People-friendly, sensible, inspiring:
The workplace as an open space

In 1994 she founded her own studio in London, SevilPeach Architecture+Design, which has realized numerous projects for international clients such as Sony, Mexx, Eczacibasi Holdings, Microsoft, Tate, and the Novartis campus in Basel. We spoke with Sevil Peach about human needs, good neighborhoods, and why workplaces today need to do more than just provide a desk. 

 

 

You are an expert on designing workplaces: Have you noticed a significant change in what your clients value in recent years?

Our clients have wanted better workplaces for quite a while. They recognize how important it is for their employees to be able to meet and exchange knowledge, and that they can keep good people in their company with an inviting and people-friendly environment. We’ve been dealing with these topics since 1994. Back then, people thought we were crazy. But over the past 20 years I’ve had the pleasure of watching as attitudes have changed. We took our own path, and now our ideas are considered very up to date. Still, we encounter a lot of mistaken interpretations of what makes a good office. Ultimately, whether a work environment is successful depends on the designer, and not on the furniture.

Furnishings that create a sense of privacy are still a major trend in office furniture: chairs with high backs, enclosed sofas … 

This is due to the fact that an increasing number of companies are recognizing the advantages of open-plan offices. But companies whose offices are organized in closed cells are afraid of making the transition. Employees might react negatively to open spaces due to the noise level or lack of privacy—understandably so. You have to take people’s needs into account. We do this with the help of architectural interventions: We create buffer zones in order to structure and loosen up open-space landscapes. We don’t pack rooms full of furniture so that people have enough space between them and their neighbors. We consider the acoustics. These are all architectural tools. Others react to the problem by developing a product that is meant to create privacy. This can also work. Ultimately it’s important to have a balance between the use of architectural tools and the right furniture. Simply using certain products to create privacy leads to monotony. 

You often emphasize the importance of human scale. But how can you design an open space on a human scale? 

I can only speak about our own experiences. I don’t have a magic solution. In our office, we have space for up to twelve people without it getting uncomfortable. At fifteen, it starts to get cramped. At this scale, we feel like a family. This is why we use our own office size as a guide when designing plans. So when we’re dealing with a very large space, we try to analyze it and divide it into smaller areas with various architectural interventions in order to create this human scale so that people who work in an open space can still feel at home in their group. It’s important that these groups continue to feel connected through visual contact. 

You plan workplaces in various countries. How do you deal with cultural differences?

Of course, you should think about culture and understand its dynamics. But sometimes you also have to question the culture. For instance, when things are very hierarchical. Then there are ways to change behavior. 

Do you want to change people with the work environments that you plan?

I can’t do that. That sounds as if I were a prophet. I’m not interested in changing people, but in working as a catalyst and making them think, ask questions, and pay attention.

You have an important position: When you design workplaces, people have to be able to use them on a daily basis.

Take one of our projects in Istanbul, for example: Hierarchies are very important there. As a designer, you have to respect that. But this doesn’t prevent me from developing a good work environment anyway. I always ask myself what I can do for people—within the boundaries of the project. It doesn’t matter if it’s for the CEO, a personal assistant, or the person who makes tea.

A very important person in Istanbul … 

Indeed. Here’s a good example: Our first reaction to this job was to make a small kitchen area where employees could meet and make tea or coffee. But the tradition in Turkey is different: There are many employees, people need to be kept busy, and so they have someone bring them tea. And they drink a lot of tea! A small kitchen wouldn’t have worked, and so we had to think of something else to bring people together. Otherwise the tea boy would have lost his job. The system works, so why should we change it? 

In an increasingly digitized society, the actual place of work seems to become less and less relevant. People may choose their working environment themselves, such as home, café, train or co-working space. Do we need the office any longer?

It is true that the role of the Office is changing and that our increased connectivity allows us to choose where and when we work.  Whilst the settings you describe are completely valid work settings, they are by and large, for the ‘singular’ worker.

Whilst this new personal mobility and connectivity means that the Office no longer has it’s traditional role as the productive centre, we believe the ‘office’ will continue to fulfil an important business and social need. However it will need to do this with a changed form and emphasis.

Firstly, Offices are likely to become smaller as they contract their foot-print in response to the mobility of the workforce, which typically means that less than 50% of the company are present in the office at any one time.  As a result, non-assigned Team Bases are rapidly replacing permanently assigned workstations.

Secondly, Offices have to recast themselves to become places people want to go to by offering the Users a range of facilities and opportunities to support them in the varied tasks they need to undertake.

Thirdly, Work is a matrix of relationships, friendships and social interactions.  We all benefit and develop at a personal and professional level from interaction, communication and collaboration with our colleagues. Offices provide this setting, facilitating scripted and serendipitous interchanges.

Fourthly, for the Company to develop effectively, they need to be able to respond and absorb change, to react and to make fast decisions.  Creating and exchanging on a human level still plays a vital role to both the success of the organisation and the individual.

For all of these reasons, it is ever more important that intelligent, emotional and human work environments are created to encourage the Users to take pride and pleasure in being with their Colleagues as part of a wider community.

This latter point is one of the reasons that Co-working environments are becoming increasingly popular. Whilst these co-working spaces are aimed mainly at the Individual and SMEs, larger companies are also increasingly using them as drop-in and satellite offices to better support their mobile workforce.

However, for these larger, more established organisations, the Office will need to continue to act as a focal point for connection, the collective sharing of knowledge and as a representation of a company’s identity and ethos.

Thank you very much for speaking with us.