Spontaneous, social and green: London lifts the lid on the new workplace

In the search for more innovation and wellbeing in the workplace, could chance encounters and biophilic design be a winning combination? Speakers at WORKTECH London’s 2018 conference suggested how the future might unfold  

WORKTECH London, the flagship event in the global WORKTECH series, took centre stage in the wonderfully refurbished Purcell Room in the Southbank Centre on 27-28 November 2018. Right on cue, its huge line-up of speakers and exhibitors also showed evidence of extensive remodelling – by reflecting big changes underway in work and workplace.

Opening keynote Rohan Silva, founder of Second Home, creator of London’s Tech City initiative and former senior policy adviser to Prime Minister David Cameron, immediately set the tone for the conference by deftly twinning two key themes that he believes will shape the future workplace. The first is the chance encounter, which drives creativity and innovation; the second is biophilic design, which supports cognitive functioning and wellbeing.

‘The two ingredients that support innovation and wellbeing…’

To support his argument, Silva referenced MIT’s legendary Building 20 built in 1943, which spawned a whole host of post-war technological breakthroughs due to a flexible design promoting spontaneous collaboration, and medical researcher Roger Ulrich’s breakthrough study in 1984 showing that green external views of hospital gardens speed up the healing process.

Silva mixed both ingredients in working with Spanish architects SelgasCano to create Second Home in an old Shoreditch carpet factory. This creative workspace has 300 trees and plants and very few straight lines, with nearly every desk, lamp and chair different. Intense cultural programming constantly exposes Second Home members (handpicked for their diversity) to new ideas and connections. After London and Lisbon, Silva has plans to open a Second Home in Los Angeles in May 2019, a scheme which pushes the formula even further.

Twin themes resonate

Of course, the workplace of the future is not just about a chance encounter in a green space with a great coffee, but it proved a great place to start. The twin themes of the serendipitous social collision and biophilic design resonated through the subsequent proceedings as speakers either explored patterns of social interaction or tackled the subject of wellbeing at work from a variety of angles.

A detailed case study by Adobe’s Mark Bell of the company’s London HQ in the White Collar Factory emphasised the importance of casual collisions on connected staircases. A new report from International Quarter London/Lendlease with WORKTECH Academy, Desk to District, promoted the idea that collaborative innovation should extend beyond the workplace to the entire innovation district where new encounters happen and new ideas are generated.

Spontaneous socialising is no longer an adjunct to work…

Architect Amanda Levete’s stunning presentation of two projects in London (the V&A’s transformative extension on Exhibition Road) and Lisbon (the Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology) revealed new place-making strategies to bring people together in city space. And Lohan Presencer’s introduction to the Ministry of Sound’s specialist new coworking space for the music industry reinforced the idea that spontaneous socialising can no longer be seen as an adjunct to work but right at its core.

Data analytics can help enhance the collaborative meet-and-share process by using new sensor technologies in smart buildings to understand which individuals and teams are speaking to each other, as Gregg Carman of Humanyze explained. Ulrich Bloom of Zaha Hadid Architects pushed this theme even further with proximity maps to explore who has line of sight of colleagues on the office floor. ‘Design without data is just decoration’, said Blum.

Knowing who and where you are

As for the biophilia and wellness design theme, Rohan Silva’s LA design for Second Home was matched by BVN Architects’ B:Hive project at Smales Farm in Auckland, New Zealand with its spectacular coiled staircases and green internal features. In a joint presentation with Unwork’s Philip Ross, BVN principal James Grose floated the concept of ‘knowology’ – a variant on the German concept of heimat or homeliness, using design and technology to create a deep emotional connection with place, in which you know where you are and who you are.

Developer Sir Stuart Lipton, in conversation with long-time collaborator Despina Katsikakis, emphasised the amenity and wellbeing aspects of 22 Broadgate, his latest ground-breaking project in the City of London. ‘Far too long, we looked at building efficiency, but people are seven times more engaged if they have a friend at work,’ Lipton told the conference.’ It’s all about enjoyment and people.’ As the developer behind Broadgate, Stockley Park and Chiswick Park – three game-changers in London – he certainly knows a thing or two about the workplace as a health-inducing social landscape.

Link to circular economy

Evan Benway of Plantronics shared a new concept which matches biophilic design with acoustic soundscaping to bring that natural feel to open plan office space. And Nicola Gillen, global workplace strategy lead at AECOM and author of a new book on next-generation office design, led a panel which took the sustainable approach even further by linking workplace design to the circular economy.

Right across the WORKTECH London programme, the workplace twins of social interaction and sustainable design kept cropping up in unusual and unexpected combinations. Could this combo really be the magic bullet for new office schemes?

A panel on the puzzle of productivity led by Aki Stamatis of Fourfront Group suggested things might not be so easy. Then closing keynote speaker Professor Sir Carey Cooper, the UK’s leading organisational psychologist, really set us straight.

Quoting entertainingly from Joseph Heller’s famous novel Something Happened, Cooper detailed the scale of stress, burnout and health problems resulting from a dysfunctional workplace. It would have made for very sobering listening were it not dressed up with so much wit.

On London’s long march to a better workplace, clearly there’s some way to go.

More on WORKTECH London 2018 here
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