Karen Primmer, workspace implementation consultant at Calder Consultants discusses the evolution of the workplace and the design decisions that will ensure workplaces are fit for the future. She will give a more in-depth discussion on this topic at the inaugural FRONT event, where she will be a featured speaker at the 'Strategising for Success' session. 

Tell us a bit about yourself: how long have you been in your current role? What does your average day at work look like?

Karen Primmer: I have worked in corporate real estate as a senior leader for over 20 years. I recently joined the team at Calder in the role of Workplace Implementation Director. Prior to this I worked at Macquarie Group as division director, global head of CRE Strategy and Operations and head of CRE ANZ . Many years ago I worked for Thomas Cook heading Corporate Services ANZ. My father was an architect, so I fostered a passion for great spaces, design and construction. I actually started my career in quantity surveying but soon transitioned into project management then broadened my knowledge to cover strategy and transactions and many other aspects of corporate real estate.

Stakeholder management plays a key part of my role so liaison with clients, whether in person or on the phone, is a large portion of my day. There is generally a meeting or catch up with members of the project team. Working as a team to make sure the project stays in line with client expectations and the project intent is essential. Undoubtedly the odd problem that crops up that needs to be solved – problem solving is a large part of the role and something that I gain great satisfaction from. On top of this, there are always emails that need attending to and articles to read in order to stay abreast of what is happening in the industry. My husband and I have three beautiful children at school age so it is really important to manage time well to ensure that family always comes first.

Over the course of your career, how have you seen the commercial sector – particularly workspaces – evolve? What have been the biggest areas of improvement?

There is a lot more focus on the proven benefits of collaboration and diversity in the workplace than there was in the past. There is now a greater acceptance that the workspace has an impact on productivity.

When I started my career, my co-workers and I sat in huge L-shaped workstations, with views of the six-foot-high partitions sectioning us from the co-worker on the other side. The firm’s senior managers sat in massive offices around the perimeter of the floor, eclipsing the workstation dwellers from any natural view or light from the outside. Your desk was pretty much where you spent most of your time, seated. This was quite typical of all workspaces at the time.

In the mid 1990s, the cost of space became more of a concern for many businesses so open plan and the reduction of executive and management offices began to emerge. Six-foot-high partitions started to shrink so that staff could interact with co-workers to a greater level, opening up interaction and breaking down the hierarchy. The artificial forest of corporate walls and partitions that the corporate world created was dying to make way for the more natural way that humans know to work effectively: with, and in the presence of, each other.

The most significant area of improvement has been the design of the floor plate to allow all the good elements to evolve, with corporations beginning to see the benefits that are gained from abolishing the hierarchical zones and creating more collaborative spaces. Buildings are now designed with the end user in mind, with side cores, maximum natural light and views on as many sides of the building, minimal columns to obstruct lines of site, the ability to interconnect floors with stairs and atriums to allow more natural light. Air quality has improved substantially, and designers are creating places that improve wellbeing by encouraging movement and interaction.

Corporations now accept that the workplace environment plays a large role in productivity and the attraction and retention of staff.

What areas still require further development?

There is still room for development in terms of how we use both lighting and acoustics to impact workplace productivity. The benefits of both of these are generally overlooked and not realised when weighing up options to meet a budget. The creative design and awareness of both, however, can have a substantial impact on comfort levels and the ability to operate efficiently in the workplace. Generally, people go to their favourite café because they love the coffee and food, and the environment makes them feel comfortable and happy. There is no reason why we cannot recreate the same ambience in our workspaces, and that may mean looking at the food offering as well.

In your view, what elements are critical to creating effective working environments and a sense of community within the workspace?

The flexibility of the layout, minimising walls, the number of utility areas, fixed joinery and enhancing the ambiance of the space. These all encourage people to cross paths and meet. Most of the really effective working environments I have experienced have minimal meeting rooms and one or more large collaboration spaces equipped with various sitting and standing options, centred around a kitchen/food or a more informal area. These areas have a relaxed atmosphere much like a suburban café or home, with comfy lounges and a less corporate feel. People generally like to come together over food. In many of the briefs that I have taken from teams there is a common voice: they want their workplace to “feel more like home”, less formal and more relaxed.

Appreciating that there are people who want their own space and that there are many situations where people need privacy and no distractions when working, it is important to incorporate both the collaborative and quiet spaces in design.

Acknowledging the whole person also goes a long way to creating a community. We all have interests outside of our corporate lives and being able to share those interests with like-minded colleagues is very satisfying. Interest groups (that meet during lunch or after work) can connect people who don’t necessarily work together and go a long way in building a strong community in large organisations.

What can we expect to see from the commercial real estate sector in future? Are there any emerging trends or ideas that designers should be aware of?

Flexibility to change the workplace without huge costs being involved. We see this in the growth of office space as a service, i.e. co-working operators. Companies don’t want to be locked into paying for space and fitouts they may not need in the future and at the same time want the ability to flex and grow quickly when needed. Co-working spaces allow great flexibility for growth/contraction, the ability to change the environment or location by changing the co-working office/operator, experiencing the diversity of co-workers from other companies and industries, and the ability to expand anywhere in the world with minimal set up time and cost.

Join Karen Primmer and other key industry influencers at FRONT this 9-10 August for more insights into Australian workspace design and the skills and knowledge you need to get ahead in this changing commercial landscape.

Karen will be speaking as part of the “Strategising for Success” session on Friday, 10 August. Register for the session and the inaugural FRONT event here.