Pratyush Sarup on creating playful office designs

By Pratyush Sarup, head of design at Dubai-based Spencer Interiors

The way we work now is not the way an office was run, used, and thus designed two decades ago. Silicon Valley, startups and that phenomenon of the Millennials that seems to inform everything from how we approach relationships to how we vote, has changed everything. The notion of a chilled out, adaptive workplace has garnered traction.

As business owners look to the next workplace design trend that will maximise productivity and encourage teambuilding and creativity, the element of ‘play’ can quite literally come into play in office design.

A full fledged cafe serves as the collision point for Loreal Middle East's JAZFA office+

A full fledged cafe serves as the collision point for Loreal Middle East’s JAZFA office.

As I write this story, our studio is working on three such design concepts – one for a Qatari company’s Dubai office, another for a French brand’s regional HQ and another for an entertainment conglomerate in Dubai Media City. There are a few commonalities between these clients. They are all ‘techie’ companies, populated by the Millennial generation and thus, value individuality. They are also aware how demanding their staff can be. In one case, our reports on staff requirements (we had to interview all key players in the organisation) were finally vetted at the global HQ to derive a brief ‘within reason’, even when the over-riding instructions were to focus on ‘play’ within the workplace as a key incentive for staff.

A country cottage  inspires this staff hangout+

A country cottage inspires this staff hangout.

In fact, a larger percentage of clients – be it established firms or startups – are moving towards softening the work culture by including spaces that promote interaction, informality and fun on the company’s time. Be warned though – the way we look at these spaces circa 2017 is not, and should not be guided by Google. In fact, I take office design expert Jeremy Myerson’s opinion on this particular, oft polarising matter to heart.

The Duracell HQ is anchored by a garage style, body shop themed breakout+

The Duracell HQ is anchored by a garage style, body shop themed breakout.

“One of the things the Google effect has had is the idea that work is somehow a playground and you can infantilise your staff,” he said in a 2016 interview. “It’s actually a very bad idea.”

The Google approach is right for that company, but each company needs its own fit between the physical infrastructure of the office and its own organisational culture.

The most effective way to incorporate an element of play within the office structure is to get the spatial zoning right.

It is important to create a dedicated work space – a community where the largest percentage of staff works on a regular basis. Then, break away – design zones for focused work, be it for a group or the individual.

A loft style island kitchen is the heart of a branding agency's JLT office+

A loft style island kitchen is the heart of a branding agency’s JLT office.

The way one uses a meeting room has evolved too. Gone is that desperate, almost egotistical need for a board room. Instead, low occupancy meeting rooms and quiet rooms for two clustered together provide for more realistic meetings requirements. The office of today gathers in an endlessly adaptive ‘townhall’ setting – a clearing in the office that can double as a yoga studio, a community theatre, lunch spot or even a party space. It is, just one of a series of collision points sprinkled across the office that become impromptu hubs for interaction, community building and, if you have seriously cool co-workers, a round of Jenga.

For Herman Miller, their townhall setting was designed around a brand history installation+

For Herman Miller, their townhall setting was designed around a brand history installation.

Of course, there are endless possibilities in how one develops these hubs in the third dimension – but there too, I find a certain restraint. Themes border less on fantasy and more on familiarity. Interpretations for the region’s culture, geography and urban movements deliver offices that are relevant and contextual.  And while we look to the end users to bring space that we design for them to life with their own personalities, the age of slip and slides in the office are truly over.

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