Nicole Coutts on the future of the workplace

17 April 2020
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Nicole Coutts is deeply passionate about the ways in which workplace design can shape our lives and behaviours. As we become ever more embedded in this new way of working and living, Nicole shares her thoughts on how the workplace of the future will be forever changed.

The world has adjusted swiftly to connecting online. But despite the continual contact, many are still feeling a loss of community. There are certainly benefits to working from home – efficiencies and focus – but they don’t make up for the nuances that come out of an in-person team meeting such as body language cues, and the accidental sharing of knowledge.

As much as the world has embraced remote working, there’s potential in how our physical workspaces will fill what’s missing from the virtual experience. Associate Nicole Coutts considers these gaps as exactly where the future of work will mould to next, with the biggest driver being building community. What’s more, she considers how important that community focus will be post COVID-19. “There will be an expectation of remote working opportunities, and therefore we will see a shift towards the workplace becoming a hub of community spaces where employees can come together,” she says, adding, “Our patterns of life have changed, and we are entering a new chapter. It’s natural that we will see an increase in spaces in the workplace that are geared around people connecting and socialising.” The type of work that will be carried out will also inevitably change. “In addition to the increase in virtual communications, workplaces will need to encourage moments of face to face interactions, factoring in spaces for fostering ideas, collaboration and connectedness. Another consideration is how wellness initiatives will extend beyond the boundaries of the workplace.”

Nicole also contemplates some of the physical ramifications that the pandemic will leave on the design of our workplace environments. “There will certainly be a greater attention to detail on cleanliness and hygiene, which could materialise in a variety of ways. With desk sharing and open plan already raising concerns regarding hygiene, the proximity of workstations and sharing of amenities will be scrutinised.  The integration of hygiene stations within the office to promote hand washing in a more ritualistic manner will become the norm. Wherever possible automatic doors and sensors will reduce the need for surfaces to be touched. And materiality will no doubt also change with higher emphasis or consideration for materials that have anti-bacterial properties or have been manufactured with a lower level of toxins.”

Another consideration worth noting is how commercial leasing has been disrupted by COVID-19. “Businesses will scrutinise how much Net Lettable Area (NLA) they really need,” shares Nicole. “Decentralisation of the office will be more widely accepted. We will see a decrease in work-related domestic and international travel, and an increase in flexible and remote working, influencing commercial property decisions.” Circling back to the idea of community and how COVID-19 has shown our need for it, Nicole says, “Following a long period of isolation, we may see a greater appreciation for the benefits of a centralised location, with the desire for human connection being more prevalent than ever. I would like to see more space allocated in the workplace to community and for coming together.”

Beyond the design elements and details, Nicole also believes that where the true value of the designer will sit moving forward is in offering strategic insights of client’s long-term goals. “Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, all of the current workplace models are now outdated. It is our responsibility as designers to rethink and pave the way forward to new workplace models that are conducive to the shift in behaviours and expectations. More than ever we need to be engaged and inquisitive and seek the best outcome for the client and users. Although the speed of change can be a lot, it also offers businesses an opportunity to reset, and challenge the status quo.”

Helping clients establish what the next norm will look like is exactly what Nicole sees as the role of the designer, “It is our responsibility to be outwardly focused on the market changes and influences. The role of a designer is always evolving, and never static – nothing like a pandemic to shake things up.”

Read our article about the need for focus areas in the digital age here.