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The Future of Workspace Design: a Q&A with Area’s Kathryn O’Callaghan-Mills

Posted on September 2, 2018 by GCUC UK in Conference, GCUC UK, Speakers


Ten years ago, coworking and shared workspace was barely on the radar of the design world. Now, design is increasingly a core part of workplace design and a growing topic of conversation among workspace operators.

GCUC UK panelist Kathryn O’Callaghan-Mills is Creative Director at Area, which is part of the Fourfront Group. I spoke with her about the future of workspace design, how people-centric spaces will become the norm, and the importance of using data to determine workspace layout and design. Here are the highlights of our conversation.

Cat Johnson: As creative director at Area, what do you spend most of your time working on?

Kathryn-AreaKathryn O’Callaghan-Mills: At Area, we’re still very operational. My duties as a creative director range from teeing the team up and overseeing all the projects that run through the studio, but also working on the larger, strategic projects.

We don’t lose touch with designing—we’re all very creative souls and that allows us to keep in touch and keep designing constantly.

Ten years ago, I don’t even think coworking was on the radar of the design world. Now, shared workspace design is increasingly a core part of design offerings and at the forefront of what people in coworking are talking about. What have you seen in the last few years?

It really has taken its own path. In my opinion, the nuts and bolts come down to empowering people to be able to work how they want to work, function how they want to function, and build their relationships, because everybody is so individual. I think it’s fantastic that workplace has become less rigid—it’s become people-centric.

With the well-being aspect, which is huge at the moment and will be for many years, people are the center. The space is becoming the home from home and the people are the heart. People are your biggest asset—they’re your most expensive asset as an employer, so it makes sense for all the well-being and health and nutrients that make those people better to be at the heart of any kind of design.

The wellness aspect is really interesting to me, as someone who works in a coworking space. From a design perspective, what are some of the things you see being put into place that are more human-centric? What do you think the future workspace might look like?

The things we feel are quite original at the moment, like bringing in lots of biophilia to the workplace, and living elements integrated into design, will become the norm. At the moment, it’s quite attractive and exciting. I see it like the electric car. When they were first released, it was very interesting. Now, as time has moved on, we have electric buses, and we have electric cabs coming into London. We’ll take that type of path with the biophilia and well-being.

For instance, take sit-stand desks. That used to be quite an expensive thing to put into a space. Now, fortunately, there’s so much range and scope on the market that it’s no longer a big hurdle to overcome. You have more choice and you have more competition on the market so you get better value for your money.

Will you tell me a bit about Area’s work in coworking and shared workspace?

We’re very fortunate to have a large range and breadth of various clients. Our coworking speciality has been wonderful for us. Coworking design is built on relationships, and with coworking booming, and our operators taking on more and more space, our relationships have grown and become absolutely fantastic. Everyone we work with is very individual and different, which is fascinating, from a design point of view.

The industry is growing so quickly that spaces really have to differentiate, and design is a big part of that—not only nicer spaces, but what people prefer, what type of space they want to be in.

Location has a lot to do with that, as well. You’d be amazed as to where the properties are being developed. The location could very much dictate the route of design we go down with the same client but in a different area in London.

So in an industrial area, the space may have more of an industrial flavor?

Absolutely. We recently finished a project with Campfire in East London that has a very unique flavor to it—it almost has a Hong Kong-esque feel running through it, which is something quite magical. Then we have more executive spaces, and they’re all very different flavors of design.

How can design best be used to differentiate spaces and help strengthen a workspace brand?

I’ve put quite a lot of thought into this question. One of the biggest mistakes people make is to try to imitate someone else—say, to look at Google and other big brands and try to do what they’re doing—to put what they’re doing into your space.

If you don’t start designing around the brand—that individual operator and what their values are and what their USP is—you’re going to lose the soul of what that design could be. You just have to stick true to your own values and the design then bounces off those values.

The upcoming GCUC UK in London is the European debut of GCUC. Are you looking forward to the conference? What do you hope to get out of it?

It’s an absolute privilege to be involved and to be on a panel. We’re thrilled at that aspect. I can’t wait to hear people speak and just take the little golden nuggets of information away. I want to hear where people believe everything is heading, and tapping into everyone’s knowledge base.

It’s such an exciting facet of our market that has just grown tenfold over the last couple of years. It’s the gift that keeps on giving that nobody quite knows what direction it’s going to go in. It will be a fascinating experience to be engulfed in that for two days.

It’s a powerful thing that the coworking movement is pushing this workspace industry forward, but it’s also building the road for the future of work. It’s an exciting time to be around this industry. I imagine that, as a designer, it must be exciting to be giving face to an industry.

It’s amazing. It’s almost like a movement in design, as well. You can look back and see what was achieved 10 years ago, then look at what’s happening now. It’s very exciting to be part of it and to be successful in it, as well, because it is a very, very competitive facet of our market.

Thank you, Kathryn. Is there anything you’d like to add?

In terms of where workspace design is heading, we’re very much tunneling down more data-driven routes, as well. We have an internal workplace consultancy called 360, which does all the data that influences our designs. When I see workspace trends and where it’s going, operators and employers require more data, these days, in order to be able to compare and contrast how the space is being utilized.

What data do you look at?

It’s basically data of how the space is being utilized. For instance, if there’s an open plan setting, we have motion sensors—not a camera or recording—just to detect whether there are humans in that space.

You can work out, over a month or so, whether that space is actually being utilized, or whether that space would be better utilized as a different function within the space. It just gives the operator data to make a proper decision as to where next to invest. That’s very much where we’re going as a design firm.

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