Dynamic workplaces: the time is now!

It’s a busy, but exciting, time for architects and office designers working at organisations all over the world. I know I don’t just speak for myself and my role at Spotify when I say that for some time now, we’ve been exploring with our stakeholders (namely Finance and HR departments) what the future of the workplace looks like, and how to make the most of a business’s real estate in the best way for the business’s main asset – it’s people.

Topics such as the advantages of remote working, the true purpose of the office, the merits of social spaces, and the pros and cons of open-plan offices and hot-desking: they’ve all been on the table. Many of us may have agreed that some sort of hybrid combining some desk space like the offices of the past, the modern day flexible open plan office that welcomes efficient team work, and a future model that caters for increased remote working, is the most ideal. However, how we would transition to this future vision has been out of sight.

Perhaps a little poignantly, Covid-19 and the forced work from home situation, has provided the perfect transition opportunity. All of these questions have been pushed to the surface, and whether we think the timing for this change is right or not, it doesn’t matter –  the moment of change is upon us.

And from our perspective at Spotify, what an opportunity it is! Knowing that we have the possibility to make the band members’ everyday environment more relevant to their ways of working, but also holding back until the timing is right, has been a challenge. But right now the wind has changed and just as it’s an exciting time to work within HR and be challenging the status quo. It is certainly one of the most pivotal times in workplace design in the last 15 years, since companies turned away from cellular offices to favour open plan environments.

Creating your dynamic workplace

An office in its current definition, is the physical manifestation of a business, a place in which people can see the company as a ‘real’ being rather than just virtually. For a company like ours, with offices in so many different locations around the world, having this physical space is paramount to our growth, development and inclusion. It’s necessary to have a physical place not just for internal employee engagement, but also to be the external face. It’s branding – both consumer branding and employer branding. The ultimate interaction of the two. 

That said, the band members really are the heart of the business and they take the centre stage of discussions around the needs and the definition of an office space. Relying on the professional behaviourists in the company means having a people and business approach, and also investing heavily in culture and employer branding. Therefore the choice to move forward with a more flexible dynamic workplace approach is a no-brainer. 

This is the perfect opportunity to not solely think about a return to the office in terms of how to make the band members feel as safe as possible. As Katarina said in her post The Swedish Model In the New World: “Instead of throwing out everything we knew and liked before CV-19, we’re inspired to build on all the great possibilities, drawing on new data and desired behaviours, without being misled by some of the new forced behaviours, or let’s be honest, ‘trends’.” Of course, the safety of our people is our first priority and will never come into question. But that doesn’t mean to say we can’t also take this opportunity to make a truly forward thinking workplace. A shift away from some of the traditional ideals that we were ‘stuck’ to from the previous office design, taking the best parts and considering what is the right balance for the people and the business?

So, the exciting part is this – the way you find the perfect hybrid for you, is to find the things that really matter at the core and then we design and build a bespoke dynamic workspace around those. Office designers and architects must take a deep breath and a gigantic step back. They should pull all the powers of an open mind, and a growth mindset to really imagine the possibilities. And with that approach, evaluate the uses of the office, visualising not just what the latest build could have been, but considering that we could rip everything we know out of the current playbook and start re-writing! That’s how we can build our hybrid, and have a truly dynamic workplace. 

We’ve taken this step back and really questioned everything we (thought we) knew before, listening to our people, considering what makes our business and the teams most productive, thinking through the necessity of a physical space for good mental health practices and for creating a sense of belonging and inclusion, and with HR considering how employment contracts could look. We have our answer on what’s at the core for us: a social hub where we can collaborate, create, socialise together in a way that reflects the personality of our platform.  

Imagining Spotify’s dynamic workplace

To be frank, due to our rapid growth, the current Spotify offices don’t fully support the way in which the band-members work. Formerly we designed with certain assumptions but now we have this amazing opportunity to question those assumptions. And so we will. Here are some of our thoughts:

Previous design assumptions:

We all work in the same way – we don’t! We’re all humans and have different strengths which give us different routines and ways of working. For example R&D functions work in a very different way to business functions, which in turn works differently to support functions. One size does not fit all. 

We all need to ‘own’ a desk – it’s just not true! And because we keep cramming in owned desks – we lose out on space that could be allocated to alleviate demand on meeting rooms. ( of course – there are some who, due to tech set up and physical needs obviously do need desks and this is not overlooked) . However, we have a limit on how many people we can fit in the offices due to allowing for clean air and safe fire escape, when we get to our max number we have to move to find larger locations, namely for our desks. For any organisation in hyper growth like Spotify, it’s simply unsustainable, especially if we want to be those great locations. Space is a real luxury and we should allocate it wisely.

Travel impact does not affect our offices – in regular times, we travel a lot between offices, which means that we’re not utilising the desk space we ‘own’, often leaving those desks empty and unused. Totally wasteful. Another often misunderstood factor is the wellbeing of the people ‘left in the office’ who sit next to the unused desk or the travelling Spotifier who has to use someone else’s desk in another office. We see a rise in the need for increased virtual connection to those who are not in the office travelling or working elsewhere – we need to find  more ‘quiet spaces’ in the workplace to  enable those calls. If you can switch to dynamic seating and still allow each employee to find a dedicated area to work from, it’s really the smartest way to work.

Inclusivity can be an add-on to the design – wrong, wrong, wrong. We need to be wholly inclusive – a sense of belonging and inclusivity is massively shaped by the set up of physical spaces and this is an area we want to have real impact in. It’s not just about modernising, but about really, really wanting to impact positive change.  To get to this place, which would match Spotify’s culture and brand, we need to make significant improvements in designing for fully inclusive offices. Accessibility and inclusive design starts when we choose a building. That’s integral to our design process, but for the offices we already have, we need to look at them closely – installing listening loops in receptions and event spaces, ensuring wheelchair users can access every room and every floor in our offices, using gender neutral signage for all bathrooms are some examples. Reflecting our support of neurodiversity within the design of offices is also hugely important – to create clear wayfinding, clearly defining usage of space, creating retreat spaces, and acoustic treatments. We need to put inclusivity at the centre at the time of imagining the design. Allowing equity in spaces will allow us to reflect our inclusive policies and benefits us all. 

Work just happens in meeting rooms and at the desk – we are not utilising our ‘entire office’, we can work in more spaces if we create and enable more variation. With the former ‘open office desk + meeting room’ formula we overlooked different styles of meeting, a more relaxed chat in a sofa setting or a meeting around a communal table or areas for solitary focus or retreat. We can multi use our lift lobbies and our cafe spaces not just as transitory spaces but also as hubs for spontaneous meetings encouraging movement away from our neighbourhoods and a change of scene. This will give us more of that valuable real estate and provide a more flexible working environment for our people.

In evaluating this and in listening to our people, our core design elements of our dynamic workspace should be built around being able to concentrate, collaborate and create. The low-hanging fruit changes that we need to make to our office space design are plenty (and that’s without even diving into being really creative). For example, we should create more phone booths, quiet focus rooms, area to whiteboard and make our dining or all hands areas multifunctional. These are the basics of Spotify’s dynamic workplace.

Is all of this still relevant in the wake of COVID?

The truth is, we were already doing a lot of this work before the pandemic. We were already heavily underway with the concept of a dynamic workplace which aims to use spaces more sustainably, flexibly and to increase the wellbeing of employees – this is now more relevant than ever. 

One of the most concrete changes that we can implement now is a clean desk policy. It’s now a reality and for those who will opt for a more flexible mix of WFH and office (cluster B), it becomes absolutely essential for them to put your kit in your backpack or your locker so that facilities no longer need to wade through those coffee cups, sticky notes or that stack of pens. It’s a simple thing, and you’d think it goes without saying, but changing environments is always tricky, so good, clear communication around this is important.  

 A sense of belonging and inclusion are paramount so making the social areas worth better for us right from day one of re-opening an office becomes a top, top priority. This is where interaction is enabled and encouraged, in a safe way. For example, by designing more collaboration spaces within the workplace, where open meetings can be held we are enabling an alternative to using closed meeting rooms. 

How do you take the leap, and improve

Of course, taking this leap can be an expensive venture, especially if we don’t get it right the first time. Yes, that can be intimidating, and we might not see the success right away – behaviour change and mindset switching can take some time. The best that we can do is to set up reference groups, listen to how everyone wants to work through workshop sessions, and share the output openly. And then take change as incrementally as possible, with flexibility. This is designing collaboratively, in a circular design process. Improving the space should be constant. 

Gathering physical data on our spaces will show us where we need to improve but listening to reference groups will show us how to improve – understanding what is at the heart of the problem not just the output, enables us to evaluate and solve any issues and newly arising needs in a better way. 

When designing for all of our employees (including future employees) alongside our visitors, not least creators, we will never please everyone 100%. If we design flexibly and inclusively – we should be able to react faster, creating spaces that can be easily changed to suit our needs, whatever the situation. 

Of course, we should be choosing the right building in the right location and designing responsibly and sustainably for functionality, aiming for a variety of relevant spaces that solve the majority of ways of working. But we should also aim to inspire and reflect the Spotify platform and our policies to make an inclusive experience for everyone who comes to our offices.

A change situation will inevitably have some chaos about it, but if we do it right, with our business, our values and our people’s needs at the centre, it’ll be controlled chaos where we can continue to innovate and move forward, even if that’s accepting the approach of consent, rather than consensus.