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Challenging the male office environment

Challenging the male office environment

Brooke Boyschau and Sophie Cooke discuss the female-focussed workspaces challenging the masculine model of contemporary offices

If Virginia Wolf was right that having a ‘room of one’s own’ is vital to nurturing a woman’s creativity, then female business owners should certainly take note.

Our own observations have cemented the inkling there is a traditional mind-set governing how offices look, feel and perform, with many workplaces internationally designed by men, for men.

Challenging these traditional norms, Silicon Valley has in recent years sold us on a futuristic and genderless ideal of the modern office, with open layouts, dynamic kitchens, removable walls, mini golf courses, standing desks and privacy pods geared towards employee happiness and productivity. Despite the undeniable perks of these eccentric and forward thinking spaces, we’re here to argue that what most employees want and need is a ‘feel good’ space conducive to focus, self-expression, privacy, collaboration, productivity, good health and lifestyle convenience.

As female entrepreneurs with our own concerns for the wellbeing and productivity of our team, people often ask us, “what do you consider the perfect office for a happy workforce?” With years of experience between us working around the world in different companies, we can both attest that the perfect environment has to be one that does not feel like ‘work’.

It is a place so well designed that it doesn’t actually look complete; it gives the final user an opportunity to add that final, personalised touch to their space. It is an environment filled with opportunities to become creative. A space that nurtures potential and facilitates the expression of unique skills and passions. A place where our team and we can both focus and get distracted. A place that sounds, smells, looks and feels good.

Over the past decade, the dialogue surrounding design and its impact on productivity and creativity in the workplace has continued to gain momentum across the architecture, interior and psychology landscape. From a psychological standpoint, such a discussion makes perfect sense, the unity between accomplishment and success goes hand in hand with feeling ‘great’. Further, from a design perspective, we know from designers and architects that there are indeed many aesthetic and practical elements that have a direct impact on the mood, mind-set and well being of an individual or team.

As both business owners and as PRs representing a wealth of creative clients, we have become fervent advocates of exploring new ways to create healthy, inspiring, and sustainable workplaces in which employees can feel good about where they are, and what they do. We are also fiercely passionate about supporting our fellow females in achieving the same.

People want to feel comfortable at work, not intimidated by aggressive impersonal environments. Future Laboratory released a report exploring how offices will evolve to meet the needs of an incredibly diverse workforce. The report presented contemporary working life as a monoculture created by and targeted at men between the ages of 25 and 40. Furthermore, the report predicted a positive shift towards “sensitive workplaces”, that are more reflective of an individual’s needs, using smart technology to adapt everything from local temperature to lighting preferences.

We believe the limitations of the current approach to standard office design may essentially lie in its male driven approach. Spaces designed for men, by men. With this in mind, before designing our office we tried and tested many different working arrangements – cafes, home, co-working spaces – to see what we could take from and what we could improve. The result was an office designed with our client Medy Navani – architect, interior designer and founder of Design Haus Medy.

It is a space with multi-faced functionality at its heart; there are areas for hosting client lunches, lounges for networking, workbenches for collaboration and a private room for confidential meetings. Proximate wellness and beauty facilities were also considered, including a pilates studio in the building for easy access during and around the workday. The mix of ambience – light and dark, open and enclosed, formal and informal – promotes creativity in all its forms. Additionally, we looked for easy access to supermarkets, green spaces, walking tracks and metro, to ensure individual lifestyle choices could be easily incorporated into the workday.

With newcomers always around the corner exposing the gap in the market for well-designed offices spaces, we are aiming to be a small rallying cry to ambitious women everywhere seeking to create the best possible environment for their team. We are not exploring radical changes here, just acknowledging the basic requirements of the modern worker, and the modern woman. That also includes flexibility in the return to work for new mothers, with an open door policy for all the little ones in our team to visit.

We have channelled our frustration with all the worst aspects of office life – it’s sedentary nature, culture of presentation and sterile environments – into designing a space at Atteline that works with our natural instincts instead of against them. Desks are not segregated and allow for open conversation and easy brainstorming sessions that don’t need to be planned, and everything from lighting and temperature to the background music can be controlled. We also have scents to evoke a particular mood (lemongrass for concentration, lavender for relaxation) and there is a spectacular view with floor to ceiling windows overlooking the transient Dubai city landscape.

Environmental psychologists have come to pour great amounts of focus over how design affects mood, and as recently concluded by Harvard Business Review, “via a chain of psychological reactions, mood influences worker engagement, with more positive moods linked to higher levels of engagement”. Therefore, we must focus on designing for engagement, to make those positive moods more likely.

Thankfully, more and more companies are beginning to take notice of the real impact workplace design has on a company’s bottom line. Recent research from Gensler, a global architect and design firm, revealed that poor workplace design was estimated to cost US businesses a whopping $330bn in lost productivity each year.

For those start-up and SME owners reading in dismay, believing they must hit an annual forecasted turnover before they can invest in ‘productive design’, allow us to allay your disillusionment.

Successful design for increased productivity, happiness and creativity needn’t hinge on huge budgets making way for indoor putting greens, slippery slides, foosball tables or giant hammocks reminiscent of Google’s global offices. In fact, what we are beginning to see more of, as consultants, are offices seeking to become more mature. The trend of having the ‘coolest’ office space is being trumped by the desire to create more sophisticated work environments reflecting the brand, organisational ethos and company culture, as opposed to focusing on trendy yet potentially superfluous ‘bells and whistles’ that are possibly best served as fodder
for Instagram.

Fluid hospitable spaces suited to work, rest and play are key. Outdated practices such as hot-desking will give way to a more thoughtful approach, like promoting skill-sharing by seating an older employee next to a millennial colleague – something we strongly practice here at Atteline. Employers need to provide environments that bring people together – that’s when the best and most inspired ideas happen.

As a new generation of female founders seeks to replace cloisters of male privilege with outward-looking, forward thinking businesses, their call resonates more strongly than ever.

Brooke Boyschau and Sophie Cooke are the co-founders of Dubai-based PR agency Atteline

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