Opinion: office spaces will evolve into cultural hubs

A glut of articles and thought pieces have emerged on the death of the office, rejoicing in the huge saving that can be made by cutting real estate overheads. Yet thought pieces predicting the death of the office conceive of an office space one-dimensionally: as a neutral space for the completion of labour. 

The pandemic has made it clear that importing work into our homes does not outweigh the benefits offered by well-nurtured offices. The pleasure and productiveness of seeing colleagues and face-to-face interactions with clients should not be underestimated. Nor should the chance dialogues that we would never think of initiating a Skype call for, but that help to defuse tension after a difficult meeting or spark an idea that fuels the next project.

The pandemic has not ushered in the end of the office. Instead, it offers us an opportunity to reimagine the office as a cultural hub, nurturing the rich benefits that have previously been a by-product of the traditional office, often depending on the voluntary extra efforts of bosses and colleagues. This crisis has highlighted just how crucial offices are to company identity and employees’ sense of belonging and mental wellbeing.

The coronavirus, in spite of its damage to our physical and mental health and the global economy, is ushering in a change that has been afoot for some years: that of purposeful work. Those businesses that can reiterate their purpose will thrive as the best candidates look around at how their employers have reacted during this crisis.  

The new reality we find ourselves in is throwing up some serious questions. Why do I work?  Why do I work for this business? Why am I exchanging my time for money with this specific business? This is fundamentally a question of company culture, which is, without regular human interaction and with restricted funds, in many businesses being tested to breaking point.  

Following the slow release of lockdown, it will be important to have a place to go and not just work, but to talk, to socialise, and fundamentally, to humanise work the work we do. The office could morph from a place of work to the physical cultural hub of a business. 

Many businesses exist for more than just profit, and for those businesses, the office is already representative of company culture – how the business and those who work within it perceive themselves. In the office this means excellent facilities and design. 

One of the many ways to signal this is through art. 

Some organisations use art collections as an employee engagement tool. An All-Party Parliamentary Group study found that 60% of people believe art helps them work more productively and another recent study found that people work 30% more quickly in workspaces they have had agency in curating the space themselves. Art can therefore be used to assert company values.  

For example, online art classes launched in the wake of the lockdown have been entertaining many businesses and their teams. Indeed, many will use their workplace art collections to engage their teams, often forming committees from a cross-section of their workforce to foster inclusivity.  

A nice office is not a magic cure to the mental health crisis that is, with every week of lockdown, becoming more prevalent. However, an office that is well-designed, offering a place to socialise and be reminded of company culture, full of art and engagement opportunities will help. The benefits are tangible. The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing in the UK published a comprehensive report in 2017 that collated research showing an undeniable positive link between art and mental wellbeing.  

Across all settings, whether in healthcare with art-on-prescription services resulting in a 37% cent drop in GP consultation rates or in society at large, with research showing that after engaging with the arts, 82% of people reported greater wellbeing, and 77% engaged more in physical activity, the benefits of art and wellbeing are undeniable. Art is on the menu of items the cultural hub could offer its staff.  

Indeed, already half of all office users believe that artwork makes them more effective, while 61% believe that art inspires them to think and work more creatively, and 82% of people believe artwork to be an important addition to the workplace. These are all good stats to show how employers can help to keep their workforce engaged and happy.

Office spaces are likely to become a key point of difference for firms wanting to communicate their prestige to clients, commitment to employees, and attract new talent. There should be joy in going to the office. A reminder for staff, in the wake of sometimes serious shake-ups of headcount, that they are working for a stable and purposeful business. We foresee an attitudinal shift post-lockdown, with businesses taking a greater interest in how they make the most of the office and how to foster company culture with people increasingly working remotely. 

This time has taught us all a huge amount about our relationships with the various people we interact with and the social interactions at the centre of this. The personal relationships we have built with our co-workers, our clients and our suppliers should not be underestimated.  

While there is no doubt home working is here to stay, flexibility is key: holding the office as a hub, a central space for people to go and see their co-workers, their friends and for company culture to be reasserted, for purpose to be underlined and for those people whose time we are asking for to know that it is all actually worth it. Businesses that grasp this opportunity and create a space that is not only conducive to positive working, but also reinforcing the joy of work, will thrive. 

Patrick McCrae is CEO of art consultancy ARTIQ



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