

California tech firm NVIDIA has gone to the extent of creating oversized “stairscapes” in the hope that spontaneous collaborations might occur as colleagues meet and chat between floors.

Office floorplans are increasingly being designed with this accidental collaboration in mind. Anna says these spaces are called “flash-points, often created by kitchens and toilets, because that’s where people tend to meet”.

Some experts are cynical. “Does this really add value?” asks Andy. “It might be nice socially, but if you’re a software developer bumping into people from purchasing, is there any real benefit there? It might be better to help employees find ways to meet people with shared interests, whether in person or online.”

“I think the design industry has gone too far with collaboration,” adds Neil. “The spaces where people did their individual work were shrunken and designers built these huge collaborative spaces. All of the evidence points to the fact that generally we spend half our time in individual activities and half in collaborative activities. So the space needs to reflect that and enable us to choose when and how we work. It’s all about balance, in every single workplace.”



Average overall satisfaction score (out of 5) from UK staff who choose to work in the same space or a variety of spaces, vs a score of 3.7 for those who have to work in those spaces.
Source: Gensier research, 2016


Building the brand

Quiet spaces may be hard to find in workplaces that install play equipment in a bid to make employees happier. The “Zooglers” at Google’s Zurich campus take entertainment to new levels with their firefighter’s poles and spiral slides, “jungle lounge”, band rehearsal space and Lego room. It also plays the Heidi theme music every day at 5pm to summon people to the bar.  Some play installations – table-tennis tables, rooftop running tracks – are a fun way for employees to not only de-stress, but also burn calories during their lunch breaks.

Whatever your novel décor, it must be emblematic of the brand, connecting employees and clients alike to the customer experience. Misjudge it and, says Andy, “it can be infantilising”.

“Some of these things were installed in tech giants 10 years ago,” he says. “Now, these workers are in their late 30s or early 40s and probably thinking, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’”

Neil agrees: “These gimmicks get boring very quickly. By the fourth time you’ve seen that quirky neon sign, you stop noticing it, it’s not interesting anymore. We often mistake the outcome with the process of getting there – it’s freeing the mind that’s important, not copying someone else’s gimmick, thinking it will change your culture.”

“The décor definitely needs to link in with the brand,” says Anna. “If you think about Facebook, its ice cream parlours and sweet lorries are right for that brand.”

The huge glass box on the first-floor of the Sky Campus leaves visitors with no doubts about what company they are visiting –    it’s the studio where Sky News is broadcast from – but otherwise, branding is subtle.

“The workplace has to feel like that company’s workplace, but it doesn’t need to scream and shout it,” says Neil, who was Sky’s workplace director at the time of the development. “You don’t necessarily want to be reminded that you work for that company all the time.”

Rachel Dakin, internal communication manager at KPMG, appreciates that the company’s offices convey the brand. “All our regional offices have consistent design and branding. The technology is seamless too. I can walk into an office I’ve never visited before and my pass works as normal, my laptop automatically connects to the wifi, my lunch allowance applies to their canteen, and the layout is familiar – it feels like home. Not having to waste time navigating a new space is an immediate productivity boost. You can get straight to work.”  

The White Collar Factory’s rooftop running track – on the 16th floor, it’s the highest in London – gives employees incredible views while they keep fit. Photo: Tomasz Preficz

Communicating change

For all the obvious benefits of a modern office makeover, change can be divisive. Internal communicators shouldn’t assume desk-related disruption will be greeted without any questions. 

Kimberley-Marie says: “When office changes are announced, you often get questions such as, ‘Are we downsizing? What’s going wrong?’ We once replaced the paper towels in the toilets with hand-dryers. People were suddenly worried about the company’s financial situation. They thought because we were prepared to save money in such tiny ways, we might be selling the offices. Change can be scary; it’s fear of the unknown.”

Selling in workplace redevelopments is easier if they’re positive, such as on-site facilities including cafes, creches or gym classes. As Neil explains, these foster the magic collaboration many companies crave: “These places are where people feel they can be themselves. People always make connections over coffee in the morning. I’ve established great work connections getting to know people in the gym. When workplaces get to a certain scale, these amenities are paramount.”

However, by giving staff no real incentive to rush home for the gym or to pick the kids up from the nursery, cynics may assume it’s all a ploy to make staff work longer hours.

“In some workforces, nobody is ever expected to leave the building. It’s like a gilded cage,” says Anna. “There’s also the argument these buildings aren’t contributing to the local economy; why would you pop down the local café when you can get free coffee at work?”


The hot topic

A shift towards a new style of working inspired by your surroundings can also be polarising. Take hotdesking…

“Personally, I enjoy hotdesking,” says Rachel. “It gives me the flexibility to move around, sit with different teams and build relationships with a wide range of people, which is invaluable in internal comms.” 

But many people don’t enjoy hotdesking and, if not properly managed, it can lead to stressed or disengaged employees.

“To make hotdesking a success, you need to be honest,” says Rachel. “In reality, many workplaces are being forced to introduce hotdesking and flexible working because they simply don’t have space for everyone. If that’s the case, be open about it.”

Emphasise the potential benefits. Hotdesking can nudge employees into positive behaviours and minimise negative ones, like presenteeism and micro-management. Consult colleagues to create a rota, which can offer reassurance that there will be a desk, no matter what time they arrive.

Ultimately, the employer needs to be willing to invest in it.

“Make sure employees are empowered to embrace flexible working by equipping them with the right tools,” says Rachel. “Providing everyone with laptops gives employees permission to truly work anywhere. Finally, like any change, leadership must visibly endorse it. If leaders aren’t seen to be hotdesking too, you’re setting yourself up to fail.” 


Percentage of junior members of the workforce who cannot work from home – although 75% would like the option to, believing it would boost their happiness. 
Source: Office Genie, 2017


Offices of the future

Wellness and collaboration may dominate current workplace trends, but what’s next for the humble office?

Technology is driving many new developments, such as AI, which is transforming fusty boardrooms and video-conferencing. Or the live maps used by Finnish firm Futurice employees on their smartphone apps to see if the office bathrooms are occupied.

Other workplace wizardry is making offices environmentally friendly. When Bloomberg’s £1.3 billion building opened in London in 2017, it was immediately hailed as “the most sustainable building in the world” thanks to its vacuum-flush toilets, integrated ceiling panels that control heating and lighting, plus an array of other features that see it use 70 per cent less water (rainwater is captured from the roof and recycled) and 40 per cent less energy than a typical office block.

Making sense of it all

Offices could also start embracing sensory experiences that are often overlooked in the physical work environment, such as texture and scent.

“Retailers have been pumping out the smell of fresh bread and chocolate chip cookies to entice customers for years,” says Neil. “But whenever I ask anybody if they work in a nice-smelling office, nobody puts their hands up. Scent is definitely an area worth exploring.”

With cloud-based technology and flexible working blurring the lines between our personal and professional lives, future offices might have nothing to do with traditional bricks and mortar.

Indeed, one recent report by Unum UK and The Future Laboratory proposed the idea of the “anywhere office”, where staff work wherever and whenever they want. The workplace has to compete with other options – but the organisation should strive to make it the obvious choice.

“Offices have made much progress in the last 10 years,” says Neil. “But there’s still work to be done. It may become more about how the organisation treats its people. We have to steer them towards workplace design that’s positive and allows people to be good towards one another. In many ways, productivity is a by-product and shouldn’t be the central reason for businesses doing this. It’s more that everybody deserves a fantastic workplace. Productivity may result – but we will have done the right thing by people.”

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