When the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design was commissioned through the UK Research Councils to conduct a large, publicly funded, two–year study of the environmental needs of older workers in the knowledge economy – thus addressing Government concerns related to raising the retirement age and revisiting some of the issues raised by the Work Well study – Kinnarps was well placed to become a strategic partner in the project.

The new study, entitled Welcoming Workplace, was international in scope, involving in–depth study of around 80 office workers aged over 50 in three knowledge–intensive industries: pharmaceuticals, technology and financial services. Working with academic partners in Japan (the University of Kyushu) and Australia (the University of Melbourne), the Helen Hamlyn Associates engaged a group of senior knowledge workers – including research chemists, process engineers and financial analysts – who usually keep a low profile.

Welcoming Workplace sent out a message that designers should pay particular attention to three key settings.

They interviewed these people in their organisations in London, Yokohama and Melbourne, and quizzed the discipline managers responsible for their welfare and productivity in such areas as facilities, estates, human resources, occupational health and diversity. Based on what was learnt, the study then built experimental work settings for them to experience changes to the environment in terms of lighting, acoustics, furniture, technology and ambience over a period of up to two weeks. These interventions were designed to gather additional information on needs and aspirations.

Kinnarps’ role in the Welcoming Workplace study was to support the furniture interventions with new products such as adjustable seating and sit–stand desks, and to sponsor, in association with the British Council for Offices, a design guidance publication for architects and developers of office buildings based on the results.

The research found that key aspects of knowledge work, such as individual concentration on complex tasks, were poorly catered for by the general design of the open plan office. An overriding emphasis on collaboration and teamwork neglected the fact that knowledge work requires intense periods of deep, uninterrupted concentration and thinking, often undertaken alone. To achieve this, people often had no option but to take work home.

Older knowledge workers were particularly inconvenienced by the constant noise and disruption of poorly–designed open plan space, and their need for dedicated spaces to concentrate on work was mirrored by a need for suitable spaces to contemplate – to think, relax and physically recuperate during the working day, shielded from the daily social grind of being constantly on show. Well–planned contemplation space was identified in the study as a missing dimension in office design.

Even the act of collaboration itself was seen by older workers as poorly served by bland open plan areas in which physical proximity is no substitute for project settings which really support group working through enhanced display media, lighting, layout and protocols of use.

Welcoming Workplace sent out a message that designers should pay particular attention to three key settings that create an inclusive workplace: spaces to concentrate, collaborate and contemplate. This message was reinforced by a regional lecture tour sponsored by Kinnarps and accredited for Continuing Professional Development by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA).

This article appears in our original ‘Welcome to Work’ book, which described the birth of the 3Cs concept and the creation of a working model in the form of our new London showroom. You can download the book in pdf format here.