Guest Blog | Nest building 101: what makes a good office space?

The all-important social dynamic 

When you’re engaged in the grueling task of the job hunt, one common thing to hear is, ‘If you like the people you work with, that’s half the battle’. There are many folks out there who are not positively enthralled by the work they’re doing, but nonetheless enjoy going to work every day (or rolling out of bed and opening Zoom) because they look forward to interactions with colleagues.

Only, from an employer’s perspective, this is not something you can orchestrate. Of course, you hire individuals that you hope will mesh well with your team, individuals that you like and are impressed by, but you can’t predict how they will be received by others.

What you can do, however, is set up a shared environment that puts your employees at ease, an environment designed to foster positive engagement in the workplace. An environment, in short, that says, ‘Let’s all have a good day together, team’, rather than the oppressive, ‘Get working, peons, this is no time for enjoyment!’. 

Open working environment

What an office says about the employer

An office space says a lot about the character of the employer that created it. How does he/she view their employees? Are they hamsters on a wheel, to be monitored and supervised in order to extract maximum productivity? Or are they fellow individuals that are ‘invited to the party’, so to speak, all sharing the same goal of working well and cohesively as a collective?

While your employees may be unable to suss this out perfectly by your office design choices, they will gain a certain impression, and this impression will affect how they view the company and their position within it.

Cubicles, lab rats and Soviet Germany

Let’s talk specifics. When we think ‘corporate drudgery’, the image that generally comes to mind is the infamous cubicle workspace, its strict partitions dividing workers like some office Berlin Wall.

Most modern offices shun this format. While the cubicle does grant privacy, offering employees their own space to adorn with photos, it also brings solitary confinement. To converse with a fellow colleague, the employee must traverse the great divide, rise from his or her seat and make the arduous journey to another’s cubicle. The cubicle format eradicates any possibility of light, passing conversation among colleagues. Each employee is alone, as the employer’s voice echoes in their mind, ‘Are you working hard enough today, underling?’

Partition wall office

The outrageous prospect of trusting one’s employees

Generally speaking, for jobs that don’t demand solitude and privacy (executive roles, namely), the open format is a more pleasant environment. A degree of trust is conferred to employees, as they are permitted to mingle and interact without concerns of stifling productivity. The spirit of collaboration is in the air, and this breeds healthy office relations.

On a more technical level, the open format also brings light. I can think of few things more disheartening than a windowless, cubicle-riddled office, with workers trudging through tasks like battery hens churning out eggs. Natural light is crucial for setting the mind at ease, permitting employees to approach work with zeal rather than tedium.

Win them over with coffee beans

What about installations? Table football is an increasingly popular feature of modern workspaces, but in my own view, by far the most important is access to high quality water, tea and coffee. Investing in a good coffee machine is a ludicrously easy way to upgrade your work environment. It’s also worth having a well-lit break area where people can sit and turn down the dial. Far from creating a distraction to the work, this will enable employees to stay productive for longer.

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The issue of colour

Colour is also important, and notoriously difficult to do well. I’m sure we have all seen some of these ‘hyper-modern’ offices with bright pinks, splashes of teal and yellow, and bizarre interpretive artworks strewn across the workplace. While it certainly doesn’t scream corporate ennui, it does leave a rather sour taste in the mouth, giving the impression of a vapid, tasteless company mentality.

Printed graphic walls are often a better way of setting up a stylish background. Bournemouth-based marketing agency Koreti demonstrates this point well, with a vibrant colour scheme reflecting the company’s design focus. 

Invest in office = invest in staff

Ultimately, investing in your office space is investing in your staff. It may then be hard to measure the net return of such an investment, leaving some to wonder how much they are truly worth. Gymshark recently established its US office in Denver, and the design looks more like a new sci-fi film set than an office. The sleek aesthetic and dark, industrial atmosphere go beyond the merely pragmatic and enters into artistic territory.

For Gymshark it’s not simply a question of creating a space employees would want to work in. The office is also a ‘temple’, a ‘cultural hub’ that cements their presence on the North American continent. It is a physical landmark, a visual and structural indicator of the company culture.

Doubtless, the price tag on this investment was a hefty one. With more and more working from home, some might wonder if this is the right move. But what Gymshark has built will not only attract bright, forward-thinking minds to the company, but also strengthen its bonds with current employees. Being ‘the place to work’ is an enviable tag.

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Naughty, naughty Silicon Valley

The money spent by Gymshark was carefully and strictly apportioned within the bounds of ‘good taste’ and with a coherent aesthetic that meshes with the company culture. Spending vast amounts of money does not automatically create an impressive workspace. In a way, what Silicon Valley firms have managed to do with their brightly-coloured sofas, theme park slides and arcades, is a return to the old corporate drudgery, under the guise of employee-centered innovation.

Many of these tech companies and startups have introduced bright, new, exciting perks, dangled like a shiny object in front of prospective employees. Cushioned shuttle buses taking employees to work, no planned seating, free kombucha in the cafeteria, and a plethora of weirdly shaped ‘pods’ in which to work. Yet, instead of the collaborative paradise many thought this would create, what they’ve ended up with is an office full of employees exchanging little to no eye contact, each minding his or her own business and getting on with work.

Simply put, this approach to office design is an attempt to erase the work-life divide. The goal is to reel employees in with shiny perks like bees to honey (worker bees, to be sure), in the interest of drawing as much out of them as possible. In reality, most millennial employees simply want to be treated with dignity and respect, addressed as individuals rather than lab rats to be coaxed into working harder.

‘Giving employees space’ doesn’t just mean providing them with meters squared of work space. It also means not trying to force them down certain avenues, not trying to tempt them to stay in the office for longer by means of arcade installations.

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Case-by-case approach

Ultimately, we do not know what the ideal work environment looks like. It will depend on the nuances of each company and its workforce. What can be said, however, is that a simple box-ticking exercise will not suffice. ‘Study A shows that humans work harder when surrounded by blue, so we shall fill the office with aquamarine.’ The right approach is one that acknowledges the employees as fellow individuals, each with their own individual tastes and preferences, one that provides them with a pleasant but unassuming (tasteful) environment that they would want to work in. This requires a little consideration from their perspective. Now, with that said, I had better get back to running my sweatshop; it’s about noon and we’re in great danger of losing productivity to a lunch break.  

For more information on how you can create the perfect office space, contact our team today.