A comprehensive workplace strategy

Award-winning integrated design firm Lemay is celebrating the recognition of three recent projects designed to promote collaborative work and creative thinking. In the face of some backlash against open-plan workspaces, the success of Lemay’s projects demonstrates not only the value of this approach but the importance of how it is applied.


In January, Lemay’s new offices for accounting firm BDO won honours at the Grands Prix du Design, highlighting the firm’s highly innovative approach to the design of work environments for traditionally conservative professional contexts. In March, another groundbreaking concept by Lemay earned investment-development hub Espace CDPQ a nod at the International Design Awards, in the ‘Interior Design/Office’ category: a third award for a project whose casual, edgy vibe is quintessentially Montreal. And finally, Lemay was a finalist for an excellence award from Quebec’s Order of Architects for transforming the Bishop’s University library into a 21st-century learning commons where students can satisfy their curiosity and express their creativity in a modern space dedicated to collaboration.

Analysing user needs and workplace dynamics

Collaborative work environments, also known as shared or open-concept spaces, aim to optimise productivity and improve user wellbeing, foster knowledge transfer and enable the free exchange of ideas. And while some media have reported that introducing these spaces has the opposite effect – decreased face-to-face interaction and corresponding increases in digital usage – this is most often due to a premature introduction of these spaces, without a comprehensive workplace strategy.

“To make sure a collaborative environment meets its objectives, we perform an in-depth analysis of the existing workspace,” says Sandra Neill, Associate and Workplace Strategist at Lemay.

“We then work closely with the users to fully understand how their work is organised. Then, because we involve users in the planning process, we’re able to identify and respond to a much wider range of requirements.”

Companies that take the time to do this preparatory work find that introducing collaborative spaces increases not only productivity but profitability and retention rates. An office design with a variety of interconnected work and social spaces also directly benefits employee engagement and wellbeing: equally good for the bottom line.

User comfort and wellbeing

In designing BDO’s national office in Toronto, Lemay considered the client’s corporate identity and values as well as its diverse and multi-generational workforce, putting a strong focus on user wellbeing and incorporating principles of sustainable construction to create a workspace that maximises functionality and efficiency.

The result stands out with its biophilic approach that integrates natural elements into the built environment to establish an employee connection with the space. Natural ventilation and large vegetated areas purify the air and, combined with abundant sunlight, reduce stress while increasing creativity. The Toronto-based concept will be deployed in BDO’s regional offices across Canada.

The concept also allows for the fact that collaborative work is a spontaneous practice that extends throughout the day, and location can be as variable as timing. Understanding this, and how it affects user needs and expectations, is crucial to avoiding the many issues that can arise when consultation is not part of the process.

Designing space to encourage interaction

Espace CDPQ, at the nexus of business in Montreal’s Place Ville Marie, shows a multitude of approaches to collaborative work, with its auditorium, globalisation lab and a wide variety of meeting rooms, and integrated high-tech and low-tech tools to meet as many work styles as possible.

“Above all, it’s an organic space that naturally draws users to express their creativity,” says Jean-Francois Gagnon, Associate and Design Director at Lemay.

“We’ve pushed the envelope by imagining so many different ways to enable that.”

Spread over two floors, the award-winning hub for SMEs to develop their business and network is unified by a large atrium and spiral staircase that facilitate interaction between advisors and entrepreneurs. Abundant glazing promotes the penetration of natural light and offers panoramic views of the cityscape.

Adapting to evolving needs

Bishop’s University’s new learning commons is also dedicated to community and collaboration, built on feedback from students, professors, librarians, administrators and university alumni to radically transform what had been a low-ceilinged, closed-in space too small for its growing collection and user base.

At the heart of the project is a new atrium, bright and welcoming with magnificent forest views, connecting the building’s two main floors. It promotes knowledge transfer as it hosts activities ranging from impromptu student meetings to conferences. Welcoming individual and collaborative workspaces encourage solo or group work according to need.

“The user is invited to own the spaces according to the desired level of privacy, external contact and ambience,” says Eric Pelletier, Lemay Partner and Design Principal. “They’re no longer a simple user; they’re an actor in their own environment.

“With flexibility, there is empowerment; and when an environment is also stimulating, the user feels good about it.”

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