Is your office livable?

Why is there such a difference between the way we furnish and decorate our homes, and the way our offices are set up?

This is a question I often ask myself when visiting the headquarters of large corporations. My advice is that we should ‘tear down the walls’ between how we design our workspaces and our homes. In other words, that our workspaces need to be liveable.

It strikes me as something of a paradox that modern companies acknowledge that employees are not machines, placing great value on a diverse, creative workforce, and on having employees, who dare to bring their whole selves to work. Yet those same companies seem to forget the human factor when it comes to their corporate spaces, which are designed based on paradigms of functionality and efficiency, rather than diversity, homeliness or liveability. The consequence is alienating, uniform spaces of concrete, glass and steel, that often even fail to reflect the company’s unique story or brand.

Steel, glass and concrete effectiveness

Maybe the rationale behind most of the steel, glass and concrete is that companies don’t want to make the workplace too cosy because they don’t want employees to enjoy themselves. Office buildings are designed for effective work processes, efficient cleaning and maintaining rather than employee wellbeing. But the truth is people don’t do their best work in office cubicles.

Studies have shown that happiness and productivity enjoy a complimentary relationship; when employees are happy, they become more productive. Therefore, we ought to use all available tools to support happy employees. And one obvious tool is to design workplaces that support a more personal and homely atmosphere; the opposite of steel, glass and concrete. Office blocks with gleaming architect-designed glass facades make statements of power and might, stacked high on concrete floorplates that speak to a modernist mantra of infinite flexibility. Yet at the scale that really matters, the everyday employee experience of this workplace, designs lack an equivalent level of attention, care and creativity.

For sustainable businesses, the goal should be to curate environments in which employees feel so much ‘at home’ that they truly relax and feel safe, that they dare ask the ‘stupid questions’ and initiate the discussions that will move the company forward. To achieve this, it is necessary to develop a spatial frame which encourages employees to be creative and vulnerable. Perhaps this begins by looking at how we as humans on a personal level create a frame in which we really enjoy spending time – our homes.

The good feeling of the Nike Campus

Our employees (our greatest asset as business leaders) spend a significant proportion of their lives in the workspaces that we provide them. Whilst a select few workspaces of Silicon Valley set an inspiring tone, the rest tend to overlook workspace environment. I have spent quite a bit of time on the Nike campus in Portland over the last few years, and their efforts in workspace design is in my mind world class. Let’s take the recently renovated Dan Fouts building as an example.

Upon entering this building, you immediately find yourself in an atmosphere where you want to spend time. The design caters to individual employee's way of working, whether you wish to work from the cafe, in a living room, or in one of many different workstations supporting focused individual work or social collaboration. Everywhere, varied textures and colours are considered, furniture carefully selected, whilst the absence of straight lines provides a variety of cosy and home-like ‘hiding places’.

And of course, the Nike identity and values are present throughout, perhaps best illustrated by the ‘all gender’ toilets. One cannot help but be glad to work in such a building!

The Copenhagen feeling of liveability

We have on smaller scale achieved a similar feeling in our office in Copenhagen. We’ve designed our office from the principle that our workplace should feel like a second home. Most of our furniture is either bespoke or purchased second hand. Our kitchenware (cups and plates) is inherited from an employee's grandmother.

Our office lights and meeting tables are purchased from the local antique shop and we’ve placed a big swing in the middle of the open office space. Our CEO’s old vinyl collection greets our guests at the main entrance and oriental rugs tie the rooms together, as the king of homeliness, the Dude, would have said. Children of our employees often come by to hang out after school, which is actually how the idea of the swing came about.

This approach is neither easy nor cheap, but it creates an atmosphere that is pleasant to spend time in, which in turn makes employees lower their guards and be more present at the benefit of both themselves and the company. I would even go so far as to argue that a truly inspiring, warm and human workspace plays a significant role in attracting and retaining the highest calibre of employees.

This has been a focus of ours at IS IT A BIRD for a number of years, and our highly talented workforce demonstrates the potential of this approach. Whilst some of this might seem obvious (any cultural analyst will tell you that artefacts are a crucia parameter across all cultures), the reality is that one hardly ever finds companies representing themselves through physical environments that supports warm, human moments. My experience from many visits to (especially large) companies is that most offices look very similar, and most of all they signal cold efficiency, without much personality.

My recommendation therefore is that companies make a far greater effort with and take more pride in workspace design. Let it support a feeling of homeliness, presence and personality. The test of success ought to be: ‘could your employees actually live in this space?’