Focus should shift from the skyline to the streetscape

18th October 2017

Helen Berresford was asked by Property Week to share her views on the evolution of modern workspaces and their transition into complex, flexible, social spaces.

The tops of buildings are often the architecture that captures the public’s imagination, with a silhouette on the skyline giving the building its identity. However, I think we need to shift our attention to the streetscape and be more thoughtful and creative about how we use our ground floors spaces and how they interact with the surrounding urban community.

I was in a Shoreditch hotel recently where the reception space was full of people with their laptops and tablets. According to the receptionist, these people were not guests catching up on emails but were mostly the public using the lobby space as an alternative workspace, somewhere they could spend the day without the obligation to keep buying coffees. This created a check-in experience abuzz with activity that was a far cry from the staid queuing you would perhaps expect.

The hotel reception I described had curated a scene that was energetic and relaxed, and spoke clearly of the culture of the organisation. Creating this atmosphere, and an appropriate shift to informality, is now preoccupying the workplace community.

More specifically, how can an arrival sequence of spaces help communicate and promote sharing and collaboration whilst increasing the utilisation of the space? In an age of exposed servicing and flexible working, formal corporate culture is being questioned. It would make sense for our ground floor spaces – a development’s ‘shop window’ – to follow suit. But for offices this has to be more than just an ‘active frontage’ and a way of inviting people in to use functional spaces.

Where appropriate, designers are moving away from expansive, formal receptions that are solely occupied by waiting visitors and fixed to a single use. Instead, these spaces are the ‘front door’ to your workplace masterplan, with this space flexing to provide a rich mix of spaces, including areas for events, art galleries, staff areas and public amenities. This not only creates an eclectic tapestry of activity and a vibrant arrival experience but also offers alternative, more informal work settings for staff and visitors.

In essence, ground floor spaces are becoming more civic, allowing security lines and barriers into workplace developments to blur. In creating these more complex social, flexible spaces you are also making them more robust and agile so they can flex to unknown changes that the digital economy is sure to bring.

There are challenges to this approach. Opening up your space to the public might make for a bustling reception, but how do you manage the buildings and the security concerns that come with it? How do you make the more open, civic spaces feel like it still belongs to the office? How do you create a security line that is flexible and can move to mediate between private and public? They are no quick-fixes or miraculous furniture packages that can provide answers to all these questions. Instead, the solutions are found through in-depth workplace consultancy; it is this probing into the culture of the organisation that acts as a foundation on which answers to the issues are built.

Being civic and open is not without its challenges but it is becoming increasingly important in building workplace communities. The variety of ground floor places recognises the ongoing blurring of boundaries between live, work, play and caters for a new brand of workplace culture that young people are expecting as the leave university and enter full time employment.

There are a number of parallels to be drawn with the hospitality and education sectors on how to engage people whilst providing a range of work settings. This doesn’t mean popping a café space in and hoping for the best but finding a balance between public and private that is appropriate and beneficial for your organisation. This involves looking at how ground floor spaces can work harder to communicate the company’s culture as well as attracting and retaining an organisation’s most valuable asset – its people.

Helen Berresford RIBA

Partner, Head of ID:SR