Rosie Haslem and Simon Allford unpacked what it means to give people greater control over their own work environment at our sixth Frame x ORGATEC: Agile Working event on IBA Forum.

We live in an era in which almost every aspect of our lives has the potential to be tailored to our preferences. When it comes to the workplace, however, the way spaces are defined and used is still more often mandated from the top down rather than the bottom up. Spacelab director Rosie Haslem and Allford Hall Monaghan Morris director Simon Allford joined Frame, ORGATEC and IBA to outline how business can foster true agency among their employees in a work world revolutionized by the pandemic.

‘Culture and the underlying ethos and values of a business play such a key role in in the success of workspace,’ said Haslem. ‘The ideals of good workplace culture, your freedom, empowerment, trust – they were becoming more commonplace across all businesses [pre-COVID]. But maybe they were just ideals. I think for some practices the actual kind of lived cultures were often not quite what they said on the tin and, and that was therefore standing in the way of real agency. There's a real importance in integrating trust and agency into the strategy and design process in order to get the whole thing to really work. Workplace projects are often necessarily driven from the top, if we call it that. But the ideal is that that's working with the wants and needs of the bottom, so to speak, in mind – and the involvement of the bottom.’ Allford agrees, believing that one of the ‘great challenges we have’ is that ‘the environment can change – help an organization change – but it can't make a good organization bad, it can help a good organization get better.’

Culture and the underlying ethos and values of a business play such a key role in in the success of workspace

Creating agency remotely

During the UK’s first lockdown, Haslem and her team carried out a national survey to explore people’s thoughts about working from home and the future of the office. Almost all of the 2,000 respondents replied saying that they wanted more hybrid solutions for work in an office – potentially for a few days a week, then remotely. ‘But that didn’t always mean from home,’ explained Haslem. ‘Businesses have had to allow for more agency and that will necessarily have spatial implications. The increased cultural openness will accelerate the conversations about top sorts of spaces needed within the office. Now [companies are] exploding those conversations beyond the walls of the office: giving people agency to decide where to work from in terms of working from home or working from the office, but also anywhere in between. So people are actually really able to design their working lives much more holistically.’

Allford pointed out that most homes aren’t designed for working at home, and that it’s necessary for businesses to consider this when thinking of workplace agency. ‘There are lots of things that have been embedded in the thinking about home they’ve been a lot more stagnant, less flexible and less critically intelligent than work. The big area now is not work: it’s actually making home a better place to multitask.’ Still, employers should proceed consciously. ‘When you make work to compensate for home, the danger is you trap people in work. But I think that the most talented and creative people are those who leave work and have a completely separate life. To me, there's this clear idea that actually, to think clearly, you need to escape. And the power of modern technology means escape is ever more difficult. That is the sort of the tension that we as designers have to deal with.’

Looking back to move forward

Spacelab’s survey also found that people are missing socializing and face-to-face collaboration in addition to space for real concentration. ‘These are the sorts of things that need to be really instructive for businesses,’ said Haslem. ‘You need to listen to people and understand things they need, and going to need, and start providing for these really well.’ Haslem used Spacelab’s own office as an example: it’s currently being transformed into a ‘flexible, dynamic space’ that will become ‘much more than just a place to work’, with a gallery, event space and cafe accessible to the local community. ‘Users will have the agency within it to reconfigure spaces in line with the types of gatherings or collaboration. As we learn what our workplace of the future needs to be, we're open that that might need to change. Agency is key for people to work as they want and need and where they want and need.’ Furthermore, workspaces need ‘allow for things to unfold, because we're certainly not going to reach an endpoint anytime soon.’

The research we should be doing is as much into the past as the future

The idea of the workplace as a ‘public room’ as Haslem shared resonates with Allford. In fact such hybrid solutions long pre-date the corporate office we’ve become accustomed to. ‘We have this joke: “The office is dead, long live the office”,’ he said. ‘What we shouldn't confuse ourselves with is this idea that we are part of a radical new world. Actually the world we're recreating – a non-air-conditioned world, naturally ventilated world, a world where furniture is more important than fit-out – is a historical world. In the post-war world we created anodyne interiors that were universally adaptable. And then we created a whole world called fit-out, spending a fortune more than often spent on the base build to make this adaptable space personal and different. [That results in] incredible waste when you throw out half your building every five to 15 years, depending on leases.’ ‘My feeling is that everything we're going through is familiar,’ he continued. ‘It's being reinvented stylistically, but actually the research we should be doing is as much into the past as the future.’

Staying open-minded

‘In our cities, buildings come and go, but the streets are very, very permanent,’ said Allford. ‘In our buildings, the permanent elements are the architectural promenade. And what we must do is enrich that promenade then look at the user experience in terms of things we can impact upon, because we don’t control organizational structures. To me the biggest thing [for companies] not to say is “this how they’re going to use [the workspace]". Instead say, “this is how they might move through it, but it’s pleasurable enough for them to discover ways of using it that we never even thought of". And that's a success. So to us, it is about being open, but having personality.’

There's going to be ongoing change and evolution for quite a time to come. That’s what really what we need to be open to

Haslem echoed that opinion, emphasizing that our need for flexibility and open-mindedness is greater than ever. She highlights how essential it is to keep in mind that the future trajectory of the office cannot be predicted. ‘What we need to remember here is that it is a trajectory: there’s still so much uncertainty about what's going on. We've been researching and work at forefront of kind of workplace trends for years, and we don't even know what the future will hold. The reality is there's going to be ongoing change and evolution for quite a time to come. That’s what really what we need to be open to, and it’s why we're going to need these cultures and spaces that allow for that.’

Miss out on the Frame x ORGATEC: Agile Working virtual event? Find the recordings on IBA's platform.