We’re sure many people will agree when we say that the world before Covid-19 and the national lockdown seems like a distant memory. The things we knew of the world no longer apply, and there is a whole new meaning to the word ‘normal’. All the mundane activities that made the world go round are the ones that we are now grasping onto with both hands.
One of the biggest areas that the world experienced unilateral change to, is the corporate world. During the unprecedented lockdown, numerous people were battling to balance their work and personal life as they unwillingly transformed areas of their home into offices, with no definitive answer as to when the lockdown would end.
After nearly 8 months of working from home, this concept is on its way to becoming the new normal across the board, even as businesses now slowly transition back into work. With many employees feeling uncomfortable and anxious about re-entering office spaces, employers and managers have a big task ahead of them.
In our previous blog, we briefly talked about our partnership with Featherstone who transform spaces into inspiring places, and strongly believe that sustainability and interiors go hand in hand. Hence, we have a responsibility to promote well-being by integrating plants within our core designs. Both EMFD and Featherstone share similar ethics and core beliefs, and in order to gain a deeper understanding of how EMFD and Featherstone’s partnership hopes to address all the current challenges faced by the corporate world, we spoke to Simon, CEO of Featherstone and our very own Liz Marsh.
As an expert in this area, how has office space interior design evolved over the years?
Simon: Over the past 20 years, the pride of a company’s HQ has had many guises, with the general goal of obtaining the top office with the best view! In the past, commercial design has been shaped by the clients' need to impress, which is always great, but we believe there should be more to it than that. We are pleased that the topics of mental health and well-being are coming to the fore of conversations in the design world. This is something that Featherstone has championed and made a key part of all our workplace designs, especially as we spend 80,000 hours in our lifetime at work!
It is very easy to forget the importance of biophilia, especially in London, and if much of our day is being spent inside, then why not bring the greenery with us? We believe that office spaces will constantly evolve as our need to contribute to the success of our society is fundamental to our makeup and evolution. To make a guess, our office spaces need to become something to be proud of again. But instead of superficial intentions, they should be places where both owners and employees can feel proud that they are part of something meaningful.
What effect does office planting have on employers/employees mental wellbeing?
Liz: Some of the lessons of lockdown have been how powerful nature can be at healing our emotional distress. As companies try to recreate a semblance of normality and entice staff back to the office, there are several factors working against them. Firstly, the cost of travel compared to working from home, and secondly, the sense of comfort created by being and working from home, is hard to match. To add to this, the journey to and from work after a long and stressful commute into town has now become to feel too unsafe for many, which is another factor employers have to address.
As a creative person, the way I see the impact of plants is to imagine standing on the pavement opposite two buildings. One is a grey, square, fronted building with bright lights, and no softening edges, and the other is a square fronted building that is partially covered by plants with varying shades of green. Naturally, my eye is drawn to the patterns of the foliage, dancing their way across the front of the building; my mind follows their tendrils as they twist and turn, and for a moment, I forget my journey, my tiredness, my stress, my fear, and I smile.
This, I believe, is the raw impact that plants have in an office environment. Inside a building, a thriving plant has personality and a mature plant becomes a friend (almost like an office pet). We offered a special deal to our clients so they could present a small desktop plant to each of their staff as they returned to work. Many clients took up the offer as a way of showing their appreciation to their team that they were glad to have them back.
Simon: We always try and advise our clients on the benefits of biophilic design and incorporating both plants and floral design in their offices. Planting not only has aesthetic benefits for an office but also incredible mental and physical benefits too. Biophilic design helps to purify the air, as was proven in a NASA experiment published in 1989 which showed that indoor planting can detoxify the air within interior environments. Greenery in an office has also shown to improve productivity, the efficiency of how people work, and reduce stress, all of which are great qualities for a successful working environment! As well as adding privacy and noise reduction, planting can boost a person’s mood and add life to what could otherwise have been a sterile office space. Hence, we believe that mental wellbeing is so important, and our job as commercial interior designers is to make both the employer and employees love their space; happy employees means a happy company!
With businesses transitioning back into office, how do you think employers can merge the concept of office planting with the Covid-19 measures into office design?
Simon: With the country getting back into work slowly, acrylic screens strategically placed around offices (which act as a physical barrier between people) have become increasingly popular.e Although these screens are a quick and easy solution to the ‘new normal’ office, Featherstone and EMFD have been working together to create a better and more natural solution, and encouraging offices to go green by creating a planted wall divider. These dividers provide all the benefits of interior planting, abide by the social distancing function along with providing visibility of co-workers. We believe that in the long term, not only is this the most suitable option, but also preferred by employees as the last thing they need or want, is to be constantly reminded of the ongoing pandemic.
Liz: As Simon said, plants are a great way of creating social distancing barriers. One of our venues recently used plants to turn their entrance into a one way system so people are able to enter the building safely. Plants should, ideally, replace acrylic screens and other plastic measures to make it healthier, safer and at the same time inspiring and easy on the eyes.
Which types of plants/flowers work best for desks, and which are great for larger office spaces?
Liz: When choosing a plant for desktops, it might be worth pausing a minute to look at how that space will be used. A lot of the wellbeing aspects sometimes get lost if the plant gets in the way, obscures faces in video calls or keeps getting knocked over and spilling wet earth on keyboards! Hence, I would recommend getting something compact and low, so it is less likely to tip over and its leaves won’t keep getting caught in sleeves or other objects. For larger spaces, where good light prevails, a statement piece doubles up as a mood enhancer and also as a living sculpture, as large plants have great presence and develop a clear personality over time. For those spaces where there is no natural light, we are in the process of developing full spectrum lighting options that are attractive but will also help the plant to thrive.
How much maintenance is required to keep these plants alive?
Liz: All plants, like people, are different. One person gets depressed in cooler climates with low light levels and the other shrivels up in the sun - plants are much the same in this respect. At EMFD, we always recommend our clients to pay the cost of maintaining the plants wherever possible, as we have the experience and the skill to look after them; additionally, it saves money and heartache if the plant carer within the company is suddenly taken ill, is away or simply forgets to check them. In fact, the most common reason that plants die in offices prematurely is due to overwatering them by well meaning and eager team members!
What trends should we expect to see in the near future with office space and planting?
Simon: Firstly, reports of the death of the office have been exaggerated. While 49% of employees have been working from home during the Covid-19 crisis, many are now desperate to get back to the office.
Even Facebook, which proclaimed that half of its employees will work from home by 2030, admits that this is not ideal for everyone. Founder Mark Zuckerberg recently told the Wall Street Journal that more than half “really want to get back to the office as soon as possible”. Many are struggling with isolation, finding it hard to stay motivated and miss opportunities to collaborate (which is not only hitting productivity but also stifling innovation).
Yet, employees do not necessarily want to commute on crowded public transport or work a 5-day-a-week in the office. So, this is seeing a new office of tomorrow: what we call “honeypot hives” – work hubs in outer city areas where staff can still work collaboratively.
The recent £60million purchase by CLS of three offices in the outer London transport hubs of Richmond, Chelmsford and Leatherhead is a prime example of this shift. Our partner firm, Stoneway Real Estate, is also predicting that “demand for offices closer to mainline national rail hubs could increase dramatically as companies try to mitigate concerns over employees’ use of public transport.”
We are also witnessing a trend to a more SoHo House type environment (plush sofas, cosy meeting spaces, plenty of greenery and a home-from-home feel) with loft-style living quarters. Once again, the emphasis is on the living as much as the working, with this informing the interior design. The city needs people, people now want space, greenery and the comforts of home – and so the work and city environment needs to adapt.
The office of tomorrow will also be smaller (inevitable as more employees work from home) with organisations reconfiguring their real estate to appeal to different sectors of the workforce. Younger employees in particular value a workplace – for socialising among work colleagues, for mentoring and career development and for the space and quiet to work (hard to do from a small room in a shared flat). On the other hand, those with families appreciate being closer to home to help with their childcare needs and to minimise the commute.
This requires a greater understanding of what attracts, retains and motivates different demographics within the workforce. Featherstone has been offering workplace surveys for a number of years and we expect that these insights into the needs and wants of employees will become an even more important tool in the reconfiguring of workplace environments.
In all this change, we must be mindful of sustainability as our office interiors change. Featherstone is working with various partners, such as EMFD, to ensure that when smaller office spaces are needed, the old material is reviewed with recycling and repurposing in mind. This is not a new thing for Featherstone: 50 doors, 10 sinks and an abundance of carpet and cables can be reused, as we believe everything has a value. This is an approach we have taken for some time. So in the shift to smaller office spaces (and bear in mind that budgets are constrained) we expect to repurpose interiors where we can.
Paul French of Set Square Surveyors Ltd (dilapidation specialists) has said: “Commercial property is facing an existential struggle in the short term. The office market certainly won’t die however. For all those occupiers looking to release space, there will be other organisations looking to take well-located space within towns and cities. At some point, reducing rents will make commercial space look attractive again, and in the longer-term London will be busy. Until then, regional centres are likely to be more popular where there is less reliance on public transportation.”
Liz: As companies bring back their teams gradually and slowly, it is becoming increasingly clear that at least some of their staff can work from home. Therefore, I imagine that office space will reduce in size, but that more money will be spent on creating a warm, engaging environment that feels creative and welcoming for both staff and clients when they spend time there, as also mentioned by Simon. There was once a time when the reception area was considered an investment and was made to look attractive, but then as soon as you entered the general office space it looked and felt more industrial and ‘unloved’. In the future, I think we will see offices becoming more congruent throughout the space as companies work hard to demonstrate that their values are not skin deep but permeate throughout the organisation.
If you are a business looking to talk to someone about how you can make your office space reflective of the current societal changes and demands, then please get in touch. EMFD and Featherstone, are passionate about helping businesses, organisations and individuals who are keen to take a proactive step towards sustainability, and mindfulness. We take pride in designing innovative solutions to maintaining a healthy and safe working space, for the betterment of our wellbeing and our planet.