We all know instinctively that the space around us affects how well and how happily we do things in it. Anyone who has ever tried to join the Mile High Club in an aeroplane lavatory knows this to be true.
So work space design is an important thing for all businesses to consider. How productive can employees be in the space? Is it suitable for the kind of behaviour you want to foster? What about clients, or suppliers, does the space work for them? Whether you’re a one man band hanging out in a coffee shop, or a big old corporation these questions must be contemplated.
But while they’re easy questions to ask, finding the solutions can be a little more tricky.
To find out more and see if I could get some top tips for businesses, I spent some time with Emma Morley and Sejal Parekh from trifle creative*; a bespoke work space design company who passionately believe that every business can use their environment to drive increased productivity - whatever that looks like for them.
The trifle wisdom:
Start with the basics
trifle creative* believe that there’s no one size fits all way to design a work environment. What’s right for an ad agency, might be useless for a telecoms provider; so where do they start?
“All our work is insight led. We don’t form a judgement on a design until we have considered industry, brand, culture and people.’ said Emma, ‘We design spaces for each company to be a perfect fit to their culture... or to the culture they want to end up with.”
With remarkable self restraint when there are funky receptions to design, they start with the least sexy stuff. Storage and space design are key to giving each individual a space that they can work productively in.
“We’re very careful not to let aesthetics come before practicality. We spend a lot of time understanding the needs of all the stakeholders who encounter an office, then our design revolves around them,’ says Sejal, ‘we spend a huge amount of time on space planning for that reason, finding creative solutions for boring things like storage needs and cable management first.’
Understand the importance of personal space
It seems that much badly used space is to be found around desks, with cables everywhere and inefficient storage crowding in on people as they work. In these personal areas though, there is much resistance to change. It seems that separating people from their desk drawers is like whipping away an emotional crutch. Sejal explains why;
“Many employees don’t have much that they can control once they cross the threshold of their workplace. Their desk space ends up becoming a piece of their identity. Something they have dominion over and a sense of self around.”
Emma and Sejal have found that providing ways for people to express their own identities and take control of a space, can be dramatically effective in terms of behavioural change. “Whether it’s owning a locker for your coats and bags, or having a big wall with pictures of nights out or family - anything really - it helps employees to feel that their whole personality is recognised in the workplace. And for a place where you spend around 87% of your time, that’s psychologically very important.”
But pay attention to communal space as well
Most of the creative fun happens in companies’ communal areas, with individual workspaces being very much about design that enables good communication and a interesting working environment.
“But in communal spaces we can have some fun - and people get really excited by it!’ says Emma, ‘In particular, revitalising a kitchen has a massive effect on people’s feeling of being nurtured and appreciated.”
It’s not too hard to see the psychlogical reasoning here. Trifle also make the most of loos, reception areas and communal work spaces as key areas to create a great impression on both clients and employees and channel the spirit of the brand.
Another very important part of space design for productivity, is creating different zones for different types of working. People work in different ways, and with different jobs to do, so space needs to be flexible to accommodate that wherever possible.
“People know their own issues. We spend a lot of time gaining insight into what those are, and then come up with creative solutions to answer them.”
A key element of success in any organisation, (but one which can be difficult to create) is the network of internal relationships which enable smooth operations. Aside from team building exercises, companies can feel quite powerless in creating these channels of communication. Can the office environment help?
‘Absolutely.’ says Emma, ‘People naturally come together in communal hubs, so we create places where we know employees will bump into each other (not literally), and start to chat’.
The layout of an office can significantly impact the work that happens there and it can be hard to see things clearly when you’re there every day. Sejal told me,
“We went to one company which was struggling with project communication. We walked in and realised they were all spread out and in the biggest desks I’ve ever seen! The answer? Smaller desks, made room for people to be closer together. They could speak to each other more easily and sure enough, after the refurb, everyone was saying how great the atmosphere in the office was.”
Emma adds that another one of their great successes was fitting a tiny little breakfast bar into the staff kitchen of a small office. ‘It gave people the permission and opportunity for informal conversation - and suddenly everyone was having breakfast meetings!’
This is a really interesting point. Often people aren’t sure what behaviour is considered correct at work and what isn’t. If they’re seen sitting and talking over toast, do they look lazy? Employers who want to encourage strong relationships and serendipitous meetings need to make it clear that talking over toast is welcome behaviour.
Don’t be afraid of colour
I had, (naively) expected that Emma and Sejal would reel off a list of pleasing colour rules - like in that Dulux advert. The truth, it seems, is that colour is a very personal thing. People have different associations that one might not expect. Their general advice:
In any big space, use splashes of bright colours, rather than vast dominant swathes.
Blue and green are colours that we naturally associate with outside space. If you have a dark basement office with little natural light, these colours can be useful in bringing the outside in.
Grey is a great foil for bright colours and contemporary look - but use it sparingly or you’ll end up with corporate dullness.
It’s important not to expect too much from anything you do in isolation. Painting a wall in a bright colour won’t achieve much.
Challenge your preconceptions
“We try not to bring any preconceptions about the kind of company we are designing for and the look we should end up with. There’s a perception that it’s only agencies, (and specifically London agencies at that) who have bright colours and interesting office design; but it doesn’t have to be that way. There’s no reason why an accountancy firm shouldn’t have the design that fits their culture and their people. And there’s no reason why an accountancy firm always have to have white and beige and navy blue to reflect their culture.”
Budget - don’t assume it has to be expensive
I venture the opinion that budget must drive a lot of companies to have the colours, fabrics, and spaces they do. The pair insist though that a good design doesn’t cost any more than a poor one.
‘Offices don’t have to be officey!’ cries Sejal, and so starts a diatribe on the evil that is the office furniture catalogue, which it’s clear these two feel personally scarred by. They feel strongly that the expense, dullness and medium quality of furniture often found in the back of a stationery catalogue is a very high price to pay for the convenience of getting everything you want out of one book.
They use Ikea as an example of furniture and environments, where great (always fresh) design, functionality and budget find their midpoint. Emma admits though that while she loves to use some of the Ikea range, she has also learned what to avoid;
‘They’re brilliant when you are working to a restrictive budget, but you have to know what to stay away from. Some of their stuff is brilliantly durable, but there are other items that won’t last a year!
Finally - If you do just one thing
A final trifle tip from each of the founders?
Emma: “It’s about getting an external and internal balance. Communal areas for staff to collaborate & socialise in are equally as important as having an impressive reception. Consider what kind of message you want your brand to give and how that is delivered to all your stakeholders; clients, employees and others.”
Sejal: “Remember your brand is about more than logo and colour pallet, it’s about what you stand for and that’s how you should express it”.