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    Play to work: leisure in office design

    Prue Miller

    Business is, by definition, geared towards profit. So how then to justify spending money on employee’s leisure zones?

    Then comes the question: what defines ‘leisure’, and how does it contribute to wellbeing? In fact, how do you measure happiness in a workplace? One easy way to gauge your workers’ happiness is whether or not they’re running out the door at the stroke of five.

    “[Good design] is a recruiting and retention tool,” says Andrew Waddle of Gensler. "It’s a tried and true ‘build it and they will come’ strategy. And after they come, if it’s done well, they will stay."

    OPEN SPACE AND HUMAN NEEDS 

    The staff at Dropbox Sydney are beneficiaries of the Gensler touch. Their offices are open-plan, with windows that make the city skyline visible from their desks or from the break-out space at the heart of the office.

    Timber batons line the ceiling, whitewashed brick profiles accent the hallway, bright relaxed soft furnishings deaden sound and provide spaces of repose. All of this warms the space and softens the hard edges of this hi-tech, hard-working environment.

    In the briefing notes, Gensler refers to a strong focus on enhancing productivity by removing stress and pain from work. As areas focused on more human needs, community and fun should also be at the centre of break-out space design.

    Waddle, whose accent makes clear the many years he’s spent working in the United States, claims that a certain maturity has begun to emerge in break-out area design.

    “The tech industry has grown up in recent years,” Waddle summarises.

    MAKING WORK MORE LIKE HOME 

    Not that the world has become dull. One glimpse at UK firm Peldon Rose’s fun and free design of Google London can attest to that. The design incorporates everything from a big red bus that can be booked for meetings, to a bathtub table, to deck chairs in the outdoor atrium.

    However, this kind of liberty is the exception to the rule, and has more to do with branding than ergonomics. For Australia at least, restraint with imagination seems to be driving the current design agenda.

    A twin agenda of comfort and playfulness, one assumes, would make the idea of going to work on Monday more attractive than it once was. Perhaps more importantly, it might make people happier and more productive throughout the work week.

    Why is that so important? Because absenteeism costs a bundle. An American Gallup report on the state of the American workplace quantified that losses are in the vicinity of $USD450 million per year in the US and a still eye-watering $AUD50 million in Australia. These losses include both ‘disengaged’ workers staying home, and workers underperforming (i.e. going on Facebook) because they are unhappy.

    If employees become serially unhappy, they leave. This is another hard blow to the corporate budget hard, as recruitment and retraining are estimated to cost between 100 percent and 300 percent of the base salary of the lost worker.

    Open-plan and agile workspaces were initially hailed as some kind of magic solution. According to clinical psychologist, Dr Aileen Alegado hot-desking isn’t the easy fix to office unhappiness.

    “People end up gravitating to the same spot,” she says. Do we need a new social hub, then?

    “That’s the premise, yes. But the culture is in the people,” she adds.  And the people need a break.

    FLEXIBILITY FOR INCREASED PRODUCTIVITY 

    There is evidence that psychological performance depends on a flexible environment.

    According to Alegado, the brain has capacity for only two to three hours of optimum performance in a block. It builds, peaks, plateaus and decreases in that time frame. In order to reset the brain, a person has to switch off regularly.

    “You might think companies are investing a lot in these spaces,” says Alegado. “But really they are investing in productivity.”

    They are perhaps also investing in the brand itself. Design director at The Bold Collective, Ali McShane, oversaw the creation of Sydney’s Airbnb office, an example of creating flexibility within constraints. Although it looks like a huge space in the pictures, according to McShane this is “not so”.

    The brief was that the space had to fit into the global look of the brand: distinctly ‘homey’, and replete with simple finish choices.

    “We used plywood surfaces rather than laminates. It adds to that feeling [of being] warmer,” says McShane. The choice has also resulted in a quieter space.

    The line between leisure and work is similarly blurred in The Bold Collective’s Porter Davis project on Bourke Street in Melbourne. As a home designer company, they wanted the space to reflect their ‘World of Style’ core value, while still servicing the switch-off needs of 300 agile staff.

    “The cultural aspect is important in these spaces,” adds McShane. In this instance, the large social space – lined with subway tiles, industrial lighting, and kitchen and games zone – had to serve several purposes.

    “You can have functions there, make presentations, and of course staff can just relax,” says McShane. Having designed a fully flexible environment meant considering those who needed a space to concentrate uninterrupted.

    “The planning methodology for Porter Davis was to have the central hub of the floorplate around the atrium to be the lively space where the break-out / café was planned. From there, we positioned the more highly collaborative areas out to the quieter wings of the floor, a 'no phones' [zone] and contemplative space,” says McShane.

    KEEPING THINGS ON THE QUIET 

    Noise is also an issue. Open-plan spaces are notoriously loud, representing a hindrance for those who prefer or indeed need quiet to perform optimally. This is no doubt the reason so many workers are now seen at their workspaces, plugged into their iPhones.

    A report conducted in 2016 by Oxford Economics surveyed 1,200 workers and found what they craved most in their workspace was quiet. Surprising for some who may have assumed a window, a plant or a sit-to-stand desk would be their main concern. When asked about the most important factors in a healthy work environment, the top answer – at 29 percent – was “the ability to focus and work without interruptions”.

    How hard is it, then, to create relaxed zones in large workplaces where noise and activity would appear overwhelming from a design perspective?

    A look through Geyer’s large-scale design for Sydney’s Barangaroo precinct is a perfect example of how it can be done.

    EMPLOYEE'S CHOICE 

    Westpac’s move into Barangaroo Tower Two in 2016 saw their 6,000-strong staff being spread over a staggering 28 levels. Despite the huge scope and size of the project, staff have been equipped with a wide range of options with regard to how they want to do their work – not to mention relax.

    “It’s about offering choices,” says Cathy Jameson, who worked with Geyer on the design of the space. Jameson understands too well that one person’s sense of calm is different to another. Staff here, bathed in the same muted palette that carries throughout Barangaroo, can opt in or out of social hubs.

    The biggest of these is a virtual village on the third floor where staff can relax, socialise and even get their personal banking done. These ‘booths’ are purposefully designed to offer peace, quiet and intimacy compared to traditional work typologies.

    “They have high backs, and high ceilings – they are spaces that draw people in,” says Jameson.

    The same concept can be seen applied throughout the building, including in a roofless space that hugs the edge of the floorplate, offering mesmerising city and harbour views. Interestingly, the Barangaroo building offers occupants many chances to see the once-hidden horizon, which Jameson says is another important step towards healthy workplace design.

    “It’s really good for wellbeing.”

    No matter how leisurely it may seem to be outside, this doesn’t have to be at the expense of productivity. These spaces are also important hubs of inter-office connectivity. For instance, an outdoor terrace with real grass can be used and booked for staff BBQs and other office gatherings.

    The inside retains some of the outdoors’ ambience, a need understood and met by Geyer through a biophilic design response. In total, 9,000 plants were installed throughout the space.

    “It’s [about] recognising [that] we spend most of our time at work, and being supported in that work,” says Jameson.

    The effect on Westpac’s bottom line was almost immediate. Westpac CEO, John Arthur, told the Sydney Morning Herald they had seen a 15 percent reduction in staff absenteeism in less than six months of occupation.

    Without doubt, as our working lives extend, and retaining exceptional workers of all ages becomes even more of a priority, making the workplace feel more like a ‘home’ than a typical office will continue to grow as a central tenet of the design brief.

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