There appears to be a revolution taking place in the way that offices are designed, managed, and more interestingly, used by the people working in them.  Part of this emerging design revolution is the result of effective self-promotion by interior designers and architects on social media and beyond, with the other part stemming from organizations wishing to make a statement about their values and brand image through very obvious visual means.  Amazon’s amazing jungle spheres are one very obvious example of this.

Around the globe, there is a growing shift in the way workplaces are being designed, a shift that is being shaped from many different directions and in a variety of different ways.  There is also a huge estate of existing buildings that has decades of use ahead of them, leading to a wider discussion about how these spaces can be brought up to date to take advantage of best practices more easily employed in new builds.

 Going through changes

Changes in the ways that office space is designed comes from two ends of a scale.  At one end, designers are creating ever more stimulating and imaginative workspaces.  This is driven, in part, by the availability of technology: better lighting, smarter workstations, dynamic acoustic management, and so forth.  This means that spaces can be designed in ways unimagined a decade ago.  Another driver is a better understanding of how people behave in the work space.  

Research into the psychology of the workspace has unearthed a trove of insights into how people engage and identify with an organization and its colleagues.  Staff engagement surveys are now commonplace, whereas a generation ago, they simply didn’t exist.  Knowledge, technology, and changes in the way that people are managed (and all the business buzzwords that come with it) means that there is a significant shift in what is expected from the modern workplace.

There is also a significant impetus from below: the end users of the workplace.  There are significant shortages of skilled people in some industries, and higher expectations of workers. This is driven, in part, by some companies making a great display of the quality of their office space in order to attract the best talent.  With extraordinarily high-quality designs so frequently publicized on social media, there is a growing expectation that all offices should be better. This leads to potential employees demanding good work spaces as well as the right pay and benefits packages.  Potential employees are, effectively, interviewing the building as well as their employer.


The right space for the work

As work evolves, and people are expected to carry out their jobs by working in a wide variety of styles, there is a need to provide appropriate spaces for each different aspect of work.  Some tasks require silence and concentration, and others need conversation without distracting colleagues nearby. Traditional work spaces make that difficult, so an increasing trend is to have zones around the building where people can work most effectively.  

In many respects, offices are becoming more and more like schools and colleges in the way that space is organized.  Best practice in academic architecture: spaces fit for the tasks at hand, a mixture of dynamic and quiet spaces all designed with performance in mind and making full use of technology also appeals to the next generation entering the workforce – offices become a familiar place to work.

One size does not fit all

Many space planners are tasked with squeezing as many people into a space as is possible.  When office rents in many top cities reach record levels, there is a financial imperative to make that space work as hard as possible.  This often leads to space efficient layouts, but the opportunity to create work spaces that actually work are lost – the work space becomes sub-optimal for everyone and is probably detrimental to organizational performance.  Savings in rent made by squeezing people into a space may well be lost due to low productivity.

Remember, approximately 90% of an organization’s costs are people, less than 10% relate to premises costs.  A small change in human performance has a bigger impact on the bottom line than a huge shift in building performance.

“Hacking” the office

One thing that infuriates facilities managers and space planners alike is office space not being used in the way it was intended. They scratch their heads wondering why the carefully designed spaces they manage are not used as they imagined.  This could be because of the natural contrary nature of people, or (and most likely) it could be because of other issues: where the best WiFi signal can be found, conference room with a view, etc. Unless facilities managers learn to continuously observe and adapt to behaviors, rather than impose policies and demand compliance, then even the most splendid office building can fail to meet expectations.


Domestication of the workplace

A phrase that has recently entered the workplace lexicon is the “domestication of the workspace”.  This has arisen from two trends. The first is in response to observations that many people often choose to work away from the office if they can – at home, or in coffee shops, for example.  Often derided as slackers, or skivers, it is often more likely to be the case that people choose these alternative work venues as they are more productive – homes often have better internet speeds, more comfortable furniture, more controllable environments, and the ability to work in peace and quiet when needed.

In response to this, many offices buildings are becoming more homey.  Spaces are flexible, furniture can be personalized and customized and spaces are even made available for people to take a nap while at work (sleep pods are finding their way into many buildings).  Offices are also beginning to look more like homes and hotels. Plants are in abundance, wellness programs are offered and furniture looks less sterile and more comfortable.

This could be seen as being a good thing – the creation of more humane working environments, but there is a risk that this is just a new way for employers to keep control of their human resources.  By making offices more like home, workers may feel discouraged from actually going home at the end of the day.  When office buildings start to incorporate bars, restaurants, cinemas and even bedrooms, this could well be a cynical way to exploit workers under the guise of considerate design.  The blurring of the boundaries between work and private life may have many unforeseen consequences.


Well-being and biophilic design

It’s not difficult to tell when employers have the best interests of their staff at heart. One of the most obvious manifestations of this is when workspaces are designed with well-being in mind. Biophilic design is one of these pro-employee, wellness-focused philosophies that’s become a bit of a buzzword in architectural and design fields, leading to happier, healthier, and more engaged people that are more likely to be productive in their working environment.  

In its purest form, Biophilic design relates to designing spaces that enable people to reconnect to their innate need to be in nature.  Based on the principles espoused by Edward Wilson and Stephen Kellert, and since developed in publications such as “The fourteen patterns of biophilic design” by Browning et al, biophilic design is an effective way of creating high-performance workspaces.  Such workspaces need not be expensive either, as biophilic design can be introduced into existing spaces very easily and for a surprisingly low cost.

The ongoing Biophilic Office research project carried out by the BRE in the UK, in which Ambius is a core partner, is designed to investigate how biophilic design that has been incorporated into an existing building can affect the well-being of office workers and the business outcomes of their employers. This long-term project will report its findings in early 2020 and it is hoped that organizations and designers will be given a set of design tools and principles to employ in any type of office building that will improve the quality of life in the office for years to come.


Office spaces seem to be evolving more rapidly than at any time since the industrial revolution or the changes in office culture ushered in as a result of Taylorist management styles from the early 20th century and the alienation of workers from the fruits of their labor.  This is being driven by technology and increasingly vocal new generations of workers who are able to demand better working conditions. Enlightened employers are already realizing the benefits of better workplace design.

One message that needs to be proclaimed loudly is that organizations must be responsive and adaptable.  Imposing workspace management policies without observing how office workers actually use their space is likely to result in failure.  Similarly, designers must also accept that their designs will not be preserved in aspic. Ongoing observation, consultation, and change are going to be needed to ensure that workspaces continue to be effective.  As people change, so must the office (and their designers!).

If you feel your workspace or office could use some biophilic design elements or want to find out what plants in your workspace can do for your employees, contact your local Ambius office and talk to one of our interior landscaping experts.