8 minutes

In search of workspace identity

When workplaces become hybrid, it is important to redesign offices, to make them places that open minds and connect us with others.

Something has always been in front of our eyes without us seeing it, and it is suddenly tangible again, thanks to a virus. It is the ‘hidden dimension’ – from the title of a 1966 essay in which anthropologist E.T. Hall defined the foundations of ‘proxemics’ – in which we are constantly immersed and that quietly shapes our every private, public, social and professional behaviour far more than we think. And which we just noticed when it went missing, like everything invisible but essential. It is space.

‘Space speaks, and it speaks even when we don’t want to hear it’

Space influences our mood and health on the biological level, and at the same time, it is a symbolic signal of the type of relationship we have with others. It tells us about our relational awkwardness or wellbeing, our openness or closedness, our expression of trust or mistrust, acting on our behaviour and its communication. ‘Space speaks, and it speaks even when we don’t want to hear it’, E.T. Hall argues. Well, it’s been talking to us a lot lately.

Our relationship with space has been redefined

‘Social distancing’, ‘gathering’, ‘limited numbers’, ‘lockdown’, ‘distance’ working: the pandemic made this lexicon familiar within just a few months, effectively redefining our individual and social relationship with space and its rules of use, its accessibility, its practical function, but also its symbolic meaning and economic value. Established patterns and habits have suddenly changed, so we have to deal with houses that need to be turned into schools or improvised offices, or gyms, with spaces that need to be redefined or have reduced access. We have to deal with new social and personal distances, with different mobility needs, with deserted public spaces and crowded domestic spaces, with people fleeing the cities searching for more space or even just a larger, more liveable balcony.

Balance is a matter of quantity and quality

We have experienced first-hand how finding a balance is a question of quantity (the less space you have, the harder it becomes to adapt to changing needs) and quality. Spaces that are poorly designed or not designed at all, or designed for something else, not flexible or welcoming enough, the lack of adequate space or the ‘right’ space can generate an infinite number of individual and collective problems: frus- tration, discomfort, unproductivity, depression or even the collapse of an entire organisation. A widespread discussion has opened on how to imagine the domestic, working and urban spaces of the near future.

The debate on how to imagine spaces

However, developments in this area have been talked about for some years: “We shape our buildings; thereafter, they shape us.” It was the opening phrase attributed to Winston Churchill, with which an article by Wired in late 2018 analysed the topic of the future of workspaces. Covid-19 was still a long way off, but an inevitable evolution in the way of thinking/designing/making/living spaces for the working dimension was already being hinted at by a series of increasingly influential factors: exponential technological innovation, demographic changes (new generations with new tastes and needs), the spread of increasingly powerful and accessible digital tools, the increasingly central role of environmental impact, new models of urban and extra-urban mobility.

Space transforms our daily experience

The great statesman was undoubtedly correct: the space in which we spend our time, whether the classic ‘office’ or any other space – such as our homes – adapted for use out of necessity, can transform our daily experience, even drastically. It has an impact on the work environment, productivity, efficiency, psychophysical wellbeing, interpersonal relations, and even on the appeal that our organisation can exert on new talents or candidates, in a competition where, especially for the younger generations, the main attraction factor is no longer necessarily, or not only, salary.

“You have to create an optimal working experience for all employees, regardless of their role, remit or experience, to retain them,”, say managers at WeWork (the former world leader in co-working before filing for bankruptcy in the U.S. and Canada). What’s more, the theme of attractiveness has intersected and overlapped with that of the post-covid ‘return to normality. The office-home balance has become the new playground of the work-life balance and much else that revolves around it.

The polarization between digital nomads and advocates of a return to the past

There is a vast amount of research and articles on the subject, which testify to polarised positions. However, with many nuances in-between: between the new ‘digital nomads’ or the advocates of the YOLO (You Only Live Once) Economy, who now reject the very concept of the office and traditional work, and others who have suf- fered from working remotely and would like to return to the past, people increasingly would prefer a mixed solution in which they could alternate between the two formulas flexibly. While waiting for this transitional time to slowly fade away in the rearview mirror, many business leaders are looking to the future, applying lessons learned to the challenges ahead. The virtual and physical workplace and its post-pandemic aspect will be at the centre of these challenges.

Let’s be clear; the Coronavirus will not eliminate offices. If anything, it will make them more dynamic than ever. If anything, it will make them more dynamic than ever. The ability to work remotely will not displace most people permanently from their usual cities and locations. However, it will allow many to live and work in new ways and places, thus causing a significant disruption of the previous system.

The identity of a shared place, as the social glue between people, remains inalienable

But the identity of a shared place, as the social glue between people, remains inalienable. It’s no secret that virtual exchanges are no substitute for the experience of physical integration. An impromptu chat with a colleague in the corridor, a chance meeting at the coffee machine, or gathering with others in person to share goals and objectives. By their very nature, these types of casual, informal interactions cannot be scheduled or imposed on the agenda and, as a result, are difficult to replicate online. This type of social capital is much harder to generate between individuals who have only met through a Zoom call or a Teams meeting.

The two key requirements for organizations

Organisations, therefore, need to ensure two essential requirements: one is to satisfy the emotional need of employees to work in teams, while the other is to provide them with the appropriate conditions in terms of infrastructure and space to carry out their tasks according to new models.

The best spaces will be those that retain the power to open our minds, connect with others and encourage cooperation. With purposeful design, thoughtful density, availability of technology for mixed remote/in person working, inviting lighting, meeting and relaxation spaces, and strong integration of natural materials and greenery, as per the latest dictates of ‘biophilic design’.

The latter is a design philosophy that an increasing number of architects – from Norman Foster to Carlo Ratti and Kengo Kuma – are proposing to redesign the future through a new balance with nature. Indeed, the Japanese architect will build one of the world’s most innovative complexes in this sphere in Milan, with the help of Stefano Mancuso, an internationally prestigious botanist. Natural elements in architecture such as vegetation, light, air and wood stimulate the senses and make a difference to the workplace and lifestyle. They improve physical and mental health and productivity.

The 5 actions to keep up

Of course, 80% of offices are already built, and only a few can be modified or renovated. This means that the changes we will see in the short term will have to be primarily about behaviours and technologies, the way we use and enable space. Thinking that structural changes will dominate the rethinking of the office isn’t feasible from a cost, sustainability or implementation capacity perspective. But in a nutshell, there will be five main actions to bear in mind to keep up:

1. Create places that are hubs for cooperation rather than places designed to impress.

2. Design spaces and experiences with a strong identity capable of attracting and retaining people.

3. Offer a mix of informal work environments that provide wellbeing and relaxation.

4. Invest in technological innovation.

5. Reduce environmental impact and incorporate nature into the workplace as much as possible.

Article by Gianluca Alderuccio, Creative Director & Brand Director at LogotelPublished on Weconomy 15 – UFO. Unidentified Future Organizations