There is a standard piece of wisdom in property circles that if you can convince prospective office tenants about the lifts, loos and lobbies of a building, then you’re some way towards making the sale. It is the shared spaces of the building that make the difference.

There is a great deal of truth in this idea and certainly more than can be summed up these days by the three Ls. Organisations occupy offices primarily to bring people together so it’s no surprise that their focus should be on the places in which they interact.

But where once those interactions would take place mostly in the spaces between people’s personal workstations – those three Ls – modern office design trends have opened up a whole new array of circulation spaces in which collaboration, communication and interaction can take place, and many people even work primarily within them rather than at a dedicated desk.

This is still widely known as third space. The terminology dates back to 1989 when sociologist Ray Oldenburg used it to describe the circulatory, shared spaces in towns between people’s homes and places of work in his book The Great Good Place. It defines the streets, parks, cafes and playing fields that bring us into contact with each other.

Shortly after this, and as the nascent Internet and introduction of mobile technology started to untether people from their desks, it was co-opted by workplace theorists to describe those spaces for informal meetings and chance encounters that do so much to facilitate the flow of information and ideas, engineer serendipity and develop relationships between people.

We have now arrived at a point in which these sorts of interactions between colleagues are more common than those that occur in more static settings. We know this from our own work with clients and the issue has also been addressed in a piece in the Harvard Business Review called Workspaces That Move People found that in four different organisations unplanned interactions were found to be far more common than those planned. Around twice as likely in fact.

This has profound implications for the way we apply office design to improve collaboration, creativity and team dynamics. It means that we should all pay very close attention to the way that the building facilitates spontaneous interactions between people and creates a sense of community.

What people want

This is the theme that underpins our own recent report published in partnership with Instant Group at the recent GCUC conference, which focuses on how offices should meet the needs of people in an era in which they have ever greater choices about how and where to work.

One of the interesting points that the report found is that the overwhelming majority of people would prefer to go to an office to work if it matches their expectations and helps them feel part of a shared mission and culture.

These expectations include a number of office design features that confirm how aware people are of the need for shared spaces as part of their day to day working experience. Out of seven of the most cited essential characteristics of an office design, three are directly about collaborative and shared space and another three are related to how people can work quietly alongside them, with spaces for focussed work and relaxation. The other feature – availability of outside space and an awareness of nature – could even be part of this menu of shared space but is mostly about our primal need for sun, air and green.

The essential office design characteristics cited in the report are:

- Collaboration spaces that can also be used as informal meeting areas should include a mixture of different types and styles – consider sofas, pods, bean bags etc. Essentially, use different furniture and décor to create different areas within a space

- Having areas that encourage crosspollination of ideas is crucial – some of these can be in the main office space, but some should also be away from main office traffic and noise to give a sense of privacy without the need to use formal meeting rooms

- Collaboration is a driver for employee happiness and an important attribute for employers who see the benefit in shared thinking driving business solutions

- To help with noise, place main static desks away from the office thoroughfare and consider using half walls and partitions to deflect noise away from “focused” working areas

- Using ‘pods’ for working areas, whether they have doors or are tucked away in corners can help create a sense of privacy for those wanting to conduct focused work

- Building on space types, areas that are specifically for breaks and relaxation, where no work is allowed, are also important. These areas in particular should be kept as quiet as possible.

- Outdoor space is popular with occupiers, but is obviously not practical in every scenario. However, you can bring the outdoors into the office during the design and fit out by using plants, green walls, ceilings and lighting

How these manifest in physical office design is already very apparent in a new generation of agile workplaces. Just as the original terminology of third space was derived from the public realm, so too we are seeing the features of shared public spaces find their facsimiles in the office.

Breakout spaces look more and more like high street cafes and with the same great coffee, ambience and hubbub. Circulation spaces look more and more like streets. There are phone booths for quiet one to one interaction. Park benches to sit and chat. Public squares with collections of tables and chairs for people to rearrange as they see fit. And even places to play and enjoy nature.

All of these characteristics of modern office design offer a renewed realisation of what the office is for at a fundamental level – to bring people together in shared goals, address their wellbeing, develop their relationships, share information and create moments of serendipity, creativity and – why not? – joy. 

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