Gimmick or here to stay? 6 trends in office design

Hybrid office plans now give workers a choice of co-working and quiet areas

Ever dream of working in an office with serious wow factor? Well, take your pick. Modern workplace design is becoming far more adventurous to attract star talent. However, be prepared to work anywhere, walk everywhere and fill out wellness surveys, all part of the latest design trends.

Fancy a job where you sit in the sunshine and pick basil for lunch from a rooftop garden? Maybe you’d prefer an office which offers a sports court, walking meetings, bike racks, massages, a karaoke lounge, a pool table in the kitchen or a drink in the staff bar?

“From a client point of view, talent attraction is the killer issue in design, as well as staff engagement and retention,” says Steve Coster, principal and workplace design specialist at design practice Hassell. 

Companies which show they care for workers are popular in the war for talent, and Australia is seen as a leading workplace design hub, he says.

Brands such as Medibank Private, Macquarie Bank and Westpac have led the way with office spaces that look more like five-star hotels. At the new A$6 billion Barangaroo development in Sydney, Westpac houses 6000 staff across 28 floors and offers a concierge, library, medical centre, a wellness centre for massages and spa treatments, prayer room, barbecue area and outdoor terrace, a kitchen with cooking lessons, lockers, bike storage and showers.

Companies want staff to be healthier, happier and more mobile, in order to lower sick leave, absenteeism and compensation claims for mental and physical health problems. At Melbourne’s new Medibank Place, 79 per cent of staff say they collaborate more and 70 per cent say they’re healthier. Wellness surveys such as those devised by Deloitte and Medibank Private may also question workers on diet, mental health, sleep and exercise. Advances in mobile technology and the BYOT (Bring Your Own Technology) trend foster a culture of working anywhere.

Although these are showcase buildings housing thousands of staff, design experts say the new ideas in office design can be applied anywhere. 

Here are the top six trends happening now.


1. Green is good in office design

Sunshine, fresh air, greenery and exercise are important to office workers who work long hours. Communal food gardens are popular at Medibank Private, Qantas, National Australia Bank (NAB), Macquarie Bank and consumer magazine Choice. Staff even bond with chickens and honeybees at Macquarie Bank’s rooftop garden in Sydney’s CBD.

Inside the office, standing desks are popular. In the US, Arianna Huffington champions wellness at her new Thrive Global enterprise, where there are standing desks, treadmill desks and nap pods. In many Google offices, every single desk is sit-to-stand, and law firm Gilbert + Tobin has followed suit at its new digs at Barangaroo.

“Sitting is regarded as the new smoking,” says Amanda Stanaway, regional workplace sector leader for Woods Bagot, designers of NAB Docklands Melbourne. Woods Bagot has designed walking meeting tracks for Google in Singapore and standing meeting rooms for Lend Lease.

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2. Introducing the fun factor at work

It may seem gimmicky, but letting staff loose in a fun area for table tennis, playing pool or gaming creates office buzz. At Canada’s Scotiabank new digital banking offices in Toronto, staff can use the company bowling alley. 

In Australia, they play ball at Medibank Private’s sports court and use the pool table in MYOB’s kitchen in Sydney. 

The brewer Lion has a staff bar which opens after work. 

“At Hassell, we’ve have had requests for a karaoke lounge, Lego rooms, a golf putting green and an indoor running track,” says Coster.


3. Social stairs get people moving at work

For office staff who don’t get time for the gym, there is an old-fashioned option – stairways. Sydney’s Westpac Place has a “vertical street” of stairs stretching across 32 office floors for 5000 staff. So does Medibank Place, where staff measure their 10,000 steps a day on electronic devices. Stairs are also social. 

“Stairs connect people across different floors,” says Simon Gunnis, managing director of the Project Control Group, which designed Lion’s new office at Sydney Olympic Park. 

“It’s important to get business leaders walking the decks of the ship to rub shoulders with junior staff and share information.” 

Surveys show Lion staff are 25 per cent more engaged in their new office, which he says is “outstanding”.

4. ‘Do not disturb’ areas create privacy

Mobile technology creates new privacy choices. Cubicles, dividers and booths offer staff quiet time without noise and interruptions. 

Medibank Place, designed by Hassell, has 26 different types of work settings. 

“What clients ask me for almost every day is for a cone of silence above their heads,” jokes Stanaway. 

In traditional offices, 40 per cent of desks were left empty but Gunnis says new sensible hybrid office plans now give workers a choice of co-working and quiet areas.

5. The new casual vibe

It’s all about a sense of belonging, especially for young staff, who often have a “log-on anywhere” sense of freedom. 

“More informal open spaces are still a big feature that a lot of people appreciate,” says Coster.

These break down hierarchies and allow people to get to know each other.

Staff have told him they have stayed with an organisation because senior people took an interest in them. These relationships frequently started at an informal workplace area.


6. At last – office design giving more user control 

New designs allow workers more control over lighting and temperature. At Deloitte’s office in Amsterdam, staff use smartphones to adjust light and temperature. 

The University of Queensland’s Global Change Institute in Brisbane does not need air-conditioning for 80 per cent of the year as walls and floors are cooled by chilled water.

Dimming controls, circadian lighting and intelligent lighting in modern buildings also offer more user control.

Even small firms with low budgets can offer wellness and mobility, because the dynamics are the same, says Gunnis. 

“Instead of a huge herb garden we may just design a plant trough.”

Read next: Open-plan offices work for your boss, but not for you.

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