Frank Lloyd Wright meets 21st century Poland

Just like residential architecture experienced a transformation with the advent of open plans, office design has experienced a transformation as well – one that Poland has been witnessing over the last five-10 years.

The office industry in Poland is growing rapidly. The Colliers Annual Report states that “during the past year, developers completed a record number of over 896,000 sqm of office space, 60% more than the annual average from 2011-2015. Almost half of the new supply was delivered in Warsaw (407,000 sqm), while in the regional cities most of the new projects were completed in Kraków (149,000 sqm) and Wrocław (139,000 sqm).” Frank Lloyd Wright’s open plans transformed home design in the US at the turn of the 20th century, but in Poland, open plan apartment design wasn’t widely proliferated until after 1989, once there was more money, more Western influence, and private developers. Office design has similarly followed a transition from enclosed personal offices to open office spaces, but the most recent trend has taken this one step further, from open office plans to activity-based office spaces – spaces that incorporate several types of working zones to accommodate the various functions of a company.

Some designers in the Fit Out industry – the industry specialising in making interior spaces suitable for occupation, often in office developments – now aim for office spaces to feel like “home” – a place that is comfortable.  “So it’s not a typical corporate office with white desks, and nothing more,” says Sylwia Pędzińska, Director of Workplace Innovation at Colliers International, presenting her office in The Metropolitan building in Warsaw. The key rule in the contemporary fit out industry is to customise the design of an office based on the specific needs of the company. It’s crucial to think about exactly what type of work the employees do – is it collaborative? Individual? A mix?  Or maybe it’s confidential, such as in the case of accountants and lawyers? This is taken into account, and offices include spaces conducive to those functions, accordingly.

Mindspace Warsaw: Modernly designed offices and workspaces with advanced technology provide inspiration and foster productivity.

Standing and perching

Contemporary fit outs are often guided by the idea of “hot desking” – not having assigned seating at work, thereby adding flexibility in an employees workday. In theory, employees can sit at a different desk every day (this does not apply to those working with confidential information – those types of workers have assigned desks and are at least partially enclosed). “This is a new generation of employees… people want to be able to choose how they work, whether on a sofa, a chair, or at a high table”, says Artur Winnicki of Reesco. Variety of seating also has positive health implications. The World Green Building Council Health, Wellbeing & Productivity in Offices report says, “Even task-based spaces can be designed to encourage some standing and perching, to vary posture and encourage alertness and ‘active pauses.’” Additionally, hot desking saves floor space which would otherwise be dedicated to desks that might stand empty – especially in offices that have many contract workers or salespeople who don’t spend the entire day in the office. According to CBRE’s Poland Fit-Out Cost Guide, some companies even have a “flexibility ratio” of 70% desk occupancy (or about 1.4 users per workstation). Moveable walls also serve a similar purpose – companies found that large inflexible conference rooms often stood unused, so the addition of moveable walls allows large conference rooms to turn into a few smaller ones.

Also from the World Green Building Council Health, Wellbeing & Productivity in Offices report: “Recent research suggests that designing for a diversity of working spaces is key to a productive office. This allows people to choose the most appropriate space for the task at hand – whether quiet concentration, or creative interaction. However, it is not only working spaces, but also social or breakout spaces that have an impact on productivity. Places for staff to congregate socially and relax, and not to disturb or be disturbed directly by the working environment, are vitally important. They help to drive a cross-pollination of ideas, employee engagement and foster a sense of community, which can serve to strengthen a company’s culture, or its ‘organisational ecology.’ Sadly, these spaces are sometimes lost in a drive to increase density, which usually generates short term cost savings, but can be counter-productive to the organisation’s overall aims.” Sometimes one office’s space-saving measure is simultaneously that office’s time-saving measure: the leadership of the Warsaw Colliers office decided to give up their personal offices for a shared space without assigned desks, which would facilitate communication and spontaneous interactions amongst them; this in an era when weeks could pass before a meeting, scheduled via emails, came to fruition. These partners’ shared space is in the middle of the office, creating less of a barrier between leadership and employees. “A good example must come from above,” Sylwia affirms.

Office etiquette

The World Green Building Council mentions, “A common theme in the available research is that installing physical design features and providing etiquette guidance for workers is important to reduce visual distractions and manage noise from conversations.” The Skanska office in Warsaw has many of the same activity-based spaces as Colliers. They chose Swedish interior design company Kinnarps for all of their furnishings. Their holistic approach to office design transcends the walls of their building –  they commissioned a mural to be painted on the grey wall of a neighbouring tenement house facing the office, so that the view for workers would be more pleasant.

According to the World Wellbeing Report: “Staff costs, including salaries and benefits, typically account for about 90% of business operating costs. Therefore what may appear a modest improvement in employee health or productivity, can have a huge financial implication for employers – one that is many times larger than any other financial savings associated with an efficiently designed and operated building.

For many readers, that will sound so obvious it almost goes without saying. But it does need saying, loud and clear, because this evidence has not yet had a major influence on the mainstream real estate sector, and is not yet translating at scale into design, finance and leasing decisions, certainly not in all parts of the globe.”

Which brings in Marcin Rutkowski of Isku, a Finnish furniture design company in Warsaw. “Thinking about the quality of the environment of a human being is in the Finnish DNA,” he quips. Among some of the thoughtful furnishing elements that Isku has created are ergonomic seating, a variety of space dividers and acoustic panels for both privacy and sound absorption, and ottomans that you can attach to the wall (especially fun for kids; but not only). These items, though, are often twice the cost of other desks or chairs on the market. Rutkowski explains: “Finnish products might be twice as expensive per unit, but then after a year or two, other products have to be exchanged. These Finnish products, meanwhile, still look new, and they are systematic [aesthetically speaking],” meaning that you can match future purchases to what you already own.

JLL: Conference rooms of different sizes, quiet corners, phone booths and work spaces that awaken creativity meet the various needs of team members.

As easy as 1-10-100

Rutkowski continues: “In reality, if you look at a big organization, it’s a ratio of 1 to 10 to 100. The computers, the tables, the chairs, are ‘1’. The cost of the square meterage of floor space is 10 times more than the things standing on it. And the people that are using that floor space cost 10 times more than the square meterage itself. But people still try to save every euro possible on something like a chair. They need to think holistically, though. Because even if they buy a chair that is three times the cost of the cheapest chair on the market, this does not compare to the total cost of company expenditures. But a 1-3% increase in the efficiency of your workers – the portion of the company that is most costly – finances the rest. The working environment should not be seen as a cost, but an investment.”

One of Isku’s mottos, said by the founder Eino Vikström, is “Anything worth doing is worth doing well.” Isku divides the offices it designs into four regions: “Think” – the spaces in the office for solo information processing and production; “Link” – spaces for teamwork, conferences and presentations; “Connect” – spaces for spontaneous encounters, and “Refuel” – eating areas. Isku has contributed to the design of 35-40 offices during its two years in Poland. Before that, Martela, another Finnish company which was in Poland for many years, contributed to over 300 office designs.

So do the current fit out trends have Scandinavian roots? Martela came up with a very optimistic catch-phrase and ad campaign recently: “Thank God It’s Monday.” Whether these design considerations improve our general life outlook or just our attitudes from 9 to 5, it seems like a step in the right direction.

Klaudia Siczek was born and raised in the Chicagoland area, where she studied architecture and interdisciplinary arts. She has worked as a freelance journalist, translator, tour guide, and actor. She’s written for Chicago Detours’ Architecture and History Blog, in addition to leading tours for them. Her passions also include video making and salsa dancing.

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