Top HR-friendly office design trends in 2020

Written by
Tom Ritchie

30 Nov 2019

30 Nov 2019 • by Tom Ritchie

Effective office design has been proven to make people happier, healthier and more productive. HR and office design go hand-in-hand. How can you learn from HR-friendly office design to make your business space work for its people?

As the American poet Robert Frost once observed, “the brain is a powerful organ; it starts working the moment you get up in the morning and does not stop until you get into the office.”

Is this a reflection on our work ethic, our short attention spans – or perhaps the suitability of most working environments to help people perform to the best of their ability? 

For many of us, the answer appears to be the latter.

Fewer than half of UK workers feel their office design encourages innovation

A global survey by (office furniture solutions company) Steelcase revealed that just 13% of workers are highly engaged or highly satisfied by their workspace, while research by YouGov found that less than half of British workers (43%) feel the design of their workplace encourages innovation and creativity

At an even more basic level, a poor working environment could be negatively affecting our wellbeing, mental health and productivity

HR-friendly workspaces: How can office design improve wellbeing?

Peggie Rothe, development director at Leesman Index, believes that our workspace is of the utmost relevance to getting the most out of our working day. 

“Humans are very much impacted by their environment,” she says. “Environments in general have a huge influence on how we feel, how we behave and how we interact. At work, more specifically, it has an impact on how well we can do our job.” 

Supporting this, a recent study of workers in North America by HR advisory firm FutureWorkplace found that two-thirds of employees are more productive in workplaces with the following attributes:

  • Good air quality
  • Lighting that’s easy on the eye
  • Acoustics that don’t make it feel like people are working 20,000 leagues under the sea. 

Jenny Jones, who runs a London-based architecture and design studio, agrees that these factors have a profound effect on our ability to work. 

“In an ideal world, your space is going to have high ceilings, great daylight, a good connection with the outdoors,” she says. “They are scientifically proven to be beneficial environments to be working in.” 

How well does your office design reflect your company's values and work culture?

It is also crucial for businesses to create a space that reflects the values and goals of their particular organisation.

Jones points out that, prior to working with a client, she makes a concerted effort to gain an understanding of what the business needs, avoiding an ‘off-the-shelf’ approach. 

“What’s really interesting about the workplace conversation now is that it’s very influenced by the type of company,” she adds. “It all depends what the company does, what their workflow is, and what their culture is.” 

Gymshark's new HR-friendly office design blends work, learning and health spaces to boost employee wellbeing

For example, global sports apparel company Gymshark’s new £5m innovation hub in Solihull has merged work and work-out spaces to exhibit the business’s commitment to physical and mental wellbeing. 

Designed in collaboration with office design consultancy Oktra, the 55,000 square-foot. warehouse hosts the brand’s research and development function, and includes a state-of-the-art gym, photo studio and 100-person auditorium. A central concrete health bar is a focal point of the design and is a space ear-marked for learning and development and collaboration. 

Executive chairman Paul Richardson explains: “The design reflects the business culture of Gymshark because it allows us to be innovative, creative, ambitious and hard working all in the same building.” 

Ryan Manton, programme director for think tank ‘Class of 2020’ adds that this understanding of purpose and space establishes a closer affinity between staff and company and can ultimately create a stronger culture. 

“I think this image of all companies being clinical white spaces with your usual grey carpet is homogenous. It doesn’t reflect a company’s vision,” he says. “Company culture is supported by the right atmosphere.” 

HR and office design - do open-plan spaces promote transparent communication or invade workers' privacy and sense of personal freedom?

What is a common manifestation of values in a physical space? Look around your office. Chances are, you’ll see an open-plan space, with banks of desks, loosely configured around teams or business functions. This says that your organisation is ‘transparent’, ‘promotes equality’ and ‘promotes’ communication’. Or so the theory goes. 

In reality, a lack of personal space has led to many workers creating distance from their co-workers in other ways. The Royal Society found that after a multinational Fortune 500 company declared a “war on walls”, workers spent 72% less time interacting face-to- face, while instant messaging and email communication increased by around 60%. 

Speaking at a recent New London Architecture event, Bruce Daisley, vice president for EMEA at Twitter and author of The Joy of Work, described open-plan offices as a “drain on our productivity.”

He cited a 2012 study, where researchers compared 600 computer programmers at 92 companies. Performance was not distinguished by the experience or pay grade of individuals between organisations, but rather by the privacy, personal workspace and freedom they enjoyed. Some 62% of the best performers said their workspace was sufficiently private compared with only 19% of the worst performers. 

Open-plan offices are not the enemy of HR. Poorly designed open-plan offices are.

Rothe does not, however, believe that the blame can be levelled at open plan as a concept; rather that poorly designed open-plan offices have a negative effect. “It is a very broad term,” she points out. “It can mean anything really. 

“The criticism stems from research, especially single case studies, that have looked at some sort of open environment and concluded that it is bad – and it probably was. Our database now has more than 600,000 responses; some of the best offices are open plan, and so are some of the worst.” 

Open-plan office design vs roaming workspaces

While demonisation of open-plan offices may be unfair, the point remains that this design style is not always conducive to different types of work.

'Roaming' workspaces enable teamwork AND independent work

An alternative is the ‘activity-based workplace’, wherein, rather than being tied down to one space, workers are free to roam, finding suitable areas to complete the task at hand.

An HR office design trend is emerging with a focus on activity-based design

Nearly 70% of participants in a study by Dutch researchers reported that activity-based working increased their productivity, while more than three-in-five reported that they had more energy.

This research may not be iron-clad, but activity-based design could well be the solution to one of open plan’s more curious phenomena: while we may be surrounded by our co-workers at all times, we struggle to work together effectively in those spaces. Jones characterises this as the dynamics between “interaction and collaboration”. 

“Unless your task is to work collaboratively 24/7, you need to set aside a space for this,” she argues. “Otherwise you end up in a situation where people who aren’t involved are disrupted by the interactions.” 

Julie Fabbri, an assistant professor at EMLYON Business School, believes that effective collaboration can be induced through “proximity, privacy and permission”. She believes co-working spaces balance these needs effectively, as there is an abundance of space for workers to slink off to in private before initiating effective collaboration back at their desks or in a designated meeting room. 

New working patterns demand a fresh approach to office design

Manton argues that a lot of these changes are driven by our new working patterns. 

“People want their company to reflect their own vision and values. And they want facilities to reflect that,” he explains. “People like working in their local café. Workplaces and HR departments and company designers are looking at those trends and seeing how they can replicate that in the workplace.” 

The desire to work in a coffee shop is not a millennial phenomenon after all.

In this respect, we have come full circle, points out Peter Murray, curator in chief of New London Architecture, explaining that in the City of London in the 17th and 18th century, coffee houses were often used as places of work. In fact, Lloyd’s insurance market started in a coffee house. 

“It is fascinating how the history of the Square Mile repeats itself,” he says. “Workers in the City today are able to work online while enjoying a latte in a modern-day equivalent.” 

Manton adds that, in a 2017 survey by Virgin Media, just under a third of UK workers (31%) reported that they work from home one day a week, a shift towards flexible working that he believes is likely to continue as younger generations move up the career ladder. 

“Millennials are looking for a different work set-up,” he says. “They’re looking for flexibility; to work from home a day or two every week. Flexibility is key.” 

Why does HR matter in office design? It's all about the future of work, and adapting to changing work patterns.

So, what’s the role of the people function in creating an effective working space? If the office must act as a conduit for culture, creating a positive atmosphere, HR must be involved. 

Sarah Dowzell, founder and chief operating officer of start-up business Natural HR, agrees “it’s imperative that HR is involved in the design and location of any office. Design should foster productivity, collaboration, flexibility and social interaction between colleagues.”

During her firm’s move from a small office with a shared kitchen space to its own premises in the Jewellery Quarter of Birmingham, Dowzell factored in the growth of the business, selecting a pace that was comfortable for both its current and potential future workforce. 

Shopping around for premises like a consumer, and finding spaces that fit with financial expectations, allows a business space in which to grow organically. 

“Look at your business plan and be realistic,” advises Dowzell. “We have a model that interlinks our financial forecasting and resource planning so we’ve mapped out which roles will be coming into the business over the next three years. We chose an office that will allow for that growth.” 

Office design can lead to a happier and healthier workplace.

Whether allowing for growth or maximising teamwork, it’s clear that effective office design is integral to getting the most out of your people.

Regardless of budget, creating a flexible space where people can interact with their work and colleagues in different ways should lead to a happier and healthier workplace.

Hopefully then, our brains will keep working when we get into the office.