Designing for the basic human needs of community and belonging

As experience and engagement rise up the corporate agenda, WORKTECH Academy’s Forum on the Future of Work 2019 looked for clues in different settings

As the workplace pivots towards a more people-centred approach, how can we design for community and belonging? That was the theme of WORKTECH Academy’s fourth annual Forum of the Future of Work, hosted in Haworth’s London showroom on 18 July 2019 in partnership with BVN Architects and IE University, Madrid.

Two opening speakers, environmental psychologist Craig Knight and architect James Grose of BVN, presented short provocations to kick off the Forum, which was attended by a mix of WORKTECH Academy corporate members and IE University design students from 14 different nations.

‘Moving from a city of doing to a city of being…’

In a challenge and rebuke to the design industry, Knight called for a reapplication of design to devolve authority to the people who work in offices – the real experts in workspace. Grose meanwhile signalled a move from ‘a city of doing to a city of being’ – with modern architecture no longer an engine for economic efficiency but expressing more visual, tactile, human and affective values.

The Forum then broke out into five workshop groups to explore how to build community and belonging in five different contexts: out-of-town campus, virtual network, high street, urban centre and vertical village. Each group was tasked with critically analysing their particular context to come up with some big ideas, examples of good practice and any misdirections for where the market is heading.

Out-of-town campus

The out-of-town campus grew in popularity when a popular hypothesis suggested that cities were becoming too crowded and people would reject their urban settings in favour of space and fresh air. However, many companies opting for this move have struggled to attract talent and build successful communities.

This group focused on the core elements of successful community-making: learning, culture and the blend between private and public. A workplace that promotes continuous learning, curiosity and novelty creates a space to which people are naturally attracted through intrigue. This should be coupled with the right culture which is carefully curated yet allowed to organically form.

Chiswick Park in west London was identified as having the right balance between curated space and organic communities. A community team continuously creates spaces where people can come together and socialise, without the approach being forceful. The Sky campus nearby also has an interesting culture through a non-doctrinaire approach to new ways of working – asking nothing of their employees but to ‘be a good neighbour’.

The Silicon Valley suburban campus is vastly different from many in London. While giving the illusion of openness and transparency, security at Apple Park or Facebook is right there just beneath the veneer. Most campus developments are very high security, but in order to create vibrant communities there needs to be a free exchange of people. It is a tough dilemma.

Virtual network

The idea of virtual communities is still relatively new. A successful virtual network needs to have a clear sense of purpose to create engagement. It also needs to relate to the physical world, where AI driven tools can enable real time translation of cultural and emotional differences and allow for transparent communication between all members.

Large global events such as The Olympics have successfully curated virtual global networks through uniting people in one common purpose: sport. The Olympics is the ultimate virtual network with a physical manifestation, it transcends cultural differences and embodies a global community. Virtual networks will not work without physical manifestation, this group concluded; the physical world is the anchor of community and the digital overlay is the enabler.

High Street

Workplaces are increasingly being integrated into the wider ecosystem of retail and residential; as a result, the community is expanding beyond the walls of the office. In order to engage the wider community, there needs to be variety and diversity of space, from more landscaped elements to spaces for relaxation, socialising, leaning and working. Workplace will blend with the high street to create a place for multi-dimensional experience and service. These spaces should also be flexible both in time and in offering. and they should be carefully curated to attract a diverse community.

In Dubai’s Design District, there is an emphasis on the learning experience which helps forge friendships and community within the city. This space is successful because it offers activated spaces filled with food and art. This is in contrast to places such as Canary Wharf, which has been functionally built to serve one purpose and still struggles to create a strong social community despite recent efforts to revamp the area.

Urban Centre

The city centre is the traditional powerhouse of workplace. Central business districts effortlessly attract flocks of people and communities have organically formed in commercial pockets of the city. However, there is a danger of spaces becoming vacant or vacuous if neglected. The key to urban communities is accessibility, connectivity and empowerment. Communities form around central areas to meet – these spaces should be kept activated by events which are diverse in subject and flexible in timing.

A common misdirection in urban design is the idea of creating a ‘perfect city’. Often cities attract ‘super-ego architects’ who create big statements that don’t relate to the local urban community, which is constantly changing and adapting in an organic way.

Vertical Village

As urban environments become denser, buildings are getting taller and thinner and the opportunity to create community and belonging in stacked skyscrapers becomes increasingly difficult. One large building has its advantages in the sense that everyone is under one roof, which can act as a catalyst and enabler to promote community. Community managers, digital apps and shared spaces can create areas where people want to gather to socialise. Tall buildings also have many floors and layers which can promote intrigue and curiosity within the building – people are offered autonomy to work where they want within one space.

Often, people can feel isolated and disconnected from nature in tall buildings. Sweden has tried to combat this by creating a timber vertical village where people can still feel connected to nature despite being significantly removed from it. Most other work cultures are still trying to humanise the glass-and-steel stump.

Ultimately, The Forum on the Future of Work 2019 explored a theme which is frequently talked about in the workplace industry but rarely acted on. Community and belonging are fundamental human needs, which transcend workplace settings. Operational flexibility and sensitive curation emerged as common themes across all the spaces to allow people to feel empowered and connected as part of a wider ecological system.

To participate in the next Forum on the Future of Work, contact WORKTECH Academy about corporate membership
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