Do you find that more organisations are turning towards co-working spaces, as the regional populace increasingly embraces a digital nomadic approach to work life?
Flexible, agile, co-working spaces are still very much the exception, and not the rule in this region. In theory, everyone says they love it. It’s a great idea, and that they love the look and feel. They even show you a bunch of images on Pinterest. In reality, when you get to actually planning a space, office workers are territorial — they want their own dedicated desk space to put up photos of their cat or their kids. Managers like an office with a door as a status symbol. Not everyone or every organisation, of course, but it's rather common.
What are the specific challenges interior architects face while working on offices, as workplaces these days need to be more agile and collaborative than ever before?
Collaborative work spaces and open plan offices are great, but they should also allow individual areas for deep work. We are big fans of Susan Cain, author of Introverts, who famously said: “Stop the madness for constant group work!” It’s not that group work is bad. But you have to give people havens, where they can get their head down and get things done. One solution we like: collaboration zones that are standing-room-only. It keeps meetings short.
Why are open plan offices so divisive in their appeal?
There’s a lot to be said for open plan offices. The sense of space, the quality of light that travels through an open plan office — it's very appealing. And let’s not kid ourselves, the costs are cheaper too: you get more people per square foot, and the MEP costs are lower with fewer partitions. But they can also be distracting: research from the University of California claims it takes 23 minutes to refocus on a task after we’re distracted by colleagues who might be wanting to ask a question. That is a high price to pay in terms
Do you find that organisations are willing to invest more in the well-being of employees, especially when it comes to providing ergonomic furniture and solutions that have a direct bearing on employees’ health?
Definitely ‘yes’ in terms of the clients we work with. But there’s a big caveat: only a small minority of offices that get built around this region use a consultancy like us, Gensler and a Bluehaus, or a specialist design-and-build contractor. Most are still built by old-fashioned contractors using cookie-cutter templates from the early ’90s. It’s a real shame for the people who have to work there.
That aside, you’ve hit on two distinct issues. In terms of ergonomics, there's one thing we won’t compromise on in an office project, and that is task chairs: they have to be from a specialist task chair maker such as Vitra, Herman Miller or Steelcase. In terms of wellness, we’re increasingly asked about our approach to issues such as biophilia, rest and recuperation, and WELL Building Institute certification. It's now part of the pitch process, and that’s really encouraging.
How do you integrate technology into your spatial planning? What are the optional factors and what are the absolute must elements when it comes to technology in workspaces?
Ironically, we’re pushing analogue workspaces, as an antidote to the amount of screens in our lives. People love tactile surfaces, natural fabrics and bringing the outside in — natural light, plants, and water. The technology is behind the scenes, which includes smart buildings that regulate temperature and lighting to reduce carbon footprint, and sensors that map out optimal space usage.
What are some of the ways in which office design has evolved in the region, in comparison to, say, five years ago?
If you look at the work we’re doing — and other local and international design houses — it has been a radical transformation. Some of the projects we’re seeing are incredible, creating workspaces that are efficient, highly functional, smart, and inspirational. Industry awards such as the Commercial Interior Design Awards are becoming super-competitive: many great office projects don’t even get shortlisted.
However, the people who work in these progressive spaces are the lucky few. The vast majority of the millions of office workers in this region are turning up every morning to work in badly designed, and often sick buildings. This is a big problem to be solved over the next decade.