Is the workplace experience shaped more by maintenance or by design?

The workplace experienceWhat has resilience got to do with the workplace experience? It is a word that has been used a lot recently as the great British public has demonstrated massive amounts of resilience in coping with Covid-19, fuel shortages, worries about food availability and a massive shift in how we work. So what is it? The dictionary gives two meanings: firstly the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties, i.e. toughness. And then secondly, the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity – like nylon for example.  

In terms of workplace design, resilience means choosing, installing and maintain equipment, furniture and technology that is functional, it should add to the workplace experience, aid and abet productivity. And it should last too – be sustainable too. Ideally we all want things to last. But for how long? The days of an office remaining the same way for years and years are long gone.  

“Ideally, if you are part of a growing, dynamic organisation you’d expect your workplace to be evolving, moving and changing all of the time. Not necessarily in a dramatic manner but in subtle but frequent ways that reflect the nature of the business, its brand and its culture,” says Steve Brewer, co-founder and director of Burtt-Jones & Brewer. 

[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]People are moving away from conventional desk space[/perfectpullquote]

Kelvin Bromley, managing director at Connection agrees. He says, “People are moving away from conventional desk space. Whether it is agile working, hybrid working or whatever, the nature of the layout and how we use it is changing. That is reflected in design but also in how we all use the space and whether we look after it or not.” 

So what does this mean for the space itself and the products in it? Has the globalised consumer culture led to a lack of respect for the task chair, desk and breakout area furnishings? Have the attitudes towards buying goods that are disposable – think about the last time you heard of someone repairing a dishwasher or washing machine – eroded resilience in the workplace? Have we created a workplace experience, or workplace sector that’s forgotten how to take care of the spaces we are using? 

Allison English, Deputy CEO at Leesman, says, “If employees don’t have pride in their workplace, the level of care towards these spaces naturally diminishes, and less care is taken. In part, this could be due to the number of friction points and resulting frustration employees experience when a workspace doesn’t meet their needs.” 

English argues that when a workplace doesn’t work for the employees using that space, the workplace experience actually starts to work against them. Leeman’s test for a good workplace fit is if an employee is able to work productively there or not. Interestingly, their research during lockdown highlights that many people who have worked from home are not that keen to go back to their offices as they were simply not that functional, let alone productive. 


The right stuff

Functionality of a space or product is about its design, but also its specification. The initial approach to the workplace experience was wrong, hence the lack of pride or engagement. This feels like a management issue, or at best, a workplace culture issue – something that takes us back to that idea of our attitudes towards stuff. 

“Good design should be factoring in periodical changes to a place to refresh the working environment,” says Steve Brewer. “That might be artwork, planting or key pieces of furniture and really, we should think about mixing things up in certain rooms, areas or spaces every six months or so.” 

This would give end users a chance to re-engage, and in an ideal world be given a chance to make decisions about the space themselves – that notion of empowerment defined by the research of Craig Knight. If you’re in effect refreshing or rotating the things in a workplace that encourages resilience – but are these products being taken care of? 

[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The market is not geared towards resilience, but towards renewal[/perfectpullquote]

Kelvin Bromley of commercial furniture manufacturer Connection has his doubts, “Do people have respect for the things in their office? I am not sure. Do people look after things? Not really. We use the space differently now and there is less regard for how we handle food and drink, placing hot drinks on tables or staining soft furnishing. Would you behave like that at home? There is also an issue around the cleaning and maintenance regimes. Are they doing it appropriately – has the O&M manual been opened and read?” 

Lucy Jeynes of Larch Consulting gets the point but defends the FM sector, “FMs will use the O&M as a core reference, particularly for hard services but their teams will always check the instructions for the cleaning and maintaining of soft furnishings. Cleaners definitely want to know the specifications. But that’s not the problem. Nowadays, the detail in an O&M is not accessible. The schedules for a workplace and are now more often like a brain dump of stuff with no proper links to manufacturers recommendations and so often the nitty gritty of how an item will wear and tear is missing.” 

So where’s the root of the problem? It feels like any lack of end user engagement and flaws with maintenance are a symptom of decisions made earlier: specification. 

“The model is at fault. The market is not geared towards resilience, but towards renewal,” says Neil Usher. “Commercial buildings last around 50-years with maybe up to two plant system installations or replacements. Instead of ongoing maintenance – which is a cost often put under intense pressure anyway – it is often seen as easier and more viable to knock a building down.” 

The market, or the system that a workplace operates within has to change. Resilience at work goes hand in hand with the resilience of individual daily lives. If we are to achieve the target of Zero Carbon by 2050 then we do all have a part to play. And, we have little choice – assuming you agree with the science around climate change. So, it feels wrong for example, that BREEAM Outstanding can’t be achieved on a renovation. Making allowances for whole life carbon costs is complex – but surely we should aim for reuse, replace and recycle instead of knocking things down and starting again? 

“There’s a balance to all of these things,” says Kelvin Bromley. “Refurbishment and reuse make huge sense, but everything has a life span and specifying, and re-purposing second hand furniture sounds good, but even that can be fraught. What’s better is taking say the frame of a desk and giving it a different top or making sure task chairs are always properly serviced.” 

Steve Brewer’s argument for factoring in change and keeping a space fresh would work best if we decided to lease furniture in the same way we might lease a car. It could keep everything ‘moving’ and fit the notion of perpetual beta testing a workplace experience as Neil Usher has suggested and might reduce up front costs and build in resilience at the same time. 


Time to perform

Leesman has produced great insight into the effectiveness of a space from an end user perspective, but there remains a lack of data providing evidence of how buildings actually perform themselves. What we need is to combine the two. LETI – the London Energy Transformation Initiative is one organisation looking to change this and use available data to improve how we use a space and reduce carbon emissions. LETI has done an excellent job in creating a guide – building on the RIBA stages – for new buildings, but we have to work harder with what we have got. Enter RICS stage left. It is developing a data led, people centric, holistic standard benchmarking framework, referred to as IBOS (International Building Operating Standard), which goes beyond the traditional ways of measuring building performance, and places user and the physical workplace experience at its heart. This person-centred and holistic approach will allow organisations to use data to measure and benchmark the quality of their buildings in terms of function, sustainability, cost, performance, and compliance, with best practice.  

[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Without question resilience must be built into workplace culture[/perfectpullquote]

Meanwhile the FM teams carry the can.  

“The FM team work to a spec, a set of service level agreements, and these should have scope for re-use, repair and recycle and re-purposing of a product, particularly furniture,” says Lucy Jeynes. “But the industry is not yet geared up for the circular economy. It’s too reactive. FMs need to be involved from the beginning at the specification stage – so that the concept of the 3Rs is not just designed in but planned in for the management of a space. Right now, things like operational functionality erode resilience. We have to change that.” 

“Without question resilience must be built into workplace culture,” says Allison English. “Employees and businesses have demonstrated resilience far beyond what many planned for or even thought they were capable of, coping with monumental changes across the board in the way we work – from office culture to hybrid working, to mass digitization – and we’ve come out the other side, on top. This resilience starts with people.”  

There is resilience in the workplace, but it is not designed in. It is more as a result of the attitudes of those maintaining a space or using it. At its heart resilience is a cultural issue. What’s more, if we are to heed the words of David Attenborough and act to combat global warming then all of us need to display some common sense towards our behaviours in the workplace, on the way to it and respect to our environment and one another. We could heed the advice of Ann Beavis of Honeymaker, and some very practical ideas for reuse of materials and spaces. Her mantra was pragmatism not environmentalism and pointed to the BiTC circular office guide as toolbox of ideas – “use less stuff generally but buy better stuff and use it wisely.” That’s resilience right there. 

Main image: Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times, Public Domain