Seen as an essential for many businesses, companies who have made a smooth transition to remote working have realised that it is a big item on the balance sheet. This has led to some soul searching around board tables – what is an office for?
The suggestion seems to be heavily tied to culture. A place to learn, share and collaborate, an office today is as much a social space as it is a workplace. So, what does this mean in design terms?
What does working from home look like?
During the first lockdown, around 36% of people worked from home (source: ONS). Jump forward to summer 2021, and even when lockdown restrictions were lifted, one in four people have remained at home. For many returning to the office, a new hybrid model was starting to take effect. Research estimates that over half of staff want this approach to remain.
At the same time, businesses were noticing something. While productivity was up, there was a slowdown in areas such as innovation and training and development. The suggestion is that our offices need a rethink to prioritise spaces focused on teamwork and building internal relationships.
Getting back to business
The first thing to do is make staff comfortable about going into the office. An ONS survey asked employees what would give them the confidence to return to the workplace; the top answers were enhanced cleaning practices, improved ventilation and limiting capacity to enable social distancing.
“We saw a similar trend at the beginning of the pandemic when people first went back to offices,” said Steve Johnson of the Advanced Technical Panels division at Lathams. “They wanted surfaces that could withstand heavy cleaning regimes and materials that could easily separate workspaces.”
To help address this, Lathams categorised products based on their hygienic protection so that specifiers could understand the relative performance levels of different materials. This ranged from KYDEX at the very top, a thermoformable plastic with anti-microbial properties, through to compact-grade laminates and acrylics that are anti-bacterial. Able to withstand harsh cleaning routines, products in these categories have remained popular.
What does the new office look like?
It is not just about increasing the hygienic properties of surfaces. With the average office-based business reducing space by 30% (McKinsey), it is essential to make the most of what you have. Companies are looking at materials that add depth, texture and interest to surfaces to improve the quality of their spaces.
Both laminates and melamines offer an easy way to improve existing surfaces. Made up of layers of decorative paper that are glued together before undergoing heat and pressure treatment, their advantage is that they are available in a wide range of styles and finishes. This provides great design choice and flexibility whatever the project.
For those looking at the premium end, XyloCleaf is top of the list. Available exclusively through Lathams in the UK, the range includes melamine-faced panels, laminates and edgings. The unique Thermo Structured surface results in deep textures and intricate details that make it difficult to distinguish XyloCleaf from the real material it is designed to mimic, which include stone, linen, metallic and woodgrain finishes.
This final point is crucial as it addresses two other trends that are influencing recruitment and retention; employee wellbeing and the importance of working for a responsible business. Both areas have grown in significance, the former as a response to the pandemic and the latter due to the focus on sustainability around COP26.
This has led to a desire for natural materials and finishes within workspaces. Referred to as biophilic design, it is about making connections between indoor spaces and nature through choices in areas such as colours, materials, shapes and textures.
Of course, it is not just the way that the product looks – being genuinely sustainable is essential too. It is something that Lathams has considered with the launch of its new carbon calculator.
The tool calculates environmental impact by looking at the carbon footprint of products, from production through to delivery to Lathams’ depots. It also looks at how much carbon is stored within the wood’s structure, known as biogenic carbon. Products are then rated according to a confidence level, which is determined based on the quality of the data points that have been reviewed. To increase visibility for customers, the carbon data will be added to all invoices, delivery notes, and other key documentation.
Some of the top-rated products are from manufacturers such as Accsys Technologies, which produces modified timber Accoya, and UPM Plywood, home to WISA plywood. Because of the quality of the materials, they can be installed ‘as is’, making them very popular with designers looking for an exposed wood finish from a quality, environmentally-friendly product.