‘If you lose the office, you lose your culture and feel of belonging’

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Despite the pandemic, businesses are still seeing the benefits of investing in offices and workspaces for their people, and that is where Style Group comes in. Emily Moore reports

OFFICES – they are buildings which define city landscapes around the world and places which bring large groups of people together, creating a sense of community and belonging which it would be hard to replicate anywhere else.

And yet, just a couple of years ago, a large question mark hung heavily over the future of the office, leaving many chief executives wondering whether they could downsize – or even do away with – their company’s physical premises.

It was a debate which, as Covid saw millions of employees embrace a working-from-home lifestyle, also left many retailers, hospitality businesses and service providers fearful for their futures, as the disappearance of workers from town centres had a dramatic impact on footfall and sales.

But, less than two years after the last work-from-home guidance was lifted by the UK government, the office has enjoyed something of a renaissance and, in the words of Eric Valette, the UK and Ireland managing director for Steelcase, is now ‘more important than ever’ for both employers and employees.

Indeed, as Eric says: ‘Working from home is now the slowly melting iceberg, while the office – if designed and furnished correctly – is key to retaining and attracting the right people. People may be attracted to a business because of its brand but it is the culture which keeps them there, and it is your workspace which creates the social context in which your culture manifests itself and grows.’

Coming from a man whose business relies on companies investing in their office space, these words may not seem altogether surprising, but Eric is not just voicing his own opinion.

‘Our approach and products are all based on knowledge, research and insights into what is needed in a workplace to improve the efficiency of an organisation, the enjoyability of the work environment and the wellbeing of the workforce,’ he said. ‘These factors are all influenced by the way you design and furnish an office and, to ensure we get this right, we invest significantly in research, as we have done since Steelcase was established in 1912.’

This research, he adds, is focused on three areas: workplace, workers and work.

‘How is the workplace evolving? How are workers evolving? And what are the cultural differences between the two?’ he asked. ‘The only reason a place exists is people. Therefore, you need to design space in a way which supports people’s needs while bearing in mind that no space is ever neutral. It can be a lever to help an organisation to move forward or it can be an anchor that will hold a business back. It is very important to be specific, deliberate and intentional when you design a space and, to ensure that we get that right, we have interviewed more than 60,000 workers and leaders across the globe to understand what people want, need and expect from their workspace.’

And the answers, says Eric, have been decisive.

‘What we have heard loud and clear from our customers is that if you lose the office, you lose that sense of connection with an organisation and lose that sense of belonging,’ he explained. ‘Employers say they want to increase retention, attract the best people and innovate faster, and guess what? To do that, you need people to be together.’

While Eric may have collated this feedback from customers across the globe, the message, says Style Office managing director Paul Watson, is the same from Jersey businesses. Having worked with Steelcase for almost 37 years, Style Office – which attained Steelcase’s platinum partnership status this year – has supplied furniture to local businesses since 1986.

‘It was John Poynton, our chairman, who originally set up the office furniture division of Style Group,’ said Paul. ‘At the time, Style Group was already associated with construction and fitouts, so it seemed, and has proved to be, a natural addition to offer furniture and installation services. Having decided to branch out into this area, it was natural to look for a leader in the office-furniture arena, and that’s when our relationship with Steelcase began.’

And while a ‘typical’ office may have changed considerably over the past four decades – and, particularly, over the past two years – there are, says Paul, some things which haven’t changed at all.

‘Offices now often include places to work, places to talk, to meet, to collaborate and, just as importantly, to eat,’ says Paul Watson. Picture: Andy Le Gresley

‘While the office landscape has changed, in some ways, it hasn’t changed at all,’ he smiled. ‘We still sit on chairs at desks and put paper in cupboards, even though we were promised a paperless office some 25 years ago. However, the environment has changed and that has been driven by a number of factors.

‘Firstly, technology has driven many changes in terms of landscape, furniture and functionality, as the new mobile nature of technology has increased flexibility, which needs to be incorporated into the office design and planning.

‘Equally significantly, the office is now a much more sociable place than it was 35 years ago when there was a lot less emphasis on interaction, co-operation, collaboration, wellbeing and ergonomics, all topics which are very much in focus now.

‘While nearly all of us have to go to work, not everyone wants to go to work, so workplaces should offer an enjoyable experience. This means creating a complete ecosystem with places to work, places to talk, to meet, to collaborate and, just as importantly, to eat. The concept of the work café is not only growing in popularity but is also important because it demonstrates that you don’t have to sit behind a desk to be understood to be working.’

And these trends are, says Paul, increasingly noticeable across offices in Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man, where Style Office also works.

‘If anything, the islands may even be ahead of many other jurisdictions, partly because the geography makes it both easy and important for people to go into the office,’ he reflected. ‘We don’t face long commutes but, if you think about Jersey, the vast majority of workplaces are in St Helier. This means that we don’t just go to work, but we also go shopping in our lunch hours, meet friends for coffee, arrange haircuts, pick up our dry cleaning and socialise after work. None of these things would happen if we all worked from home.

‘Not only are offices therefore core to building a company culture, mentoring people and developing a team ethic, all of which leads to better performing businesses, but they are also vital for the livelihoods of the surrounding enterprises and retailers.’

While Paul and Eric are in no doubt that those working solely from home are now fewer, they do acknowledge that the pandemic has driven a more flexible approach in many businesses.

‘There is a place for working from home and that flexibility is positive and it is leading to more flexible work spaces,’ said Eric. ‘Paul mentioned work cafés and lounge areas and these new collaborative spaces are becoming more and more prominent, perhaps now accounting for about half of a typical office. That is a trend I expect to see grow because companies recognise the importance of such areas for generating ideas and building that energy and sense of belonging.’

Describing the partnership between Style Office and Steelcase, Paul added: ‘We are allied with Steelcase because their products and services are the best in the marketplace and also their values and the way they do business is aligned with ours.

‘We combine their expertise with our knowledge of the local market and our team’s experience and insight to support our clients. Despite having worked with Steelcase for more than three decades, attaining platinum partnership status was no mean feat. We are one of only five dealers in the UK to have been awarded this status and, to achieve it, we had to meet a set of very strict criteria and jump through several hoops to achieve our certification.’

‘Those criteria are both quantitative and qualitative,’ added Eric, ‘and they are demanding because this level of partnership is only awarded to our very best dealers. It reflects not just a company’s showroom and a team’s ability to sell and install the furniture but also their relationships with customers, their knowledge and their commitment to continuously improving that knowledge and service.’

And it is that quest to retain the platinum status which is shaping Paul’s ambitions for Style Office.

‘We may have earnt the certificate but now we need to keep it,’ he said. ‘It is therefore incumbent on us to continually improve our offer to the market and maintain and develop our service to match the evolving demands. Jersey punches above its weight in all sorts of fields, and it is great for Islanders to see that this is another area in which a local business is among the best in the world.’

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