What Office Design Says About Your Corporate Culture
Renowned workplace academic, author and activist Jeremy Myerson talks to us about what your organization’s office design might say about its culture.
As most people know, designing a workplace is about much more than picking out furniture and deciding on wall colours. The actual process of building a space that employees will spend the majority of their days in takes a deep and holistic understanding of how people function within an array of deliberately designed areas.
Jeremy Myerson, a renowned workplace academic, author, activist and Director of WORKTECH Academy, has spent years studying design and innovation as it pertains to the workplace. He understands the delicate balance between aesthetics and functionality and talks to us about the benefits and challenges of trying to fully optimize both.
Could you start by briefly breaking down your professional background and how you became an activist in workplace design and innovation?
Myerson: My background is in journalism and academia. I was a workplace design journalist and looking at design and architecture more generally. I found the workplace a very interesting subject to write about because it takes a lot of time, energy and investment by designers and architects. As a discipline, for many years, it was a Cinderella discipline compared to things like retail, residential and hospitality. It has a very interesting environmental typology because we spend so much of our lives in the workplace. Why was it getting so little real design attention? I wrote about workplace design as part of my life as a magazine editor, I was editor of Creative Review and Design Week in the U.K. and World Architecture internationally.
I branched out into academic research and again I was interested in workplace design and technology. I co-founded the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design at the Royal College of Art in London, which is the largest and longest-running centre for design and research at the Royal College of Art. We had a work and city lab which does a lot of research into new trends and ideas, we worked with a lot of companies and did a big study for the government as well.
You wrote your MA thesis about office design aesthetics. How integral is the design aspect to the overall functionality of any given office space?
Myerson: There’s a functional process-driven aspect: you can’t have meetings unless you have meeting rooms, you can’t collaborate unless you’ve got spaces to do it. Underneath that, there’s another deeper level which is the signifer — office design as a communicator of values.
You can tell through the attention to design and the design choices how employers treat their employees and what they think about them. You get a sense through design because design is nothing more than ideas made visible and it’s through the signifiers in the workplace, which come through design elements, that you can really see the cultures.
If you have a lot of crappy vending machines around the workplace, it says one thing about what the company thinks of the workforce. If you’ve got lovely open kitchens with fresh produce and an all-day breakfast, that design decision says something else. Are the junior staff members grouped in the middle of the floor with the big bosses in private offices surrounding them? In open plan areas, are junior staff allowed near windows?
You are on advisory boards for design institutes in South Korea, Switzerland and Hong Kong. What cultural differences do you see in how offices are designed internationally?
Myerson: It’s very interesting. If you take Asia Pacific, they were way behind Anglo-American offices a generation ago in terms of amenity and space standards, but that’s changing very rapidly — Hong Kong is a big centre for coworking now. Knowledge transfer in the workplace industry is very fast and global. It’s driven by global companies who really want to have equity of experience for their staff in different parts of the world.
There are cultural differences. The Anglo-American model is a tougher model than the European model. French and German offices offer far more protection for the employee and have less flexible workforces, but there’s more private offices. Bureaucracy is a dirty word in America and the U.K., bureaucracy is something to be admired in Europe. Well organized, administration-led organizations are admired. Japan has a very different workplace culture, it’s more hierarchical with an elaborate social protocol based on that hierarchy.
All kinds of things are going on in different countries, but what everybody shares is the search for productivity and what these cultures are trying to do is to get people to perform better in the workplace. Historically, since the financial crash of 2008, productivity has been in quite a dip and trying to get people back to pre-2008 standards is hard work.
What are your thoughts on the rising trend of coworking spaces and how do you think this concept has impacted the current work environment?
Myerson: I think coworking is very interesting, it’s like the canary in the mine. It’s saying corporate offices are not really doing the job for people. You study in a university, you go on a campus and you wander around with your tablet or laptop then you join a big American Fortune 500 company and they take you into a cubicle, give you a crappy PC and you’ve got very little choice.
Coworking is an extreme form of the consumerization of the workplace. If coworking spaces don’t provide the right ambience, coffee and connectivity, they go out of business because you go somewhere else. Every day they’re providing an experience for people to work in that’s nice and they think about that. Most employers have not thought about that at all, they’re thinking about how they can drive the machine that is the business forward.
What coworking is doing is showing how hospitality, amenity, atmosphere and experience are very big parts of working — it’s a timely reminder to employers that they have to do that. Employers think this is good value for knowledge workers who aren’t in the office everyday — they begin to ask: why don’t we just give them a subscription to WeWork? That’s cheaper than building an extension to our campus where occupancy rates will be very low. So they’re moving people into coworking, but they’re also bringing some of the values, philosophies and consumer-led services from coworking back to the corporate campus.
What do you think are the most important things to keep in mind when building an office space in 2018 that can appeal to the needs of knowledge workers from different generations? What gets left out or missed frequently when it comes to office design?
Myerson: Traditionally, offices were based on headcount and the org chart, which plans the office around the hierarchical structures of who reports to who. That has kind of changed. Now people are looking at it in the form of social networks, designers are studying email trails, calendars, room booking data and that’s getting them far better information about the informal social dynamics and networks of the office.
The other big thing that’s happening is that people used to think about the physical infrastructure of the office in a space of furniture and architecture when they would think about how to put a layer of technology on top of it. People now are thinking very differently. They’re thinking about people, place and technology all in one and the cloud has something to do with that because a generation ago you had big heavy large server rooms guarded by many white coats. Now everything is in the cloud.
A lot of new technology doesn’t require heavily managed cable management systems, so what we’re seeing is the modern office beginning to revert to a pre-industrial condition. When banks and insurance companies were on the ground floor of large bourgeois domestic houses. You’re getting a slightly more hospitality feel now, a lot of large corporate headquarters look like the lobbies of hotels now and for very good reason: soft seating, low light, art, good coffee. I think that is what’s happening. People are finding new ways to read the organization in order to design for it.