The stomach and the heart
The stomach and the heart
18 December 2018

thought piece: “It’s the most wonderful time of the year” – staff social spaces overflowing with tubs of Celebrations – and people saying “oh just the one!” (before going back three times in 10 minutes). The importance of such a communal space should not be dismissed however.

“He lifted a limp cheese sandwich to his mouth, crumbs spilling awkwardly into the already crumb-ridden keyboard, while he scanned the screen, eyes darting from side to side. His back ached from sitting hunched over the desk for too long. Aged 46, he felt at least 10 years older. It was only Tuesday.”

No, it’s not an entry for the Bad Fiction Awards. It’s my life. It’s my fault.

“Exchanging plans for the weekend, the conversation flowed back and forth across the communal break-out table, the flavours from the different food choices providing a backdrop to the animated discussions. Walking past on his way to grab a coffee, a colleague interjected, imparting some first-hand knowledge.”

The second paragraph is what is conveyed or at least implied in the photos following a workplace refurbishment or the move to the new office. Everyone in the shot looks like a Gap model and there’s usually the correct demographic mix to show that the organisation is ticking all the boxes.

Which version more closely resembles your lunchtime experience? I am guessing that for the majority of people, the second version is only a dream.

But what is stopping you from moving away from your desk? If it is workload then, as was highlighted in a previous thought piece, it’s either stop prevaricating and manage your time better. Or get better at delegating or asking for assistance (a worthwhile skill to learn). If it is the design of the workplace and the lack of decent facilities, then that might be (somewhat) easier to fix.

Feasibility and fit-out projects large and small delivered by our office over the past few years have had several things in common. Concern over the loss of personal space is one topic that raises its head constantly (and is somewhat assuaged by the reveal of what might be gained by sharing). Environmental conditions in the workplace will always be high on the agenda and there are often very simple ways of tackling these issues (well-designed workplace protocols can go a long way to solving such problems). But what have we, as workplace consultants and designers, thrown in to the mix with our clients that has had the greatest impact in terms of buy-in?

Shared social spaces. It’s not rocket science is it?

Shared, quality social spaces, particularly the communal staff kitchen and break-out area. We do a significant amount of consultancy work with the public sector and managing expectations is part and parcel of staff engagement. Google-style in-house catering with free, healthy food choices might be beyond the budget of the public sector but providing a well-appointed facility at the physical centre of the organisation is key to winning hearts and minds. It can be even more important when an organisation is distributed over several floors of a building. If an army marches on its stomach, then these days it seems that organisations do exactly the same. Throw good quality, free tea and coffee in to the mix and you are saying to your staff “you are valued”.

Providing an escape from the desk and the ability to prepare your own food or sit in comfort eating bought food is so obvious that it isn’t going to appear on an end of year list of “What’s hot for 2019”. You’d think it was a given, but many workplaces have facilities that are simply not fit for purpose. Sometimes this can mean not big enough or without the right range of facilities (let’s face it, there will always be a debate over whether a toaster is a fundamental human right or an accident waiting to happen); cleanliness comes into it also. Often “not fit for purpose” can mean that it’s actually too designed and not user-friendly. How many times have integrated refuse and recycling bins been quickly replaced with bulky free-standing items because the carefully-designed solution just gets in the way of the cutlery drawer?

So why the need for these spaces? Community. Health & Wellbeing. Staff Experience & Expectations.

Once an organisation increases beyond a certain size (often dependent on the sector) there is a real risk that you will not know what all your colleagues do. Dunbar’s number of 150 springs to mind. You might only bump into a colleague at the Christmas party and then go a whole year without speaking to them again. By making distributed tea points functional and the central facility a destination, you increase the opportunity for a community spirit to be developed. A burgeoning community spirit and a great space raises the potential for more social events; one thing leads to another.

Not everyone has a smart-desk or Fitbit watch that reminds them every 45 minutes to get off their backsides and move. We all know we should be more active (in general) but this is often easier said than done. A welcoming social space with outside views and plentiful daylight, some greenery (let’s not overdo it and replicate Kew Gardens in an attempt to bring down CO2 levels however) and a range of seating options will entice staff to linger, to give their brains a breather and recharge the batteries. If the desk is as welcoming as the social space then people will choose to eat at their desk (they will take less time over lunch and therefore look busier, earning brownie points from their line managers who are not doubt having lunch at their desk also).

The nightmare vision of the staff cafe has Formica table tops, red plastic chairs (ergonomically awful but great for stacking – interior design by the janitor!) with egg, beans and chips every day and an endless number of 4-person tables (of course people are sitting individually); a Ken Loach drama in washed out 1970s tones. Nowadays a basket of fresh fruit (which we get every week in our office) and free tea and coffee is almost taken for granted. We shouldn’t be shocked if a prospective employee asks to be shown the staff social space ahead of the desk where they might actually be working. Again, it is the former that better displays the values of the organisation.

The next time you think of revamping your office and are looking to slash budgets, the social space will be in the ‘nice to have’ column and therefore the easiest to value engineer (a wonderful euphemism). The evidence of how important staff perception of the workplace is suggests that it might be the worst mistake you could make. A ‘happy’ workforce is a more productive workforce. A more productive workforce leads to a healthier organisation in every respect.

You can tell a lot about an organisation from their social space. Come to 140 West George Street, Glasgow and tell us what you think of our space. We are big enough and ugly enough to take any criticism. We will however use any feedback to make our next social space (your next social space?) even better.

We do have good coffee, however.

Chris Carr
December 2018

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