Quiet zones and unassigned seating are some of the hallmarks of a Welsh social enterprise which helps to transform how people work by designing their office space around wellbeing.
And one housing group says it’s revolutionised morale – and productivity – in the office.
Just six months ago, Coastal Housing Group’s flagship HQ in Swansea was buzzing with activity across the dynamic open-plan floor system you’d find in many offices across the UK.
But it wasn’t working – and they say a makeover fit-out by Welsh firm PS Property and Interiors, who specialise in creating better work spaces, has transformed operations.
More than 250 people work at Coastal’s Swansea site, part of the multi-million pound Urban Village regeneration scheme on the city’s High Street.
Caroline Belasco, director of HR and Organisational Development, said:
“People were coming in and saying, ‘wow, this is a great space. But isn’t it noisy?' There was no wellbeing strategy.”
Serena Jones, director of Homes, Communities and Services, agrees:
“Reflectors, who need time to work in focused, intense periods, were unhappy. We were using the space in an inefficient way.”
Coastal contacted PS Properties and Interiors, a social enterprise and trading arm of mental health and wellbeing charity, Gofal. The Cardiff-based enterprise specialises in fitting-out and refurbishing workspaces, from bars and cafes to industrial units and offices.
PS’s relationship with Gofal also means that all profits from PS are reinvested into Gofal’s charitable objectives of “sustainable wellbeing for all.”
Dave Plummer, operations director at PS, has 17 years’ experience in the building and interiors sectors.
“We think the spaces we live, work and play in should be supportive of our health and wellbeing. Our emphasis is on spaces that improve how everyone within that workplace feels. People planning a refit or redesign also like to know they’re directly contributing towards helping people with mental health issues.”
On PS’s advice, Coastal asked its staff what they wanted from a redesign and the results surprised them.
Staff loved the open-plan design – but they were being overwhelmed by it.
“And we had all this stuff that looked quirky and fun, but some of it was style over substance,” says Facilities manager, Rod Gregory.
“We initially thought we didn’t have enough space. There were never enough desks for people. But when we consulted, and really sat down with PS, we realised we had too many.”
PS and Coastal introduced unassigned seating, which staff use on a first-come-first-served basis. The office was split into three zones – a quiet zone, a project zone and a team zone, with sleek American high school-style lockers to eliminate clutter.
Melanie Dicks, PA to Debbie Green, chief executive, admits she was resistant:
“It was sheer panic. How will I feel not having my own desk? Where will I put all my stuff?
“Now I love it. I move around. I love hearing other conversations going on around me.”
Melanie, who concedes she’s the only person in the office to bring a suitcase trolley to work so she can move what she needs with her, starts her day checking her emails in the new, bespoke central kitchen, which ‘feels like an internet cafe’.
“After that, I might go and type up some minutes in one of the single pods. I’ve fallen in love with this way of working.” She said.
Previously, staff were using whole rooms to make quiet calls – so PS installed three stylish office phone booths for personal calls or standing-up work. Meeting pods for up to eight people are sound-proofed and fitted with screens for smaller presentations.
“It’s like the quiet carriage on a train at this end,” said Rod. “You don’t disturb anyone in the quiet zone and you don’t talk loudly.”
Within days, feedback was positive. The refit, which started in April, took only 10 weeks and everything, from the calming white walls to the natural daylight bulbs and carpet fitted in alternating shades for staff and tenants with visual impairments, came from the consultation.
Coastal has more than 5,000 properties for rent and for sale and now tenants visiting the offices can talk to a member of staff on a sofa in one of the bright and welcoming open areas, or in private.
“The refit had to work for tenants and the services we provide, as much as it had to work for our staff.”
Serena Jones, Coastal’s director of Homes, Communities and Services, has seen a major change to the way people work since the redesign.
Interruptions to work, she says, were frequent before the changes.
“There was a tension between wanting to be available to people and needing to get on with work.”
The traditional fixed seating was uninspiring. “You knew everything was going to be there. Unassigned seating has encouraged better thinking. People definitely collaborate more.”
Serena also thinks the changes have encouraged a better work-life balance in staff.
“I’m seeing fewer people working late because they can find quiet spaces to concentrate in throughout the day, when they need them. When you think better, you do better work.”
PS is now expanding its portfolio and working with more organisations who put an emphasis on nurturing their team’s wellbeing.
“Space has a huge impact on how we work and how we feel. If we treat our staff well and give them a place where they can flourish and do their best work, then they’re more able to do that when they have contact with tenants.
“We want staff to be innovative, we want them to experiment, we want them to take calculated risks and to be brave and bold.
“People need to be more mindful of psychological safety. Organisations need to understand that people will do their worst work in badly-designed work spaces.
“It’s vital that it’s communicated to them day in, day out, that they, as staff really matter.”
PS Properties and Interiors’ tips for better mental health in workspaces:
- A move towards a more casual working environment means more equality, less hierarchy. But space has to be planned well so that it works for everyone.
- Quiet spaces are crucial. Open-plan offices are great for collaboration but they must have spaces where people can go to focus and concentrate, make a personal call, whatever they need to do.
- Consult your staff. Ask them what they want and communicate the changes with them clearly.
- Use colours that work for everyone. They won’t necessarily be your corporate colours.
- Make sure whatever ‘fun’ elements you install are wanted. Table football is great – but check first if the team would rather something else. Coastal Housing Group has a masseuse who comes in every fortnight, for example.
- ‘Quirky’ design must be meaningful. Avoid anything that adds clutter or fuss or doesn’t fit into the running of the workplace.