Office aesthetics: how important is being cool?

"It’s completely false, I think, that you could create a space that’s so amazing people just won’t want to leave," says Franky Rousell.

As one half of Studio Jolie, alongside Chloe Cotard, Rousell is driving a new understanding of what a working environment should be like. Or, more accurately, what a working environment should feel like.

Based in Manchester’s famously design-oriented Northern Quarter [below], the agency is concerned with developing spaces - from hotels and bars to offices - that focus on pleasing all the senses. Taking into account look, touch, smell, and sound, the principle is logical - make someone happy with the place they do business, and they’ll do better business.

"As designers we have this amazing responsibility where we are given money to create an atmosphere," Rousell explains. "We have gone into space after space and seen that they are lacking something, we add an extra element to design where we are more conscious of the people in the space, a kind of human-centred approach."

Workplace design has changed almost beyond recognition in the last two decades, and for good reason. Staff expectations as to what kind of space they want to work in has never been higher because the demands on staff have never been greater. It’s a two-way street.

The result has been a veritable tidal wave of statement offices, but critics have suggested this is really a covert attempt to keep people at work longer. Which, in turn, can actually lead to a drop in output as the hours take their toll.

This attitude is missing the point, though. Simply looking to make a space ‘cool’ isn’t going to answer the question of improving the work that’s being done in that space. Ultimately, you could have all the elements we associate with contemporary working environments, but if it doesn’t work for the people using that space then all is for nought, no matter how much overtime they put in.

Read: Understanding the rise of the playful workspace

"Regardless of how cool or trendy a space is, the challenge is if you can make it comfortable for people to be there," Rousell says. "Make them want to be there, then you have solved the problem. This is where businesses freak out and pump a lot of money into it.

"Google-style offices are an example. Unfortunately, Google set a precedent and a trend and it was something that worked for them and their brand and their identity. Others have seen how successful that has been and followed suit, but that’s so not the right approach."

Rather than desperately trying to keep up with what is perceived to be en vogue, then, the real goal should be developing an environment that allows people to do their job properly, and comfortably, while also conveying the personality of the company.

"CEOs are their business, but what they often lack is that storytelling to staff, to keep them engaged. So it’s all about being able to relate to your staff, whether it’s a brand new generation coming into the workforce or whether they have been there for a while and are trying to adjust.

"Every space we design is completely unique to the client, no two Jolie spaces are the same. But they all tell the story of the company, so they don’t need branding on the walls or everything in the primary business colours, and a slide. We’re about walking into spaces and feeling what happens there, from crazed euphoria to ultimate relaxation."

We ask for an example from the Jolie portfolio, and Rousell is quick to respond.

Read: Is 'Googling-up your business' a smart move?

"We completed on a project on Portland Street in central Manchester, for a company called Buffalo 7. Their office design is a great example of where we’ve created different areas, used different fragrances, and varied colours for different psychological reasons.

"It’s nothing to do with the brand, as such, it’s to do with the people. There’s also really good sound going on in that space, and they have found as a result of that their staff retention is amazing. We have also introduced a lot of greenery, so it feels really natural and healthy to be in. And that’s a big part of making people feel comfortable."

Get the atmosphere right and, according to Rousell, the question of productivity will be answered. Targets will be met, within a normal eight-hour day, if staff are given not just the correct tools, but also the ideal situation in which to use those tools.

"When it comes down to productivity, the main thing is that you are in control of how you work. The problem in the past, and now we are fixing this, is we assumed everyone works in the same way. Giving people choice in their space to work how they want is essential.

"So you can allow them to come in each morning and sit somewhere really comfortable with a coffee. Or maybe they arrive and are immediately in the zone and blitzing things in a space conducive to that. The main thing is they have that choice."

To reference the opening of this article, the idea that a space could be so wonderful to work in people are willing to cancel dinner plans, or similar, is unrealistic. As such designer offices developed with this in mind will always prove to be nothing more than a folly.

"I think if you can create an environment that allows people to do lots of different tasks with their own control and their own situation, and be productive in different ways - whether it’s meeting productivity or a focussed task - so long as they have the choice of different environments to go and do that in, they will naturally become productive," adds Rousell.

"And they will almost feel in themselves they have control, they almost become their own entrepreneur in a bigger picture. Especially the new generation, they want a slice of the entrepreneurial pie. By giving them that control to do what they want when they want they will get the results.

"We can obviously create an environment just for productivity, looking at lighting, putting a certain smell in there - some essential oils are amazing for productivity, for example. But ultimately it’s just giving people choice and making them feel comfortable to do what they want and need to do."

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Thumbnail from gettyimages.

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