26/05/2021 - 15:30

Office design driven by utility

26/05/2021 - 15:30

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The shift to working from home amid COVID-19 lockdowns has highlighted the need for better-designed spaces.

Office design driven by utility
Kath Kusinski (left) and Jacqui Williams from MKDC Design Consultants. Photo: David Henry

Last month’s snap lockdown was a timely reminder for businesses that employees enjoy freedom of choice when it comes to their working environment. 

And it is increasingly apparent that what a working environment looks like is changing. 

Whether employees are working from the kitchen bench or office cubicle, holding Zoom meetings from the couch or a desk, MKDC Design Consultants believes the debate is bigger than the home versus office argument: it’s about the flexibility and function of a space. 

That’s evidenced by the increase in utilisation studies undertaken by the Western Australia-based interior design practice since the pandemic emerged. 

(view a PDF version of this special report)

MKDC co-founder and design director Kath Kusinski said utilisation studies, which assessed how a workspace was used, were being requested by organisations committed to analysing how office design affected staff. 

Ms Kusinski said the increased uptake of the studies had been driven by worker resistance to a return to the office, and the growing body of research around the benefits of an office environment that arose during the pandemic.

Boosting team morale and fostering the types of innovation that could grow a business, she said, were just some activities better facilitated face to face. 

“Flexibility is now part of the DNA of most organisations,” Ms Kusinski told Business News.

“It’s now about creating those [flexible] ‘sticky spaces’ for socialisation, communication, collaboration … things that bring people back to the office.

“It’s not just, are you sitting at your desk? It’s, when you’re in the office, where are you?

“Are you standing up having quick meetings, or are you sitting down? Are you in a meeting room on a Zoom or conference call, or are you with a group of people?

“It’s risen to that level of enquiry now.” 

MKDC associate director Jacqui Williams said this had forged a closer relationship between HR departments and architects, with more emphasis on the purpose of a space related to the core functions of a business: people, place and technology. 

Ms Williams said WFH was not a blanket arrangement; lifestyles differed (solo, roommates, family living), as did the quality of a home, and not everyone had the means to invest in ergonomic furniture or extra computer monitors as corporate offices did.

These were all factors influencing productivity, she said, with WFH and COVID-19 accelerating the flexible workplace model of catering to different working styles. 

That included promoting non-dedicated work points (i.e. non allocation of desks), collaborative areas, quiet rooms, phone booths, meeting rooms or stand-up meeting desks, dedicated technology spaces, and lunch areas. 

Ms Williams said the importance of outdoor areas had also increased since the pandemic, with more businesses now incorporating courtyards and balconies as extensions of dedicated working or socialisation areas. 

“The big question we get is, ‘do we need more space?’” she said. 

“We’re dealing with clients refreshing their workplace strategies, responding to their needs with the space they’ve got, or looking for new space to expand.”

That was the beauty of the flexible workplace design model, Ms Kusinski said: agile in its ability to future-proof an office, to accommodate more or less staff, while respecting social distancing requirements. 

Ms Kusinski pointed to MKDC’s recent office refurbishment project for the Western Australian Treasury Corporation (WATC) at 225 St Georges Terrace as an example: it had increased staff but retained the same floorplate. 

Photos: Mike Calneggia

MKDC removed enclosed single offices (which created more space to play with) and adapted a flexible workplace strategy, including an array of working spaces (solo and collaborative), phone booths and lockers, which supported hot desking. 

WATC’s new office also features a larger staff hub area for dining and socialisation than previously. 

“That’s the number one place where innovation happens; it’s the water cooler [philosophy] but on steroids,” Ms Williams said. 

She said the staff hub was where people typically went before or after meetings, or for lunch, with ideas exchanged in a less formal setting where people felt more comfortable to share.  

WATC’s self-check-in reception was another key fitout feature, which Ms Williams said had risen in popularity during COVID-19, facilitating contactless arrivals with options for temperature checks. 

Considering employee wellness through biophilic design (connection to the natural environment) pre-dated COVID-19, she said, however, the pandemic had further emphasised workplace health, with plants, timber and other earth elements featured throughout WATC’s office. 

Mirroring hospitality interiors was an additional emerging trend, Ms Williams said, which built on the residential feel designers had infused in office environments in recent years. 

“It’s the idea of curating an experience, which is a big drawcard in attracting and retaining staff,” she said. 

Ms Kusinski said that translated to clients, with the role a CBD office’s commercial value played in winning business not to be underestimated. 

“Our clients want to be near their clients,” she said. 

“The office is really a destination now; the exciting places that have the tech, the social [aspect] and the right mix of space.

“Build it, and they will come.” 

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