Cultural and work modalities: opportunities and challenges for real estate

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By Ziona Strelitz

Edition 3 – June 2014 Pages 32-35

Tags: workplace design • real estate • architecture

The way workplace is delivered is highly sectoral. Developers build. Landlords own buildings. Architects design them. Agents / realtors lease the space inside. With a reach that is not always acknowledged, furniture manufacturers define the conceptual and physical modules that shape internal landscapes. Interior designers and / or contractors fit them out.

Change managers tell occupants how to use the space. Facilities managers operate it, providing building and corporate services. Typically, this constellation of supply chain activities arrays in a fairly linear sequence, first to last in the order cited, with reference to hard won FM perspectives at the concept and programming stages of new projects still too infrequent. IT, the other key input to users’ actual performance, may be integrated, but is often obliquely positioned relative to this supply cluster.

The object to which all this activity pertains is essentially a bounded physical space – the building or office. It’s matched to a headcount – static or dynamic. It starts with a budget and formally ends with a space and outturn cost. Its delivery is predicated on a set of assumptions about design, content and principles of use that are largely templated and reinforced by the supply chain in conversation with themselves.

The role of representation

Central to the formulation of project propositions is a physical outcome that can be photographed, with the resultant images used as a shorthand of occupier identity, status and ethos. These visuals also serve as valuable currency for the suppliers involved to market their wares.

Facilities and amenities: focus on ‘goodies’

A notable strategy in delivering workplaces that capture industry attention is the inclusion of distinctive interior facilities. These involve both settings for work, and facilities such as gyms to promote work-life balance. Indeed, the trend to activity-based working encompasses scope for a far wider range of treatments than desks and formal meeting rooms ever involved. Today’s provision of settings conceived for breakout, project work, ideation, etc, play to design for visual impact.

The support facilities delivered may not always be as distinctive as climbing walls, brim pools or running tracks, but provisions are intended to be eye-catching and commentworthy. The related trend to workplace consolidation generates the critical mass on single sites to increase the range and quality of non-core business amenities, with the rationale for provision ascribed to their relevance in ‘attracting, retaining and motivating’ employees.

Whilst the economic downturn over recent years has not been mirrored by a let-up in the war for talent, the evidential basis that such workplace infrastructure in fact confers competitive advantage in recruitment, employment and productivity is lacking.

Indeed, ZZA’s research identifies notable counter-trends that challenge this widely repeated supply chain mantra, pointing to new directions in real estate.

Locationally distributed working

The most recognised counter-trend is agile work across a range of locations, instead of, or on a complementary basis to, working in a fixed office or workplace. The indication of this has been evident for many years in the low utilisation rates that many workplace transformation projects have been undertaken to mitigate.

More recent is the increase in alternate settings where people work. Whereas low utilisation in offices was initially attributed to ‘normal’ operational factors like illness and vacation, work at client and customer sites, conferences and business travel, plus a degree of telework in the form of working from home, distributed working is now unarguably a work modality in its own right. This involves a shift in emphasis from ‘work where you are when you’re not in the office?’ to ‘work is wherever you are that works for you’. For some, ‘office’ remains part of the repertoire of places in which they work, even if infrequently. However, for increasing numbers of people, there is no default office as part of the mix of settings in which they work.

Rise of third place workspace

The notable trend is how much locationally distributed work occurs in places other than in people’s homes. ZZA’s international study of third place working focuses on people working in library, coffee bar, business centre and business lounge settings. The meta questions framing this research are: why people work in these places, and why – when they are technologically equipped and culturally entitled to work where they wish, are they not working at home. The data underscores two important cultural drivers for third place working: the importance of a collective setting for its motivational influence on work, and a felt need to ring-fence home as a place for non-work. These factors account for the title of the report: Why Place Still Matters in the Digital Age [1].

Since this study reported, there has been a proliferation of third places that are marketed as work settings. The growth involves a menu of spaces varying in emphasis and business model, from the co-work settings like those of Seats2Meet [2] and The Impact Hub Network, [3] provider-owned ‘instant access’ office space like that of Regus, and bookable and / or pay-for-use space in venues like business centres, stations, and hotels. This evolution has heralded opportunties and catalysed new businesses, including companies like LiquidSpace [4] with its virtual technology platform to access space-for-use in other owners’ venues in hundreds of cities.

Ascendant choice: from real estate to service

The growth in pay-for-use third-party workspace represents just some of the expanded spectrum of places in which people now work in cities and on the move – parks, coffee shops, restaurants, civic centres, galleries, transport nodes, trains and planes. With technology’s dissolution of the need to be in a fixed place to undertake many work activities – research, analysis, communication and collaboration – the workplace as we have conventionally known it has both shrunk and lost its boundedness. This means less workspace in formally designated corporate space, and an increase in other venues where people work.

With people’s election of where to work a force for venue success, anticipating and providing for user preferences rises in importance relative to narratives that speak to and for the supply chain. And recognition of (and response to) factors that matter to users – efficient and dependable reservation systems, room settings prepared as ordered, good coffee and responsive service – evolves workplace supply from real estate to service business.

Choice and no choice, workplaces endure

Work realities are diverse, and despite the rise and expansion of footloose modalities, work at the same place on most working days persists as normative practice. This is obvious to every commuter, although a datum that tends to dim for workplace specialists focused on the future. For many, many people, working somewhere else than at their assigned place of work still only occurs by agreed exception if at all – associated with a dentist appointment in their neighbourhood, a washing machine repair at home, a sick child. This applies not just to process work; ZZA’s research identifies this as a norm even in organisations like professional services for the significant proportion of employees whose work is not undertaken at client sites. The much cited Marissa Mayer call on time for home-working highlights the relevance of face-to-face co-presence for organisational glue.

And the enduring pull to the office is not just down to management dictat or expectation. Many knowledge-workers who are free to work at home choose to work in an office for a host of reasons associated with workplaces being social, structured environments, and a milieu distinct from home. A case in point on this scenario of choice is illustrated by someone I interviewed during a workplace change assignment for Cisco.

The employee came to Cisco’s Bedfont Lakes every day, always working at the same desk, despite having no team members in the building, nor even in the UK. Her direct colleagues were based on other continents, and she was was equally equipped at home with the virtual collaboration tools she used to communicate with them. But she liked the social context of work in the office and expressed this preference in her choice. The reality for many people, even if they have great, value-adding ideas whilst commuting, in the shower, watching movies, or in bed, is that work is still in the workplace.

More than work

But – and this is a big but – life encompasses more than work. We all have other aspects of our days, interests and commitments – children, partners, sport, voluntary work, pets, shopping, personal admin, friends and parents. These take time and energy. So even people who are normally required to work in their workplace, as well as those who choose to work in a set physical place, need and want to be other places in waking hours. And if they live in large metropolitan areas or in the catchment of congested towns, journeys to and from work add to pressure on their time. ZZA’s research report, Liveable Lives [5], draws from research on our workplace strategy assignments in knowledge-based corporate organisations across TMT and Professional Services, to identify factors that pull people to workplaces, and pull them away for other requirements.

Provisions in work settings

A research focus on employees identifies a more granular and pluralistic picture of what people want by way of provisions at work. ZZA’s workplace research shows that expanding the range of workplace settings often tips the balance between useful enhancement and redundant complexity. Users don’t stop to self-assess where they are on the autonomy and interaction axes.

They operate intuitively, and excessive definition in the concept and design of work settings tends to be illegible, if not a source of irritation. People show a preference for simple, comfortable, classic settings over rocking chairs, cubes and cushions. The latter may be photogenic, but they speak to the providers’ agenda more than to users’.

Limited interest in amenity at work

ZZA’s research also challenges the provider view of the compelling impact of support amenities in the workplace. Our studies show repeatedly that employees prioritise to facilities in convenient locations. In part this is about pressures on time. As a respondent in a current study observes about her lack of engagement with the gym in her workplace building: “I’m a mom, I have to go home as soon as I finish work.” Other data reflects people’s desire for a change of scene. No matter how artisanal the sandwiches in the corporate café, that does not offer the variety of a High Street, a walk outside, or getting off the employer’s turf. In ZZA’s research in workplace buildings that are not in easy reach of rich external provision, people still value stepping away. An implication for real estate is the relevance of shared amenities in multi-let buildings – outside the employer’s demise – a break because they’re not defined as company terrain.

Challenging big and rich

A recent suite of studies by ZZA demonstrates the disconnect between employee views and the supply chain view on the role of amenity in the workplace. A multi-site study of workplace transformation in large local public and private sector organisations, evidenced dramatic savings through space reduction and selective building replacement. Given these big wins, the question researched was how less space could work operationally. The business leaderships’ assessment of outcomes relative to aims was positive, consistent with their strategic involvement in driving the change agenda. In contrast, the employee base follows; their perspective is typically individual more so than corporate. The structured post-occupancy evaluations with staff were therefore especially instructive.

This research included a study with a building population who had been ‘decanted’ from a large, new, Grade A, award-winning office building, that had been fitted out with a range of bells and whistles, including not just the de rigeur restaurant and café, but also gym, music room and hairdresser. Seeking cost efficiencies, the occupier vacated the building, moving employees to a number of existing operational buildings where compression in technical equipment had generated available space. The ‘receive’ buildings are unarguably basic and prosaic, but were fitted out to meet functional requirements. They are also smaller, and the workspace element more compact. Significantly too, their locational spread enabled employees who had come to work at the previous building from a wide catchment area, to be allocated to buildings close to where they lived.

The verdict? Of course people recognised the differences between their previous and current workplaces. It is what they perceived and how they assessed the comparative differences that challenge established supply side thinking.

What drives these findings, and their relevance to future trends in workplace real estate, is users’ value of smaller spatial scale, and its facilitation of workplace community. The team esprit associated with face-to-face contact is welcomed, compared to their experience in the large flagship building, where the social-spatial conditions were likened to ‘rattling round in the Marie Celeste’. The smaller building is also preferred for its ease of entry and egress, avoiding a demanding process to come and go and get some outside air.

The implications are significant. If functionality is addressed and the workplace is fit for purpose, a big building is not necessarily best. This research endorses relative simplicity, challenging the view that highly imaged buildings of a scale that affords high-end amenities are essential to staff attraction, retention and productivity. Users prefer a workplace that supports community in practice, rather than big, anonymous spaces accommodating teams with little, if any, functional or social synergy.

Realistic provision

With work realities indeed diverse, the preceding assertion requires a caveat as a ubiquitous steer to low provision. Many workplace buildings are not located in easy access of external amenities. On the contrary, with pressures on budget and to ‘give more with less’, operations are commonly being moved from urban locations to zones of lower land value, where retail infrastructure is lacking. Provision of social and support facilities in such workplaces is a necessary element of effective infrastructure, a requirement highlighted by ZZA’s series of user studies in new police stations, where workers’ scope for break and refreshment and to undertake personal errands can also be limited by long shifts on duty.

Physical space: good design

Notwithstanding the advent of commodified workspace, the quality of physical space still matters and will continue to matter, both for those with more user choice and less. In parallel with a critical re-focus on factors like workplace scale, manifold basic elements continue to bear on people’s experience. Air, light, sound, external aspect, user control, legibility, vertical circulation, WCs, showers, etc, etc – this is the detailed substance that defines fitness for purpose. These aspects remain important, not least because of their life cycle impact.

That a high majority of these functional aspects are positively endorsed in some of ZZA post occupancy evaluations, as in the users’ highly positive assessment of the LSE’s new building at 32 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, shows the standards that are deliverable. With contemporary knowledge and capability, this standard of delivery should be a norm. Real estate may be evolving to service, but users still prefer good space. Delivering this requires care for the full repertoire of decisions inherent in workplace design, rather than disproportionate engagement with the more overt, expressive elements of workplace design that feed the visual image. W&P

Ziona Strelitz

Design Anthroplogist, Researcher + Strategist, with roots in Social Anthropology, Town Planning and Design, Ziona’s works at the intersection of people, space and place, focusing on users’ experience of the built environment. Ziona’s projects encompass all spatial scales – interiors, buildings, campuses, urban settings, and also virtual space. In 1990 she founded ZZA Responsive User Environments, a Research + Strategy practice that links social, cultural, design + management perspectives to inform successful, appealing outcomes, based on sustainable strategies and effective use of built resources. Ziona works with leading clients, providing tailored research and advice, and drawing on ZZA’s rich empirical knowledge of locations, buildings, work modes and cultural trends to steer new value propositions. She is proud to have contributed to game-changing projects.Ziona works internationally, is Visiting Professor at University of Reading, serves on the Home Office Design Panel and English Heritage Urban Panel. She has extensive experience as a judge of building and town planning awards, and is a frequent presenter at international events.
Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @zionastrelitz


  1. Ziona Strelitz: (2011) “Why place still matters in the digital age”.
  5. Ziona Strelitz, (2010) “Liveable Lives”.


…the trend to activity-based working encompasses scope for a far wider range of treatments than desks and formal meeting rooms ever involved.

…despite the rise and expansion of footloose modalities, work at the same place on most working days persists as normative practice.

…It might be the facilities manager’s role to manage space. But perhaps it is also our job to protect place too, and for the very customers, the users, we claim to serve.


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