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Hospitable workspaces: so much more than just service 

By Mark Wood, Partner

The evolution of the modern office has seen a move to more relaxed and collaborative environments where the traditional boundaries between workspace and hospitality have become blurred - hospitable environments are now de rigueur seemingly everywhere. That sense of change is increasingly more evident when you enter a modern office: reception areas, once mundane places to sign-in and go through security, are now often operating like a concierge service; it’s not just a transitional zone, it’s a place where staff can get their dry cleaning done and receive all their online deliveries, or a place to meet and greet, for office workers and their clients to sit and enjoy quality coffee, plan and create.

Yet as offices have evolved to become more like hotels in the user experience that they provide, there is a danger that the ‘hospitality’ element becomes solely focused on service.

Hospitality specialists understand that a hospitality experience is considerably more than just service; it’s about what you see and what you don’t, a combination of both service and exemplary design to lift the spirits.

A hospitable environment is somewhere welcoming, convivial, friendly and comfortable where you are really looked after and everything is on hand. Hospitality design is not just about creating a functional environment and meeting the needs of the users, it is about creating spaces which are hospitable environments and using high-quality design to raise expectations. We all know spaces that buzz and spaces that don’t - design is at the core of customer preference and commercial success.

For a long time, commercial city offices were solely designed to be functional, with bland floorplates and rows of desks and computers. Breakout and eating spaces were relegated to the lowest value areas of the building. These buildings certainly function but they are not hospitable environments. This is why developers are finding more often when they build an office that the old rules no longer apply.

Hobson House, Cambridge

The deconstruction of the old rulebook is, ostensibly, down to the pursuit of talent.

In ever-competitive business environments, attracting and retaining the best staff is key and the best future workplace talent will of course come from the millennial generation who are demanding considerably more from their company than in the past. If somebody has a good interview with three big companies and all are decent employers, they have a difficult choice to make. Yet if one of them has a hospitable office environment that better inspires the imagination as a place within which to be, work and stay, then they’ll probably take the job with that particular company. This is where service and design need to work seamlessly together.

Just as millennials have started to influence workplace culture, so too have entrepreneurs, freelancers and other subculture companies started to influence decisions by developers and workspace providers in the choice of physical spaces they support.

It has been commonplace for architects and designers working in the hospitality sector to use their expertise to reimagine and reconfigure existing architecturally interesting buildings - see, for example, the Grade II Listed former Ind Coope Brewery in Burton-on-Trent, a Studio Moren scheme proposal to re-use the historic brewery building to provide high quality co-working and business start-up space, or our plans for the conversion of the iconic Hobson House in Cambridge as a boutique hotel and destination tea room.

The co-working phenomenon has seen developers starting to replicate this approach, taking older, more esoteric buildings which traditionally might not have been considered suitable for high-tech offices, and through creative interior design turning them into workspace environments that have really appealed to a new generation of workers and modern, flexible businesses.

However, to maximise the opportunities for these kinds of spaces, specialist planning and design from both a customer and an operator perspective is required.

This is particularly important when it comes to the location of the workspace. Location is incredibly important for hotels and the same is becoming equally true for offices. In London, for instance, office rates in areas such as Clerkenwell or Kings Cross are now far outstripping the City because millennials want to work in locations that meet their lifestyle aspirations.

It is therefore important for offices to celebrate that location - if employees have chosen to work in a specific area of a city they want an authentic sense of that place and to feel as if they’re in the environment of their choice, not an office that could be just about anywhere.

The Ampersand Hotel Conference Room

That essence of ‘location, location, location’ and authenticity cannot always be reflected in service, but it can certainly be achieved through design as our work in hospitality proves - telling the neighbourhood story through projects such as the Ampersand Hotel in South Kensington or our carefully conceived design for the Clayton Hotel City of London ensures these hotels are embedded and engaged in the local community, creating a real sense of place for guests and visitors.

Whilst we have talked largely about rooms within buildings, we also need to highlight the importance of rooms outside buildings. This should not involve simply playing around with the existing space outside an office building but creating, through exemplary urban design and architecture, entirely new external environments that anchor the project within the context of the urban narrative.

Well-conceived external spaces and public realm can add value for developers, whilst also creating a real sense of place and prove inspiring and engaging for business occupiers and visitors alike.

We can again look to the hospitality sector for inspiration: at New Marlborough Yard in Southwark we have designed a hotel with a ground-floor restaurant fronting onto a newly created public courtyard and pocket park. Re-instating a historic route invites locals and hotel guests alike to meander through and spend time in the restaurant and enjoy the peace of the courtyard. Trees to provide shade and other plantings will improve local air quality and biodiversity: it’s a new and valuable asset, not only for the hotel, but for the whole community.

So, yes, service and how office managers operate their spaces is now a fundamental part of workspace provision.

However, the design and expert planning of hospitality environments both internally and externally is equally critical and not a simple exercise of bolting on some additional space.

Architects and designers need to play an intrinsic part in the process; they need to continually challenge the expected norms, looking at creative uses of space that inspire, motivate and raise the expectations of tomorrow’s workforce.