Site Lines: The case for workspace in a hybrid future

What is the case for the office post-pandemic? Mark O’Neill, MD at Edge Architecture & Design, explores why and how offices need to be repositioned, highlighting the example of a recent head office project for a clothing retailer

An ONS study published this February found that after Government guidance to work from home was lifted in England and Scotland, more than eight out of 10 people who had worked from home said they planned to continue hybrid working post-pandemic. Further ONS surveys show that from February to May 2022, the proportion of those hybrid working rose from 13% to 24% and the percentage of those working exclusively from home fell from 22% to 14%. 

With this fundamental shift taking place, how do we – as architects and designers – help clients re-examine the purpose of the office, address the shift to hybrid working, and create the optimum workspaces? Research from Dr Matthew Davies at Leeds University Business School suggests that one size can’t fit all, when it comes to the design of hybrid and future ways
of working. 

Our perception is that organisations are developing their workspaces to be more focused around moments of human connection, and on shared values and behaviours. Every action, interaction and experience is a touchpoint with a client’s brand, and as such we should take time to craft those experiences to support the collective purpose or belief. This includes realising the importance of how spaces make us feel and behave, not just how they enable productive work. While many of the fundamentals have changed, at the core, feeling ‘right’ in a workspace and having the right emotional experience are going to be major drivers of the return to the office. 

A new head office

Michael Fern, executive director at Edge and a project principal on the new 60,000 ft2 head office for British lifestyle brand Joules in Market Harborough, says that Covid has changed attitudes to the workplace. “The pandemic has kick-started some serious discussion and debate around the role of the office – around feeling liberated, much freer, more flexible, with more choice and autonomy.”

He continues: “We’ve started to build a more forensic understanding of why the office is important, with a shift from personal preference to the collective benefit of attending an
office. We need to know why we’re asking people to come in, and then to ensure that we have the right space for getting the best out of teams when they do come together. With projects such as the Joules head office, what we’re really trying to do is map an experience across the workspace, considering both the functional and emotional value.”

For most workers and firms, the office still has a role, but its purpose in the future is much more than simply rows and rows of desks. The rationale for an office is to be a place that facilitates and supports the strategic and operational objectives of an organisation – a physical, tangible, immersive embodiment of an organisation’s brand purpose and values.

And central to achieving this is listening to employees’ voices, understanding their wants and needs, and finding ways of exceeding their expectations. 

Joules was changing from separate locations where teams worked in silos, to a single building where everyone would be under one roof for the first time. One goal was a new head office which would support agile working and other new efficiency measures, in an environment that would attract and retain talent. The new building would be a physical manifestation of the Joules brand values that would enrich, inspire and engage visitors and users, and embody the ‘Joules way of life.’ Edge had already been working with the company on an agile workplace strategy as well as a hybrid work strategy and had already provided spaces that are now going to be even more important, post-pandemic. 

The new head office incorporates Joules’ existing building, Compass House, into the design, with an upgraded external envelope. Integrating the new buildings and landscaping into the existing development while maintaining and enhancing the natural enclosure of the site have been important design objectives, as well as a clear statement on Joules’ sustainability aspirations to minimise environmental impact as a business. 

The building was planned for greater future (year 5) occupation levels, to ensure that it could accommodate Joules’ predicted growth to 527 people by 2024. The workplace design has been driven by Joules’ processes, and interaction between people and product. The configuration allows maximum future flexibility of use, including options for sub-letting. We had to consider internal layouts which would facilitate a wide range of workplace activities, from print creation and production through to in-store execution. Each involved different dwell times and different uses of facilities. 

Typical workspace settings have been created as neighbourhoods assigned to each department with shared office/study rooms, meeting rooms and collaborative spaces. Within these there are a number of assigned and unassigned workstations to support agility. 

There are various sizes of fully equipped bookable meeting rooms clustered together located either in the meeting suite or across workspace. The kitchen is where staff meet and enjoy meals together, and it opens a great view, allowing natural light in, and will be used to accommodate multiple uses including informal meetings, town hall, workspaces and collaborative spaces.

Everything from the reception, ‘landside’ meeting spaces, product showcase areas, communal spaces and wayfinding have textures and finishes that have been designed to inspire and engage all visitors and users in the Joules way of life. The building maximises natural light and takes advantage of the views to the adjacent green belt, with access to outdoors, where possible. Materials have been sustainably sourced and reference the site’s semi-rural setting and local vernacular as a starting point for the visual aesthetic. 

The tallest structure on the site is a large barn to the east, which has been designed to create a landmark gateway building. At the centre is the enclosed atrium, designed to give the feeling of being in the yard of a farmstead with a structural ‘tree’ supporting the roof. 

There has been external recognition for how the head office is fostering greater collaboration, and the client’s workplace strategy of nimbleness while supporting the brand’s culture and behaviour. Winning a BCO Regional Award in 2022 for Best Corporate Workplace in the Midlands evidenced its credentials.  

The judges stated: “The building symbolises a landmark in purpose-built offices. It leaves behind sterile working places of the past and heralds a new era in flexible working with technology and wellbeing factors built in.”

Mark O’Neill is managing director at Edge Architecture & Design