Interview with dr. Nigel Oseland

Nigel Oseland is a workplace strategist, environmental psychologist and change manager who understands the human experience, specifically what sort of behaviors can lead to greater engagement and better outcomes in the workplace, and how the desired changes can be successfully implemented.

Nigel is a founding partner of the Workplace Trends Conference which has been London bound since 2002. Because of its broader appeal and growing interest the team decided to go overseas, bringing it to Copenhagen and New York for the first time in 2018. Nigel will speak at Workplace Design 2018 in Ljubljana this October.

During his consulting career Nigel has worked with some of the worlds leading finance, retail and technology companies including BP, Shell, Barclays, Deutsche Bank, GSK, Morgan Stanley, IBM, and Visa International. He runs his workplace consultancy Workplace Unlimited, based in London, UK, and collaborates with Kragelj on workplace strategy projects in continental Europe.

We talked with Nigel about the role of workplace today, the link between workplace design and productivity and how to attract best and brightest with a well researched, well designed work environment.

People have different views on what an efficient workplace should look like. What are the key elements of a work environment that deliver results?

For me, the essential element is to provide the environment which enables people to work to their best and also promotes their wellbeing. We often want the office to be sustainable, space-efficient and cost-effective, but we have to remember it also needs to be functional and support the occupying business.

It would be false economy to design a cost-efficient space where people can’t work in or, even worse, a space they don’t like. Then they would not come to work at all, and you end up in an empty space. If you create the right kind of environment people will come to it.

So a workplace is truly efficient if its well utilized and supports the people and the business at the same time.

Some try to rush through a workplace design project though such projects are almost never just about design but much more complex. What are the key phases of a workplace change project?

First, we have to know that the project doesn’t start with the design or a design brief. It begins with getting to know the organization and their requirements. It’s also important to understand what their vision is because then we can figure out how to use design and space to facilitate it.

We start by setting up a long-term strategy. Which location should we pick? In or out of the city? Should it be a single building or a multiple building campuses?

If you don’t get the strategy and the briefing right, you might have to change and adjust your design later on which is obviously expensive. So spend more time on those two phases, and that will set you for an excellent project going forward.

Concerning workplace transformation, we quite often think of the space as the project, but it’s only one component of change. The change itself is usually much bigger. It may be an organizational, managerial, psychological or cultural shift and we’re here to help with that first.

You are an expert in conducting research to link behaviour and performance in office settings. How do we measure success in workplace design projects?

You can measure success, but it’s not easy. The issue here is that we keep looking for a simple metric to explain a complex subject. Each business will have different performance metric and measure productivity in their own way. To show the impact of our design we first need to know what those metrics are.

Having said that I do use self-assessed subjective measures of performance. Yes, people might exaggerate their productivity and performance, but if you ask the same people to evaluate their performance before and after a project, you can then use the percentage difference between the two and back it up with other in-house metrics.

The challenge is not how you measure performance. The challenge is about how to measure the impact of the design on that performance rather than all the other factors.

What is the role of Post Occupancy Evaluation in this?

We usually do a post-occupancy evaluation (POE) somewhere between six and nine months after the finished project. We go into the building and evaluate if space supports the business and the people in it. It’s partly an architectural evaluation, but it’s mostly about feedback.

POE is the last phase of the design project. As we already said the project starts with understanding the business and its vision. Then comes the design brief, the actual design, construction, interior design and then after a year of occupancy we can ask ourselves Did it work?

We use what we learn in the evaluation to improve the space if it’s possible. Sadly many people don’t do POE, and one of the consequences is not learning from our mistakes, making us design blindly going forward.

We must be honest about the results because quite often we only see the nice bits of POE presented at conferences. We also need to know the bits that didn’t work, and it takes quite a brave occupier to present it warts and all.

The last workplace trends conference Tony Grimes from Investec bank did an excellent POE of their new space and told us what works and what doesn’t. It went down pretty well, and people appreciated his candidness.

We are living in two worlds – analog and digital. How can a smart workplace design help us bring these two together?

The first step is to recognize that we live in the two worlds the virtual and physical. We’re still designing offices like we work in just one physical space, but we might also be working from home, working from a cafe, using co-working spaces or engaging with people through virtual systems.

The question here is how do we design a seamless, intimate experience? When we walk into a meeting and decide to connect with the team in America, we usually spend the first 20 minutes just setting everything up and making sure we’re online.

Where’s the switch? How do I operate this? Can they see us? Can we see them?

We have to get to the situation where you walk in, and it starts. It has to be that seamless otherwise it will always be two worlds and not an integrated world.

Sooner or later companies will be going through some kind of digital transformation. With work moving online and people becoming increasingly mobile, why is it still important to invest in physical workspaces?

Based on my research on collaboration in virtual environments, teams still have to gain respect and trust from face to face social interaction. It’s great that we can now work virtually, but I would still argue there should be a place for those teams coming together initially and occasionally to reinforce that social bond.

Once you establish that, people can go back to their different environments and countries. They can now work independently but still as a part of a connected team.

I think the workspace should facilitate people coming together, sharing knowledge and gaining trust, not only with colleagues but clients as well. In the end, the physical space is still a visual representation of your organization, brand, and culture. When clients come in, they start to understand who you are before they even talk to you. It speaks to them on a subconscious level.

A well-designed workplace can also help you attracts talent and young people who are just starting their careers. For them, work is also social. The two are very blended.

Companies are in constant battle for talent. What impact does a workplace strategy and design have in attracting and retaining new talent?

I firmly believe that we’re moving to a world where skills are becoming more transferable. People are learning new skills with one organization and then moving on to another organization to perfect them or add some new ones.

You see, every organization you join is a continuous learning environment. With a transferable skillset, people can switch companies based on how much they’re going to get rewarded and how much they’re going to get paid.

I think payment is still going to be crucial for many people, but research shows us it’s not just about the money. People also seek other rewards in forms of the environment and flexible work.

If you have a choice of working for two companies with similar pay or one pays slightly more than the other, you start looking for additional benefits. People are willing to take a job with a somewhat lesser pay if the company has a superb working environment, a vibrant social space, and freedom of choice when it comes to the working environment. You go there because it feels right.

We often hear that workplaces should be focused on optimizing human potential. How do we go about it?

The workspace should be about supporting the organization and people in it, so how do we do that? We want a workplace that is seamless – I come in, I sit, I work. Nothing is interfering with me doing my job to the maximum efficiency.

One thing we often get wrong is our perception of noise and distraction in a workplace. We need to recognize that work has several components to it. Some work will be collaborative, interactive and creative. We’ll be sharing knowledge, and we’ll be brainstorming. However, there is also a significant portion of focused individual work, and we need to provide spaces for both.

This is quite a challenge in an open plan environment which people usually choose because it’s more cost-efficient. If we do that we have to keep in mind that people still need to do concentrated work alongside collaborative work. The only way to do that is to provide choice and come up with a mixture of work settings.

It seems that some companies are willing to do anything for their people.

Yes, and for a good reason. The whole well-being agenda is quite popular at the moment. Organizations now realize that they have to look after their people or they might go sick or change the company.

We often forget the human body and brain evolved to survive in the African savannah. We’ve only been indoors for about 250 years and in modern offices for around 100 years. We put people between walls, but their bodies evolved to be outside.

Taking all this into consideration, what are your workplace design recommendations?

Don’t put people in deep dark spaces with no access to daylight. Offer them views out and create an environment where people don’t feel like being overlooked. Pay attention to room temperature and provide natural ventilation if possible. People like to feel the fresh breeze.

We’re also social animals so we need to plan spaces where people can mingle, share drinks and eat together. It’s very natural to us because we used to gather around the fire to tell stories and share news. We’re also quite inquisitive, so provide exciting nooks and crannies that make people walk around and say “Oh what’s happening over there?”.

Avoid big, open, empty spaces. Add a touch of nature in the form of plants and landscaping. Green plants energize us and promote creativity. We can also mimic nature by using natural elements like wood, natural patterns, and sound.

The sound level we prefer is similar to what we would experience outside in the natural landscape. Avoid deathly silence because that means danger in the natural world and too much noise because that’s overstimulating.

In conclusion, what are in your view top trends in workplace design for the near future?

I think we touched on a couple of them and now we can sum them up.

I believe we’re going to focus on well being of people and create spaces that support that agenda with introducing biophilic components and so on.

Next, we will focus less on just a single space and think about how to join different spaces; the virtual and physical. That’s why I believe co-working spaces, in particular, are gaining more momentum.

The last thing for me is inclusivity, so I hope we will see more workspaces think about smaller groups of people, the minorities not just majorities.

We should make places more accessible for people with disabilities. We often think just of people in wheelchairs, but not all disabilities. Obviously people have visual and hearing impairments, but there is also the whole spectrum of mental disabilities. So how do we design spaces that make their lives and work easier?

We also need to think about how to design spaces for different personality types. Many areas we plan at the moment are suitable for extroverts: colorful, buzzy, noisy, with lots of artwork and so on. Introverts may find these places overstimulating, and they need something calmer.

This October you will speak at Workplace Design conference in Ljubljana. What are some key messages participants will take away from your sessions?

There is some amazing architectural development in Slovenia and the region, but there is also an opportunity to explore and embrace agile or activity-based working. If implemented well such a workplace strategy can save space and property costs, but also enhance motivation, creativity, wellbeing, and performance. Workplace Design conference will cover best practice techniques for developing offices that are efficient and effective.

Thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us, Nigel!

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