Funky, flexible and open all hours is the ‘new black’ in office design
The changing nature of work is driving a revolution in workplace design and an Australian-designed co-working space in suburban Auckland is leading the charge.
In a time zone not too far away, there’s a five-storey building in which a pet food supplier, sales training company, fundraising company and sheepskin supplier share office space with the likes of Deloitte and Lego.
B:Hive has a winding orange staircase and light-filled atrium that creates ample space for the must-have assortment of kitchens, lounges, breakout desks and enclosed meeting rooms.
So far, so funky. And so fully leased. But this $NZ90 million ($86 million) piece of office chic is not in a hip former warehouse, recycled factory or train shed. More prosaically, it’s in an office park. Smales Farm is a suburban office park on the northern side of Auckland’s Waitemata Harbour – a development akin to those in Sydney’s Hills District or Melbourne’s Springvale.
And it’s part of a global trend of changing workplace habits, in business parks of 10 hectares and on individual office floors and work stations.
The legions of office foot soldiers who faithfully followed their corporate generals up the hill of hot-desking (and in many cases, back down again to fixed desks), who stood guard at standing desks and dropped their dignity on the office slippery dip, may look wearily upon the prospect of further change in the world of work. It’s a treacherous terrain littered with landmines of consultant terminology and the wreckage of failed corporate vanity projects.
Well might they be sceptical. The upheaval in traditional real estate business models amusingly prompted retail landlord Scentre Group to last year declare its assets were no longer shopping centres but “living centres”, a term that may take a while before it is accepted as standard in the Macquarie Dictionary.
But change isn’t going to stop. In fact, transformations under way in the world of work represent the best efforts by employers to ride the wave of social and generational change rippling through the developed world.
Ok, boomer. The postwar ideal of breadwinner-commuter Homo suburbiensis male is fading into a workforce of people wanting a better balance of work and private life, and the flexibility to manage both; who want working facilities that support two working parents, reflect environmental responsibility and sustainable procurement, promote more respectful working relationships with less sexism and harassment, and – Scott Morrison, avert your eyes – accommodate new understanding of gender.
“They’re not mainstream, but the indicators of change,” says BVN Architecture director James Grose, the architect behind one of Australia’s first modern workplaces – a refurbished MLC Centre in North Sydney in 2001 – and the designer of B:Hive.
“It’s a clear move we are seeing among many clients. The so-called ‘war for talent’ is absolutely part of the reason why they will rethink their workplaces to enable people to have much more flexible lifestyles, including parental leave, bringing children to the workplace, bringing dogs to the workplace.”
For business park owner and former property developer Greg Smale – part of New Zealand’s NBR Rich List Smale family – transformation of the 10-hectare Smales Farm site his grandfather originally purchased in 1944, and his father and uncle ran as a stock and dairy farm, was a crucial move.
The business park built for blue-chip corporate tenants – Vodafone and Air New Zealand occupy two other large buildings – had to change after realising it already had 60 per cent of the office market for A-grade corporate tenants north of Auckland’s Harbour Bridge. The future was smaller tenants leasing less than 500 square metres. But the Smales Farm offering of large-floorplate office buildings didn’t suit that market.
“We had locked ourselves out of 85 per cent of the market, just by the fact that we couldn’t cater to those tenants,” Smale says. “We were only building big buildings and we were only building A-grade buildings. We weren’t building little dog boxes.”
Further competition from the large corporates came from urban regeneration projects in the traditional city centre. Retail bank ASB – part of Australia’s CBA – considered a move to Smales Farm before opting to be an early mover in 2013 to Auckland’s emerging Wynyard Quarter redevelopment on the edge of the CBD.
That led to the development of the 14,500-square-metre B:Hive, with an adjacent offering of small eateries and bars that feed the office tenants and provide a de facto extension of the office space as meeting places for employees in the building and their clients. In a very WeWork move, the B:Hive’s bar area offers free beer from 4pm to 5pm on Fridays. The venues make the park a destination for nearby residents on weekends.
These moves mark the first step in a 25-year master plan to transform the wider site from a conventional fixed-lease corporate tenancy facility to a mixed-use community that is active 24 hours, with hotels to serve the working population and – with a planning change it has just achieved – residential accommodation as well.
Business parks have no choice, says Grose. Technology- and culture-driven changes in the workplace pose an existential threat to the traditional business park model, he says.
“They’re dead unless they realise, like landlords and high-rise buildings, that work has changed and they need to understand that they’ve got to spend a lot of energy recalibrating what they’ve got. Otherwise they’ll be cactus,” Grose says.
“Traditionally, business parks rely in the main on large corporate tenants who work in a traditional nine-to-five model and use, basically, a car base. You can’t provide a one-size-fits-all space any more. You have to provide a whole experience.”
So, what does all that mean? In the changing world of office design, what is going to change next?
Wellness, for a start. The notion of boosting workers’ health and sense of wellbeing – which ultimately makes them more efficient in what they do – will become more sophisticated. It’s going to become a lot more than just a couple of pot plants or yoga mats thrown down in a reclaimed corner of the car park, says Robyn Lindsey, partner at design firm Geyer.
“Wellness is moving a long way further than being just about whether or not you’ve got access to a yoga class or gym,” says Lindsey.
The leadership and culture of any organisation are the biggest factors on this score, but the physical design of offices will also change to reflect these standards, she says.
The use of natural light – and designs that work with how the sun moves during the day – will play an increasingly important role in future offices.
“It comes back to how you feel naturally,” Lindsey says.
“With so many fit-outs you get lost inside built forms and lose track of where you are in relation to natural light, whether it’s morning or afternoon.”
Expect more greenery. Way more greenery, says Lindsey, who’s been researching and designing workplaces for decades.
“If you’re walking beside a forest, versus walking through a forest, there’s a whole lot of difference to the way you feel.”
Spaces will be less hierarchical, with the best spaces accessible to the widest number of people, and they may be linked with wearable technology monitoring people’s physical or mental health to suggest they go to different spaces with different attributes that suit them.
“How might a designer create spaces that, through your awareness of your own state, might help you to navigate, move to spaces that elevate your mood and mind?” Lindsey says.
“People intrinsically, if they have the opportunity, they will find their way to places or a place in the environment that will make them feel better.”
And the procurement of buildings will also change. Workers will be concerned that buildings are built using safe and ethically sourced materials, and offer fit-outs that are durable and can be reused, rather than just ending up in landfill.
“There’s going to be different and massive pressure on the world’s resources,” Lindsey says.
“We’ve got to look at value, not cost now. That’s the biggest message”.
Does all this sound far-fetched? Perhaps not. B:Hive won an award for office interior design at December’s World Architecture Festival in Amsterdam.
Buildings with healthy internal working spaces took on an extra significance when the recent NSW bushfires choked Sydney.
“The air quality in the best buildings in the city that are geared up for it would have been the safest place to be in terms of air quality over the last few weeks in Sydney,” Lindsey says.
“The sense of retreat, the workplace being a safe and healthy place, against the ravages of what we have ahead of us is one of the most challenging things that engineers and architects have to face.”
The Australian Financial Review