The transformative powers of a well-designed workspace

by Helena Morgan
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Whether arriving to work as a journalist, a stockbroker, an analyst or an architect, everyone deserves to feel inspired and supported by their workspace. 

Although perks such as organised team sports, monthly lunches and hot commodity sweet treats are effective ways to entice people back into the office, GroupGSA design lead Amanda Ly believes office design is the key to crafting a location that people are excited to call their workspace. 

Something as simple as a haircut, a compliment from a stranger or a coffee delivered with a warm smile can positively impact someone’s life. Ly maintains that a well-designed workspace has a similar transformative effect and can elevate a standard working experience from lacklustre to inspiring and nourishing. 

“You can really change someone’s life through the place that they work in,” says Ly. 

The impact of thoughtful and considered office design on the wellbeing of employees was recently demonstrated via GroupGSA’s transformation of Sydney Water’s headquarters in Parramatta. 

Sydney Water sought to unite and connect the 1000-person capacity office and cater towards the solitary grinder, eager collaborator, and everyone in between. The design swapped a traditional cubicle-heavy floor plan for open collaboration booths and lounges.

A revamping of the space sought to imbue spirit and spark into the workspace. New amenities such as recharge zones, games rooms, yoga studios and a dedicated socialisation and recuperation floor have not sacrificed employee focus and discipline, yet encouraged people to connect and collaborate. 

“Everyone is really happy with the collaboration zones and how it’s changed the space as they’re not siloed in their snowflake workstation zones,” says Ly. 

Ly maintains that a well-designed workspace can elevate a standard working experience from lacklustre to inspiring, evident in the Salesforce tower workspace pictured.

Pandemic upended understandings of a workspace 

Ly had an industry start in hotel design six years ago, yet the pandemic prompted her to change specialties, as hotel design was lacking opportunities and jobs. She has now worked at GroupGSA for three years and thrived in office design, which she believes is an exciting and ever-evolving discipline, as the function of workspaces has changed following the pandemic.

Ly enjoys working in office spaces as they are readily ‘lived in’ and play host to a full spectrum of emotions. Joy, frustration, breakthroughs – a workspace witnesses it all. “Offices feel a little bit more fulfilling because these are spaces that people work in every day,” she says. 

Design can allow for a workspace to exude comfort, ease and calmness, and when the midnight oil needs to be burned to meet deadlines or deliver a result like the recently rolled-out Victorian state budget, workers should feel supported.

Ly has witnessed the flex working revolution first-hand and notes the importance and value of gathering spaces – possibly spurred by a desire for unity and togetherness following two years stuck indoors. A healthy and happy office expands beyond the limits of a mere working space – a workspace can be a site for meeting and socialisation.

“There’s so much emphasis on collaboration and how to get people back into the office,” she says. “The office has become more of a space where people meet and come together.”

Although the pandemic demonstrated that productivity and diligence can be achieved even without full office occupancy five days a week, office realities such as in-person meetings and team bonding sessions are irreplaceable, and just not the same over Google Meets or Zoom.

“It’s about maximising our time together when we do go into the office,” says Ly. 

The Sydney Water headquarters features games rooms, parents rooms and prayer rooms, and neurodiverse rooms.

Design encouraging cross-department interaction 

Sydney Water tasked GroupGSA with designing a building that facilitated engagement between different departments to create a meaningful and engaging office experience. The headquarters is stretched across the whole building, which Ly says was a dream scenario, as a design team usually scrambles to fit a workspace across two floors.

“Not many offices have the whole building as their headquarters so we really used that to our advantage, splitting up each floor into different types of work settings and as well as different kinds of spaces,” says Ly. 

In addition to games rooms, parents rooms and prayer rooms, the headquarters features neurodiverse rooms with soft furnishings and adjustable lighting. Entry and exit for clients and visitors to the headquarters is made seamless by a floor solely dedicated to meetings. 

Ly says the open floor plan and informal meeting rooms hint to the goal of welcoming and inviting people into the space, whether visitors or someone venturing into a new department. 

She says the design’s sense of cohesion and unity lies in the repetition of one feature throughout the building and reiterates the aim of the design to connect employees. 

“I think what draws the building together is that there is a breakout point on every floor in the same location,” says Ly. These breakout points are akin to wayfinding points where people initially meet and congregate before spreading into the floor plate.

Live feedback on the energy of the space

Ly enjoyed the rollout process as it allowed for live feedback from employees who had moved back into the space. “By the time stage one was completed, people moved up to the new floors and we had live feedback that everyone was really happy with the collaboration spaces,” she says.

Engineers and interior designers were also instrumental to the design as well. Ly surmises that the space had not been refurbished in 10 years, which necessitated major lighting upgrades. 

New furnishings and colour schemes refreshed the space and added a layer of excitement to the building without completely overhauling the bones and structure. GroupGSA principal Liam Higginbotham speaks of the sense of liveliness and vibrancy injected into the building via design and generous amounts of space for collaboration and congregation.

“The proportion of floor space dedicated to community and collaboration far exceeds what is typically seen in traditional workplace layouts,” says Higginbotham.

“Our design rejuvenates the building and offers compelling attractions to appeal to a contemporary workforce.”

An appetite for experimentation

Ly believes the success of well-designed workspaces is reliant on the client’s willingness to experiment and take a slight risk to reap the rewards of a happy and flexible work environment. 

Workplace design should aim to advertise the desirability and usability of a space and highlight the value of coming into the office, Ly maintains. 

“It comes down to how much risk the client is taking to change up the space – it makes a big difference,” she says. 

“Sydney Water was willing, and we see the advantages of that because there has been a huge change in the way people think and act within the space.”

If workspaces are eager to emulate the success of Sydney Water and craft a transformative workplace, Ly says it is imperative for the design to allocate adequate room for workstations and ensure all workstations receive natural light. Features such as curtains, glass walls, colour and greenery will also help eliminate reminders of a sterile workspace.

“Having room for workstations is the number one priority – and placing them on the outskirts of where the natural sunlight comes in creates a better working space,” she says.

Ly believes the success of well-designed workspaces is reliant on the client’s willingness to experiment and take a slight risk to reap the rewards of a happy and flexible work environment.

Flexible for all, not just the generation spearheading change 

Ly recalls attending a recent conference that communicated how trust in your employees creates a ripple effect of rewards for the workspace. Workers should feel confident to lead open and honest conversations about finding solutions for individual work schedules. 

“When you have trust in employees, they’ll feel security within the workspace and that will help them perform more efficiently,” she says. “And obviously if your employees don’t abuse it, it’s going to create benefits for the company.”

Ly also warns against coercing people into adopting flexible working solutions, as workers who have operated at a full-time office occupancy rate for 40 years will be understandably hesitant to embrace work-from-home privileges. 

“Even though the younger generation is getting to that top tier, if you are someone who’s been working five days a week for the past 30 or 40, it can be hard to change.”

Featured Image: GroupGSA Melbourne office.

Photography supplied by GroupGSA.

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