In 2015, the newly renovated offices of the Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Enterprise (MBIE) in Wellington opened, and almost immediately attracted widespread criticism. An unexpected issue that sparked debate: hair straighteners had been provided in some of the women’s bathrooms. Why were taxpayer dollars being used to fund such “luxuries?”

With the total cost of the offending hair straighteners at $409.28, it’s clear that the expense struck a cultural nerve for what it represent- ed, not the actual cost. The hair straighteners were, of course, part of bigger picture of offering amenities to MBIE’s workers, designed to make it easier for them to bike or walk to work by providing common tools to allow them to shower and get ready after they arrive. Critics called it ridiculous expenditure. Supporters said it was simply one of the costs of running a modern workplace, particularly in an inner-city environment with very few affordable car parking options.

Early Office
Working Cafe

Design tells us a lot about what we value. As industry and technology have drawn people’s work increasingly indoors over the past two centuries, the way employers have housed the people who work for them tell us a lot about what we think about work, workers, and the place of work in our lives.

If you look at the history of workplace design, what you find is, in essence, a visual history of cultural shifts. Standard practices have moved from production lines of manufacturing, to rows of desks mimicking the factory layouts, to offices with walls and solid closing doors and cubicles open to the noise of the floor, to transparent, glass walled spaces, open plan environments where collaboration is paramount, and now, curated common spaces with home comforts that endeavour to improve the working lives of people at every level of an organisation.

Not every workplace provides showers, bike parking, and hair straighteners. But more and more, our workplaces are taking an interest in amenities and design features that contribute to employee “wellness.” Alongside changes in the type of work people do and the rising relative cost of human labour, a major driver of this shift is legislation. As much as it might seem that health and safety regulations have progressed to the point of excess, they have forced employers to take seriously the long-term well-being of their staff. Employers now have both legal and increasing cultural obligations to care for the people who work for them, to provide environments that allow them to work without sacrificing their own health and safety.

The caveat here, is that in a country where so many of us work for small businesses or ourselves, not many of us will work in modern, custom-built spaces dreamed up by architects. But in the same way that high fashion trickles down to influence the high street, over time, design trends guided by wellness at work are emerging in mainstream office culture.

As a writer, the idea of workplace is truly a moving target for me. As I write these words, I’m sitting at an open-all-day café that bills itself as a prime spot for freelancers like me to get things done. My headphones are in, and the buzz of people around me—catching up with friends, planning new projects, rocking babies—is woven with strands of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. At different times, I’ve found myself working at a desk in a shared space, at the offices of friends with an extra desk, and most recently, in a little room off of my living room.

In my game of musical office chairs, I’ve discovered that there is more to a great work space than just the basic requirements to get the job done. I find that even though I can technically work anywhere (a fact my eight-month-old daughter sees as a challenge she’s willing to accept), there are certainly common themes that connect the places where my best work happens, the places where I find my “flow.” Natural light, thoughtfully-designed seating layouts, beautiful surroundings and a low rumble of ambient noise are constants; depending on the type of work I’m doing and the time of day, access to great coffee is certainly a requirement added to that mix.

For those more traditionally employed than me, the opportunity to work in spaces well-suited to their needs is less self-directed. It requires a willingness from management to spend time listening to how their employees want to work, and include their needs in the process of design. Scott Compton is Principal and Workplace Design Specialist at Warren and Mahoney Architects, and this is his mission. An Englishman who’s spent decades honing the craft of architecture in Europe, Asia, and now at home in Auckland, Scott is a multi-award winning expert in creating workplaces that are as functional as they are beautiful.

When Mercury engaged Warren and Mahoney to design their new Auckland headquarters, Scott was tasked with making a space that would work for all 800 employees—from the contact centre staff who work shifts throughout the day to the 9-5 corporate team. The contact centre staff are the largest branch in the organisation, the people who serve as the welcome mat of customer experience. However, as stressful and important as this role is, Scott says that in the scheme of a building redesign, the space they would typically be allocated is marginal—normally a bare-minimum space in the bot- tom of a building, without views or the space and amenities usually available to people in roles higher up the organisational food chain.

This was the story that Scott set out to shift. For him, designing great workplaces is about far more than just architecture or a particular design outcome. “It’s about emotional intelligence. It’s about creating a connection to a place, and the connection is created through understanding the people that use the space. The success of the project was based on getting contact centre workers—who have a strict regime of breaks and shifts—to feel happy to come to work every day and enjoy the space they’re in. We wanted them to feel connected with their colleagues in the rest of the organisation, and to feel that the space where they work was an enabler rather than an inhibitor of what they do.”

The way employers have housed the people who work for them tell us a lot about what we think about work, workers, and the place of work in our lives.

His working class roots may have partially formed his mission to elevate the everyday experience of people who can be forgotten in workplace design, but Compton is adamant that, regardless of class or status, the voices he wants to hear from in shaping designs are the actual end users of the spaces. “We are trying to pick the common denominator, the day-to-day person that actually spends 60 percent of their waking life working. And what we’re trying to do is help contribute to their lifestyle.”

This egalitarian concern for the experience of even the lowest paid workers is a welcome shift from the 20th century, when moody modernist towers were king. Architects of time expected that the “honesty” of the form and the visual orderliness of these sleek, square edged glass towers with stacked, open floorplans would in- spire a matching orderliness and efficiency in the people who worked in them—compared to the dark, and overly ornamented stone buildings from previous eras.

They may have looked clean and efficient, but over time, these Mad Men-style offices proved to be drab, uninspiring, and inhuman.

“It’s about emotional intelligence. It’s about creating a connection to a place, and the connection is created through understanding the people that use the space.”

Cubicle grids became a thing of workplace satire—think Office Space and The Office—the blinking fluorescent tube lights and anonymous glass facades of the corporate office park visual metaphors for the distant middle management culture that cared little for the experiences of the people who occupied these spaces. Decades of cubicle fatigue gave way to growing awareness and concern for new ideas like “workplace wellness,” “healthy environments,” and “employee satisfaction.”

In the end, Warren and Mahoney’s design for Mercury placed the call centre at the actual centre of the building’s redesign. “The entire success of the job was not about making Mercury look good or keeping the corporates comfortable, it was about providing a space that was beyond the expectations of what contact centre workers were expecting to be given. Rather than a basement, these guys got a space that’s four and five stories up. They go across a big glass bridge to a huge café, with views out across the Domain. There’s natural light everywhere. Now, if they have a ten minute break, they have somewhere within two minutes to go and have a cup of tea, so the other eight minutes can be spent talking with a colleague—rather than spending eight minutes to get to an inefficient kitchen, make cup of tea, and have no time to socialise.”

The best workplace designs, like the end result at Mercury, are people-centric—they’re made to be used, and connection is baked into the core of their design. “Philosophically, I believe that a building is never just a building,” says Rick Archer, CEO of Overland Partners, an award-winning American firm based in the heart of Texas. “People don’t build buildings because they want buildings. They build buildings because they’re trying to accomplish a purpose.”

Whether it’s by increasing the plant life around them or opening light filled views, moving someone from working in a sub-standard environment to a great space can change their entire work-life experience. “I’ve had people tell me that they felt like they got a new job,” Archer reflected. “A new space can make people rise to the occasion.”

Sometimes these moves are physical representations of philosophical shifts. Whereas cellular design once kept people contained within offices and cubicles in hopes they would also stay focused on their own work, now open plan environments are far more common, a physical representation of a value shift toward collaboration—and, cynically, towards cost savings for some employers. This shift towards open, collaborative spaces hasn’t come without a cost, how- ever. Archer reflects, “Today we see more open offices where people think about work as being predominately a collaborative effort. But what’s suffered is what one author calls “deep work,” that ability to actually escape the pressures of performing in front of other people or having to verbally process.”

Unplugging from outside stimuli is emerging as a primary concern for high quality, deep, work, so while open-plan spaces still are most common, Scott and Rick talk about the expansion of the open-plan concept to include other spaces—café-like common areas, dedicated quiet rooms with a library feel, innovation spaces filled with whiteboards and video conferencing screens, and analogue rooms that are technology-free, where people can dive into undistracted work.

The best workplace designs, like the end result at Mercury, are people-centric—they’re made to be used, and connection is baked into the core of their design.

Archer reflects that people’s expectations of their workplaces are shifting because our experiences of home are changing— often shrinking, due to macro issues of city structure, population, transportation, and housing affordability. In larger cities, employees will often be in the office before breakfast or over dinner time, in an attempt to avoid spending so much of their life in transit, or because they include exercise in their work day. Silicon Valley employers have been at the forefront of creating fun, amenity-filled offices that essentially allow their employees to export almost any aspect of their home life to the workplace. However, these same amenities come in for criticism—do these provisions of home comforts create a culture where employees spend ever more time away from home, particularly in cities where quality housing is unaffordable for significant sections of the workforce?

Ultimately, the workplace can be an anchor in our day-to-day lives, a place that allows us to connect with others, a critical aspect of caring for our mental and emotional wellbeing. “People need interaction with communities, it’s where we thrive,” Compton muses, reflecting on the trend toward the melding of workplaces with mixed- used developments, a shift from creating business parks to lifestyle centres. These spaces respond to the needs of the workplace, but they also make sure employees have a place nearby to grab a drink after work, or a park where their dogs and kids can play. The idea hearkens back to a village mentality, where community, home, and vocation were closely linked by proximity.

“Vocation is about calling,” Archer reflects. “And I think that a place of work, if it’s going to be a place of vocation, ultimately has to be a place where you can hear.” The final step of workplace design— for all it tries to do and create—is our response to it. Architects, designers and employers are responsible for creating spaces that they think will work for the tasks that need to be done, and the employees that will do them. But ultimately, as Scott says, it is the people who use the space that fill it with life and purpose, and determine if the design is successful.

Hanna Balemi

Hanna Balemi

Hanna Balemi is a freelance writer whose career has followed her keyboard: ghost-writing for CEO’s, navigating rebrands with nonprofits, developing punchy social media content for local businesses, and haphazardly maintaining a blog of personal essays and poetry. A Texan expat who’s been smitten by the NZ seas (and a Kiwi husband), she devours new-release fiction and coffees with friends in between the cheeky baby laughs that have been the soundtrack to her life since her first daughter, Sadie, was born in February.