Workspace design: Building the revolution

HR has the opportunity to influence workplace design, and consequently how workers feel and behave, our roundtable debate explored

“When I joined work 20 years ago there was a lot of focus on the customer environment, but I really don’t think the company thought about part of its identity being the colleague environment; I think it was an afterthought.”

So said Matt Elliott, people director at Virgin Money, at a recent HR magazine roundtable in association with Landid, on ‘Tomorrow’s workspace: exploring the evolution of the office’. Elliott’s comments chimed with others made by our roundtable panel. Workspace design has been through something of a revolution, the panel agreed. Organisations are now thinking much more carefully about the wellbeing and productivity gains that good design can bring, and about how approaches will need to evolve to meet future demands.

HR now has much greater opportunity to shape this agenda. So we debated some of the areas the profession can influence, and some of the key challenges and considerations.


One of the drivers behind a recent office design revolution has been growing awareness of the importance of workspaces to drive strong internal cultures, the panel agreed. “In the end we can’t expect our colleagues to do a great job for customers if they don’t have a true experience of the organisation,” commented Elliott.

This is particularly important in retail, said Usha Kakaria-Cayaux, regional vice president of HR UK & Ireland at The Estée Lauder Companies. “In retail if you look great on the outside you have to look great on the inside,” she said. “You should feel that sense of brand and community.”

She added the importance of this in relation to staff who only occasionally come into contact with head office. When they do this should create a lasting impression, she said. “When we bring [store staff] into our office for training we make sure they have access to all the things that remind them of why they picked Estée Lauder and why it’s great to work here.”

Managing change

HR’s role in facilities conversations has become naturally apparent over recent years, particularly in relation to managing change, the panel agreed. “It felt like a natural thing where HR and FM quickly came together, arm in arm,” commented HR director at Advanced Alex Arundale, in relation to the consolidation of Advanced’s offices into central regional hubs, and the launch of flagship new offices, over the past two years.

Emotional responses to changes to the physical environment can be very strong, she said, so a close HR/FM partnership, along with change champions throughout the company, is key.

“People can be very protective over ‘this is my desk and my space’,” agreed Elizabeth Cowper, divisional vice president, HR at Coach Europe & International. “The engagement of employees is so important because we need to get them on board. It’s about educating them and talking about different ways of working.”


The panel also explored the crucial role HR can play in ensuring workspaces are geared around wellbeing. “I think there’s a place for a more holistic view of the workspace and wellness,” said Steve Sherwood, PwC’s director of operations and infrastructure.

He explained that health and wellbeing needs to go further than token, individual gestures such as gym memberships, so the impact of the building is a significant consideration. “It’s everything from air quality to the ability for people to be able to reflect and meditate, to find personal space,” he said, adding that HR should be the ambassadors for wellness where other senior leaders may be more focused on cost-cutting.

He noted the importance of demonstrating this wellness concern to staff: “Increasingly as we try and make our property work harder it’s easy for people to say ‘well aren’t you trying to just get more people in one space?’”

HR must gather evidence on the link between the working environment and wellbeing and productivity, said Chris Hiatt, director at Landid. “There’s now some really good hard evidence in terms of productivity, general health, chronic illnesses – all the things we should be worrying about,” he said.

“In our buildings we have taller floor to ceiling height… and there’s phenomenal impact from having greenery in buildings, which we don’t [as a business community] have enough of.”

Remote working

HR must be alive not only to the wellbeing benefits of remote working, but also the downsides, several panellists agreed. “I remember an employee [at a previous company] saying to me he was really struggling because he had no boundary to stop him working at home,” said Lesley Swarbrick, HR director at Time Inc. “He found it really hard; his sleep patterns were affected.”

A balance must be struck between enabling colleagues to work from home for tasks requiring focus and concentration, but creating the right spaces to entice people in to collaborate and socialise, said Lisa Hillier, chief people officer at Just Eat.

“Commercially it’s really important for our product teams to work with our tech teams, our engineers, and marketing functions, who work with our data guys,” she said. “We’re installing stairs instead of lifts to create much more cross-functional working.”

Office location

The panel agreed, however, that there remains a challenge around rising travel costs and the negative toll long commutes can take on wellbeing. Companies must think more laterally and creatively around office location, said Arundale, and perhaps consider gearing regional office sites around where pockets of talent already sit.

Talent sits anywhere across the country so why would I have a location where it’s ‘you have to be here to do this’, because that limits the opportunity for that talent,” she said. “So we need to marry technology with facility and location and make that seamless to enable mobility of talent.”

Hiatt expressed frustration with the number of companies still seeing a central London location as de rigueur. He said HR can help present the cost and employee wellbeing case for locating elsewhere: “I’d tell a whole affordability story for that person that’s got to find somewhere to live. By locating in central London you’re condemning people to a one-hour 15-minute commute because no-one can afford a house nearby.”

There is still an attachment to being in London,” agreed Shakil Butt, former HR and OD director at Islamic Relief Worldwide and founder of consultancy HR Hero 4 Hire. “That’s where people still think they have to go to make things happen.”

“I know how intoxicating London thinking is, but I’m pleased I work for a company that reminds me there’s a lot outside of London,” commented Virgin Money’s Elliott. “Because if we prioritised people being in the same place in London we’d have thrown away huge amounts of talent.”