Six essential building blocks for a better workplace experience

What create a memorable event with universal appeal? In the first of a three-part series on designing a better workplace experience, we report on the findings of a special creative workshop

The great office return has remained patchy and unpredictable in 2023, but it has at least taught us one thing. Work can no longer be regarded as just a place or even a process – it must be an experience that magnetises people back to the workplace and makes them feel the commute has been worth it.

More business leaders are getting this message and placing workplace experience much higher up the corporate agenda. Companies are recognising the limitations of office mandates. They want to create experiences that build culture, create meaning, support productivity, enhance wellbeing, and attract and retain talent. But what are the essential blocking blocks of workplace experience? How is a memorable experience generated – and what can employers do to ensure the magic happens?

To probe the subject in depth, WORKTECH Academy worked with Area, one of the UK and Europe’s most progressive workplace design and fit-out specialists, to organise a half-day creative workshop with 30 participants including Area’s design teams, clients and partners.

Workshop participants worked in teams to recall favourite experiences, brainstorm ideas, build models and map concepts. What did we learn from the exercise?

‘From the first iPhone to the fall of the Berlin Wall, people recalled what made a landmark moment for them…’

It was important to think firstly about what makes a great universal experience and only later extrapolate learnings for the workplace. In completing a 100-year timeline of experiences that started with the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb by British archaeologist Howard Carter in 1922 and ended in the present day via royal weddings, the first iPhone and the fall of the Berlin Wall, participants recalled what made a landmark moment for them.

People talked about feelings of emotion, about community and sharing, also about moments of change and the opening of vistas. Visual impact was identified as a key aspect of a memorable experience, as well as a feeling that the experience was consequential – it heralded something new and important. Workshop participants agreed that these were values conspicuously absent from most average workplaces.

Six building blocks

So, how could we design a better workplace experience? We identified six essential elements:

1 A Sense of Identity:

There needs to be a distinctive, over-arching identity to the workplace with an aesthetic approach that communicates a sense of anticipation as you cross the threshold, and knits all design details together into a cohesive whole. The identity should convey support and respect for the health and wellbeing of the workforce as well as promoting the purpose of the business.

2 Personalisation and Choice:

In a working world of more autonomy and freedom, it should be natural for the workplace to offer greater personalisation and choice, thus enabling it to compete successfully with other work setting such as the home or third spaces. Human-centred design was seen as key to personalising the experience for every individual with a range of settings and a wider array of amenities and services. One size does not fit all.

3 The Right Spaces: Space emerged as critical to experience – getting the location, volume, design quality and practical detailing of each spaces right was identified as a basis for making the workplace hum. How people use spaces and move through them is important, so experience mapping with a storyboard could be as important in the future as the space-plan is today.

4 Functionality and Support: Employers sometimes reach for the big creative gesture to improve workplace experience – but forget about the fundamentals. There are functional considerations such as tech support and seamless connectivity that can make all the difference to the working day.  When the system basics are missing, no amount of design decoration will paper over the cracks.

5 Sensory Wellbeing: Experience is how people perceive the workplace – what they feel about it matters. So, it is important to pay the closest attention to sensory inputs. Is the workplace too noisy?  Can we design for acoustic privacy? Is the lighting too bright or too dim? Is indoor air quality being monitored and maintained? It isn’t enough just to meet basic health and safety standards; sensory wellbeing demands that people feel psychologically safe in the work environment.

6 Community and Pride: Our final building block plays to the idea of intrinsic motivation. People in the office today are part of an assembled community of practice. They should feel a sense of pride and achievement in their work, and of unity with colleagues. The design of the workplace can help them feel they belong to something bigger than themselves.

Barriers to be broken

The workshop also looked at the barriers to putting these experience building blocks in place. Cost and an absence of imagination sometimes stood in the way of creating a strong sense of identity; a lack of vision and trust impeded the personalisation agenda; supply side limitations affected space considerations; an unsupportive internal culture undermined functional services; a lack of client knowledge and inflexible infrastructures lessened sensory wellbeing; and the dislocations of hybrid working weakened the idea of community.

None of these barriers were seen as unsurmountable, however, and the workshop concluded on an optimistic note by applying the key design principles to such scenarios as planning an international on-site meeting, visitor arrival in reception, onboarding new recruits, and creating a culinary hub for a better lunchtime experience.

In the next article in our series on workplace experience in collaboration with Area, we will talk to  Momcilo Pavlovic, workplace experience lead at IKEA, to discover what the future of work looks like for one of the world’s most famous home furnishing brands.

Area is a founding member of Fourfront Group and a Global Partner of WORKTECH Academy.
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