Enter the new workplace destination

“Finally, we have learnt the value of the workplace,” says Woods Bagot director Sarah Kay. How will our new insights influence design for the future workplace?

Just like the song Big Yellow Taxi, you don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone. “Ironically when it was taken away, we all suddenly realised what the office was actually for,” Woods Bagot’s Sydney studio lead, says.

“Now it is really easy to sell tenants the vision and value of a quality workplace, because we didn’t have them for a while and people now really understand their benefits,” she says.

There is a lot to miss about the office: impromptu conversations and the “serendipitous bump”, collaborating around hard problems, socialising, learning and mentoring. Then there’s the importance of creating and maintaining culture, meeting new clients, building relationships, and “feeling a part of something and seeing how your contribution adds to the whole”.

“The office shows you are part of a brand and part of a broader story,” Kay says.


From evolution to revolution

All these things make the commute worthwhile, Kay says. But just as we know what works best in the office, we also know what doesn’t work. At home it was easier to get people together from multiple locations and “remote team members and part-timers were equalised at last”. It was great for concentration and “for spending more time with family, sneaking in exercise, and feeling like there was some balance in your life”.

The problem, Kay contests, is that the offices we are returning to are largely filled with “desk work and boring meetings that could be done via video conference”. These offices are still designed around the ideas of the industrial age: the workforce arrives at nine and sits at their machines until five.

There have been a few concessions over the past 100 years, Kay admits, notably “better coffee machines, the odd meeting room, and the boss is no longer sitting on an elevated platform and keeping a beady eye on the factory floor”.

If we were to throw this model out, and start with a blank page, what would an ideal office look like? How could it enhance the things we value most?

“We can work at our desk from home so let’s not prioritise those spaces.” Instead, Kay says design can prioritise interaction, socialising, learning and culture.” The first place to start is with meeting rooms. Even their square shape is designed for “transactional exchanges” rather than creativity and innovation, Kay notes. The solution is space that is more adaptable, flexible and more digitally-enabled.


Holey, not homogenous

With an architectural career spanning two decades and three continents, Kay has a deep understanding of the challenges facing organisations trying to keep pace with a world evolving at an eye-watering pace.

The offices best placed to meet the challenges of the future will have “big holes in them” to support easy collaboration across teams and floors,” she says. “They won’t be homogenous or stratified” and they will connect with the world around them. They will have indoor and outdoor spaces that flow “seamlessly” in much the way an al fresco entertaining area in the home flows from a kitchen.

Expect variety and diversity of space, volume, light and air. The offices of the future will offer “more plants, more creativity and more diverse mix of uses”. There will be less carbon in construction and energy in operation and “less sameness”.

Offices will encourage greater connection between tenants too. The banks have established connected communities across their own office footprints, but expect to see more tenant ecosystems emerge in fully connected buildings and precincts.


From divided to dynamic destination

The best offices were already heading in this direction, Kay adds, pointing to the workplaces of Commonwealth Bank, NAB, BHP and Suncorp as examples. All prioritise connection and are linked internally through central atria and vertical circulation. They are also connected to the broader community through a transparent and accessible ground plane. A focus on biophilia, fresh air and outdoor working are also common characteristics.

The opportunities ahead are enormous, but what are the obstacles? “The usual ones – cost and time,” Kay says. “We recently designed a new building in Perth. The concept was a hybrid structure of concrete and cross-laminated timber with a giant connecting atrium. It was all the things a future building should provide: carbon minimisation, connectivity, biophilic materiality for wellness. It brought nature back to the city. But it takes some time and some energy to figure out how to fire rate a CLT slab in a full atrium building, for example, and the tenant didn’t have the time.”

While this project was clearly a missed opportunity, Kay’s message is just as clear. “Now is our opportunity to reinvent. If we don’t do it now, we never will. So, extend your design and construction programs to allow for innovation, and add dollars to the budget. Let’s take advantage of where we are to create workplaces where people really want to be. We need to turn the factory upside down.”

Sarah Kay will be sharing her insights on the new workplace destination with Dexus executive general manager Kevin George, and Microsoft Australia COO Steven Miller in a not-to-be-missed session at The Property Congress in Hobart.