The new plug-and- play workplace - why one size should never fit all

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Contact Jon Grant, Director, Interiors

Plug-and-play workspaces often have a reputation for being generic and vanilla, with a one-size-fits all approach to look and feel. But does this always have to be the case? How can we bring personality and soul to these spaces and in the process, help attract future tenants? We tasked our EMEA Interiors team to come up with some fresh thinking, here are their top ideas.

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1. Create a compelling brand experience

In the wake of COVID-19, both employers and individuals need compelling reasons to return to physical workspace. 

One way of enticing people back is through brand-led placemaking and design. Increasingly, users of workspace interiors are looking to connect with a brand experience (be it tech-driven, aesthetic, gastronomic). They’re looking for something three-dimensional, sensory and exhilarating – something that goes beyond the functional dynamics of the corporate office environment.

Through brand-led placemaking, interior design can help to create a sense of place and identity, reflecting values that resonate with prospective tenants and end-users. Bringing workspaces to life, this approach helps employees to feel engaged, inspired and connected to the space around them – and therefore more compelled to interact with it. It also enables designers to create a strong, unifying narrative of place; a coherent story and experiential journey that deepens people’s sense of belonging.

Shifting away from the generic plug-and-play model, this approach means conceiving design interventions that target specific end-users and demographics. But it also has to work. A brand experience doesn’t have to be visual – it can also be operational. And a workspace that’s heavy on aesthetics but fails on basic operational requirements will struggle to retain its tenants. However good the coffee is. 

'People are looking for something three-dimensional, sensory and exhilarating – something that goes beyond the functional dynamics of the corporate office environment.'

2. Focus on flexibility

While the brand experience’ depends upon a homogeneity of culture and identity, plug-and-play workspaces also need to cater for multiple personalities, occasions and activities. For example, some employees like to work in closed and private space, whereas others prefer open and collaborative settings. Similarly, different companies occupying the same building will have different visions, values and needs. 

Workspaces therefore need to offer flexible environments that can provide inclusivity for all. Through flexible office formats, operating hours and working arrangements, plug-and-play workspace can be fully responsive to the needs of its occupants. Allowing for group functions and individual tasks, for all-nighters and nine-to-fivers, flexibility will enable people to work in ways that suit them best, maximising productivity. And of course, flexibility enables owners to adapt space quickly and affordably, allowing for high tenant turnover and shifts in occupant profile.

At the same time, a successful plug-and-play workspace needs to provide a baseline experience that unites all the diverse individuals and entities within it. Because beneath any differences in working patterns and personality, all companies will have a commonality of essential needs. In this way, comfort, convenience, operational efficiency and employee wellbeing should be the foundations upon which a flexible and inclusive workspace is built. 

3. Make it sustainable

All interior designers have a responsibility to make the spaces they create sustainable. And for the plug-and-play workspace of tomorrow, sustainability is an existential prerequisite. For younger generations especially, the provenance of workspace materials and the efficiency of workplace systems are vital considerations when deciding where to work. Just as companies will fail to attract the top talent, so landlords will fail to attract the top tenants, if sustainability is seen to be ignored. 

On the environmental side, practices that reduce the overall carbon footprint of a space can help to reassure eco-conscious end-users. Evidence of good recycling schemes, renewable energy supply, responsible sourcing and resource consumption will demonstrate commitment in this area. Meanwhile, biophilic design and vegetation bring the outside in’ and provide a soulful green experience – one that is known to reduce stress, improve cognitive function and enhance creativity and performance. 

Social sustainability dimensions are equally essential. Creating a social environment people can connect with and enjoy is a vital first step. Workspaces that support a good work-life balance and prioritise mental and physical wellbeing are also key. In addition, interior design schemes that facilitate social activities (e.g. through communal lunches, open discussion areas, shared leisure space) can help to build a sense of community. 

'What if workspaces, for instance, felt more like hotels? What if end-users were treated like valued customers, guests or residents?'

4. Apply the principles of hospitality

If plug-and-play workspaces are to offer welcoming, engaging and inspiring environments for future tenants and end-users, hospitality design schemes could provide a useful point of reference. What if workspaces, for instance, felt more like hotels? What if end-users were treated like valued customers, guests or residents? 

The concept of hospitality as a visual and operational driver of experience could transform future workspace design. Certainly, hospitality design cues could set new benchmarks for service, space, comfort and convenience in a work environment. It’s a bold approach; one that involves rethinking existing formats and exploring new opportunities. 

By reimagining workspaces through the lens of hospitality, interior designers can create vibrant destinations that engage, delight and cater for every need. Destinations that have the power to bring people together and, through their total negation of the generic and the vanilla, provide compelling reasons to return’. 

5. Prioritise the end-user experience

When it comes to plug-and-play workspace interiors, designers will always need to consider the competing interests and agendas of owners, occupiers and end-users. Commercial pressures and targets will always loom large in project briefs and agreements. But it is essential that designers put the end-user experience at the heart of their vision. 

They might not be paying the fees, but it is the end-user whose everyday experience will determine the success or failure of a workspace. In this way, what’s good for the end-user will be good for the project as a whole. Indeed, their wellbeing, comfort and fulfilment will, ultimately, translate into a viable return for occupier and owner. Creative design concepts that enhance everyday workspace experiences should therefore be seen to support, rather than undermine, commercial project imperatives. 

Putting end-user needs centre-stage will also be critical in the post-pandemic landscape. From a health and wellbeing perspective, the way in which people interact with interiors will become more important than ever before. Post-COVID, design schemes that address issues of contamination and human connection will provide vital reassurance. Rethinking shared and personal space, and promoting cleanliness and ventilation, will be key to a healthy and happy end-user experience in the years ahead.