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Design Trends


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With so much profound change in the air, it’s impossible to discuss office design trends without debating the future of work itself. So much is changing, so quickly, it can sometimes feel difficult to keep up.

The global pandemic continues to impact how workplaces operate. And once workers begin returning to the office, businesses will have to deliver a safe workspace that employees can trust. In the short-term, this means adopting social distancing measures, regular cleaning, and a flexible working strategy. But what long-term impact will Covid-19 have on how we design, manage and adapt our offices in the new normal?

Thankfully, this article is here to get you up to date. We’ll discuss all the latest office design trends you need to know about, question how they will change the future of work, and equip you with the knowledge you need to plan your office changes effectively.

You’ll find interviews with leaders in employee experience and management innovation curated research from Deloitte and Leesman, among others, and much more.

Let’s dive in!

Saying Goodbye to 9-5: The Future is Flexible

The days of dictating to employees when, where, and how they should work are over. Today’s workforce is dynamic and diverse — they demand flexibility, choice, and control. And COVID-19 is further driving companies to adopt an agile, fluid approach to working.  Let’s explore why flexibility has become such a crucial aspect of modern work, and how office design can accommodate a more mobile workforce.

Changing workplace dynamics

The rise of self-employment and internet-enabled entrepreneurship in recent years has birthed the gig economy. More people than ever are choosing to freelance in the UK, and 63% of full-time employees have considered freelancing in their spare time. But why? What makes self-employment more attractive than the safety and security of a permanent position at a company?

One word: Freedom.

Modern employees ­– especially younger employees – value their work/life balance above all else. And freelancing offers them the freedom to work where they want, when they want. The smartest organisations have recognised this change, with 3 out of 4 people in the UK now working for companies that offer at least some form of flexible working.

The Coronavirus lockdown has forced companies to trial home working programmes, and we anticipate that most will find its benefits outweigh any downsides. We predict that working from home will be a permanent part of the future office. A staggering 99% of survey respondents said they would like to work remotely at least part-time for the rest of their careers. But you may still be reluctant to let your employees work from home. After all, big companies like Yahoo! and IBM pulled U-turns on their flexible working policies.

Here’s the thing though, offering flexible work not only improves employee focus, concentration, and creativity – it nets you a whopping five hours extra productivity a week. That’s £4200 extra a year per employee. This isn’t to mention the fact that companies not offering flexible working will lose out on the best talent to those who do.

So, you’ll be generating more revenue and attracting the best workers, but providing a flexible working policy can potentially save you money too. Did you know, for example, that private offices are unoccupied a staggering 77% of the time? It's likely that office consolidation or downsizing will be popular options for many organizations, now that home working has been established as the norm.

The big question for all organizations now is not whether to pursue flexible working, but how best to capture its benefits.

Case study: Flexible working at Three

Gary Walker, head of People Digital Tools at Three Mobile and founder of 22north, told us that for him flexible and remote working is all about attracting the right talent:

 “I want to hire people from anywhere and not be restricted to localised talent.”

Despite working alongside a UK workforce of 5,000, Gary’s team of 10 work remotely from around the world, with some even travelling while they do so. Gary believes it helps retain his employees:

“Three had a user experience researcher based at our HQ. She had to be at all the scrums, the stand-up meetings; she had to be in the office physically, but she was moving to Scotland. Had my team not proved the value of remote work and enabled her to work remotely, she would have had to leave Three.” Still, he’s worried there’s still more to do to convince people to back flexible working. “There’re a lot of powerful stories like that but I still don’t think it’s amplified enough across the whole business.”

He’s also well aware that there are still challenges around working remotely that need resolving:

“People do their best work when they’re able to organise their time to do things that add value to their personal lives (eg, picking up the kids while working from home). But remote team members can feel quite disconnected, so there’s a lot of work we need to do in the background around culture, tools and making it easier for them to deliver their best work.”

Case study: Marketing Sciences Unlimited

One company which is wholeheartedly behind flexible working is Marketing Sciences Unlimited, a research company in Winchester. They have 68 staff across three floors and a 70% female workforce, including directors and MD. They have one floor entirely devoted to hot desking, with the other two set to follow suit by the end of 2017.

The company’s HR manager, Helen Van Eeden, says the company has a ‘controlled’ approach to flexible working:

“One of our directors is a father who works flexitime, and two other directors are part-time. We also have staff studying alongside their jobs. But you can’t just rock up whenever you like. Flexible working here varies wildly for different staff. Some work part-time, some work a mix of long and short days, and others even work remotely three days out of four. Anything goes, just as long as it’s a routine we can work around client demand.”

Everyone at Marketing Sciences Unlimited works from a laptop. They use shared cloud drives and Skype For Business. All their rooms have screens, speakers, cables, and Skype. “It’s perfectly set up for remote and flexible working,” adds Helen. “You really can work from anywhere.”

The flexible setup at Marketing Sciences is nothing new, but it’s becoming more widespread than even just a generation ago. Part of the reason, according to a Bentley University-commissioned survey, is that millennials don’t want to be tied to a desk or job role. The 9-5 standard of yesteryear just doesn’t work for them.

According to the report, 77% say flexible hours would make their workplace more productive and 39% say remote working would make their workplace more productive. The report predicts that by 2025, three out of four people in the workforce will be millennials (in the US). What’s more, Gen Z (those born in the late 90's) has already started joining the workforce. Gen X (born in the 60’s and 70’s) are 10-20 years off retirement, and the Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964) are approaching the end of their working life. This means, for the first time ever, four generations are in the workplace.

This has made the job of HR more complex than ever before. With such varying attitudes, lifestyles, and ways of working all under one roof, we expect to see businesses introducing more flexible workspace options in the coming years to accommodate everyone’s style.

One thing is clear, today’s workforce wants choice and control. They want flexible work schedules, a choice of workspaces, and the freedom to work where they want. Since the advent of Coronavirus, businesses also crave flexibility and need offices to accommodate this shift.

The advice from management innovation company, The Pioneers, is simple: “It’s down to office design companies to ask the questions they may have had no place to ask in the past: what sort of organisation do you want to become, what are you trying to achieve, and how do you want to be perceived by people? These questions need to be answered first, then get the people who will benefit from it (your employees) and the experts in the room. Show them that this is the art of the possible.”

Gary at Three adds: “There are lots of articles and a lot of contradictions around office space design. The bottom line is, it’s about people, not about office space. If we want the best people, how do we structure our office to attract them? Let’s not just jump on trends like collaborative spaces, more meeting rooms, or gimmicky gaming areas. It should be more around asking people how they can do their jobs better, understanding what the best people look for, evaluating occupancy levels of your office space, then applying that with visionary research.”

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Shifting From ‘Office Building’ to ‘Workplace Experience’

The perception of the office environment is shifting. Once seen as just a ‘premises’, people are starting to view their offices as an ‘experience’. But what does that mean and how can you make the most of your workspace to ensure employees are doing their best work?

Not so long ago, an office was a place to simply sit and do work with colleagues. Today, workspaces need to attract and retain staff, cater for a range of personalities and working practices, reflect your brand personality, and appeal to multiple generations.

As we enter this new decade, we expect to see more businesses viewing their workspace in this way. The fact is, creating an adaptable and agile office environment and viewing the workplace holistically – from a people and place perspective – is imperative going forward.

Today, fewer workers spend time at their desks. When they are there, many feel it’s not a productive environment. According to research from furniture provider HermanMiller, workstations are unoccupied for more than half the working day. Rhino’s own research backs this up. And, according to the Leesman Review, barely more than half of 2,500 respondents (58%) said their workplace contributes to a sense of community at work, something often cited as a challenge caused by the increase in remote workers. There was an even 50/50 split between employees who were proud to bring visitors to their workplace, and those who weren’t. But the most shocking Leesman data showed that a similar percentage (57%) said their workplace enabled them to work productively — that means your largest financial business cost is potentially operating at half power.

This raises the question: What can you do to ensure your team enjoy their workspace and feel encouraged to work at their most productive?

1. Be Agile and Adaptable

Research shows us that offices should be designed around our activities and working preferences. This means one office layout does not fit all. New ways of organising the office, including Activity Based Working (also often referred to as agile working) and hot-desk layouts, give people control over how, when, and where they work.

Crucially, physical changes to workspaces need to be based on accurate data. This means monitoring occupancy levels and tracking how people actually use your workspace. With a combination of accurate data, considered planning, and workplace consultancy – as well as the introduction of carefully planned flexible working policies – businesses will see an improvement in engagement, productivity, and much more.

2. Shift From Work ‘Place’ to ‘Experience’

For traditional organisations, the workplace is seen as bricks, desks, and decor. But, according to today’s thinking, the term ‘workplace’ must go beyond the physical space— it has to become an ‘experience’.

The 2019 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends report highlights a shift from ‘employee experience’ to ‘human experience’. In its report, Rewriting the Rules for the Digital Age, Deloitte says that culture and engagement are fundamental to this, and that workplace design, wellbeing, and workplace productivity systems are all becoming part of the mandate for HR. The report shows that four out of five leaders (79%) cite the experience of their staff as important or very important for the coming years.

In the report, executives identified building an ‘organisation of the future’ as their most important challenge for 2020, as companies replace structural hierarchies with networks of empowered teams.

Ben Whitter, founder of the World Employee Experience Institute (WEEI) says: “Employee experience continues to be the number one trend in any HR, human capital, or workforce conversation. Forward-thinking brands are thoughtfully considering and intentionally designing experiences to enable people to connect more deeply with the workplace to deliver stronger, more sustainable outcomes. Evidence coming through from studies on employee experience is that it does make a massive difference to productivity, customer satisfaction, and profitability.”

US interiors giant, Knoll, defines this step-change as going from the ‘office as a building’ to ‘workplace as an experience’ in its Immersive Planning report. The model is based on fluidity and choice. This contrasts with the outdated view of people commuting to the site where a physical presence is expected, and the company dictates the work hours and location. The ultimate outcome, it says, is that “people define the space” instead of architecture “prescribing” the place.

Jeff Wellstead agrees: “This is not just about physical workspace, it’s about experience. We all remember walking into a space and having an immediate, emotive, and psychological impression – that’s really powerful. For me, that’s about a frictionless, interactive environment, which has all the things you need to nurture you within a short walk; where the space is designed for functionality and comfort rather than aesthetics.”

3. Care For Your People and the Planet

Buildings have always had to comply with environmental standards assessment like BREEAM and LEED. But today, buildings need to be kind to people as well as the planet. Rating schemes like the US-based WELL and Fitwell can help you track your progress. WELL rates buildings by measuring seven factors in relation to the people within them: light, noise, comfort, nourishment, water, air, and mind. Rick Cook, from New York’s Cookfox Architects, sums up the change: “In the same way with the green buildings rating, once we knew how to make buildings better for the planet, we had to do it — it was a moral imperative. Now we know how to make buildings better for people, we have to do it.”

4. Embed your brand values

Ben, from WEEI, says: “Something that is quite important, and organisations are starting to realise this, is the need to embed their brand and values into their workspace. So that’s asking the question: ‘what is fundamentally important for our employees to experience on a day-to-day basis?’ It goes beyond values-on-the-wall stuff. This is how we create office spaces and physical infrastructures that enable our employees to feel a deep sense of belonging to our brand.”

The term ‘workplace’ must go beyond the physical space— it has to become an ‘experience’.

Wellbeing – the New Employee Engagement

Wellbeing is about more than just free fruit and Fitbits. The concept of wellbeing has evolved from a buzzword to a powerful engagement tool. Let’s explore what employee wellbeing means today and how it’s being affected by new ways of working and a rapidly changing workforce.

The cost of poor mental health

The health and wellbeing of your staff undoubtedly impact your bottom line. Mental health alone cost UK employers £34.9 billion in 2019. David Cox, chief medical officer at mindfulness technology company, Headspace, says:

“Employers are placing greater focus on the mental wellbeing of their employees. In decades gone by, the focus was on how to support physical health, to support optimal performance in the workplace. The 21st-century perspective looks at how we can support psychological health, to support optimal performance in the workplace.”

If organisations want to reduce the costs associated with employee mental health, HR departments need to adjust how they care for their staff – both mentally and physically.

A changing workforce

Today’s workplace is increasingly more diverse, pressured, and competitive than just a decade ago.

“The world of work is changing around us with the rise of digital devices and computerisation, and an increasingly agile and piecemeal labour market," says Debi O’Donovan, partner at the Reward & Employee Benefits Association (REBA). “These changes bring about new challenges for us as a society, and as employers.”

None of this is good news for HR and wellbeing managers, whose role is as much about diversity and inclusion as making sure everyone has a comprehensive benefits package.

Speaking of diversity, the rise of remote working, freelance contractors, and intergenerational workforces are pushing diversity and inclusion further up the agenda. The era of diversity as a “check the box” initiative owned by HR is over.

According to Deloitte: “Leading organisations now see diversity and inclusion as a comprehensive strategy woven into every aspect of the talent lifecycle to enhance employee engagement, improve brand, and drive performance.”

As well as the diversity of demographics, what really counts is the diversity of thought that comes from different personalities, moods, and working preferences, says Jeff Wellstead. “All of this can be expressed powerfully in a working environment (pods and quiet space for introverted people, for example, and areas for collaboration and creativity). The challenge is to take these different human experiences and present them as a frictionless unit.”

The right culture in the right environment

“In order for a wellbeing programme to be effective, organisations need the right culture and workplace environment,” says Beate O’Neil, head of wellbeing consulting at Punter Southall Health & Protection. “This includes designing the workplace to promote healthy behaviours and offering facilities such as showers. The culture and environment you create can influence the choices your employees make and their overall wellbeing.”

It’s a shocking fact that more than half (55%) of organisations still have no wellbeing strategy. Of those with a defined wellbeing strategy, three quarters (75%) say they’re making changes to the physical work environment to encourage healthy behaviours. The most common changes are new workstation designs (64%), on-site shower facilities (51%) and on-site relaxation or recreation areas (44%).

The importance of nature

Including elements of nature, like natural lighting and plant life, in your office design works wonders for boosting your team’s wellbeing, creativity, and productivity. Yet, around half of employees work in offices with no natural light or live plants. Consider bringing some of the outside in when designing your workplace to keep your people feeling their best.

The third pillar of wellbeing

According to the latest research, financial wellness is the new trend in wellbeing. REBA predicts that people will pay more attention to their financial wellbeing in the coming years, citing that money is seen as one of the biggest causes of stress and how much we have greatly correlates to our wellness. REBA’s figures show that “financial education will potentially grow by 83% over the next few years, making it the third pillar of wellbeing alongside physical and mental health.”

Adjusting for COVID-19

Today, employee wellbeing is especially pertinent, as COVID-19 is adding an element of uncertainty to everyday operations. When employees start to return to your offices, it's up to you to reassure them and put in place essential measures to remain COVID-19 secure. 

This could include things like isolation screens, sanitiser stations, and new cleaning routines. This will help put your team at ease and demonstrate that you're doing everything you can to keep them safe. 

Ready to Take Advantage of These Trends?

On our journey into the future of work and office design, we’ve realised the secret to creating happier, more engaged, and more productive people lies as much in the workspace as in leadership and culture. Offices designed with that in mind appear to be attracting the right talent — and keeping it.

So, creating flexible layouts and working policies are now the new normal. These changes show you care, they engender innovation and set you up to capitalise on the latest trends and technology. With Coronavirus drastically changing how people work, it's up to businesses to adapt and prepare for the future of work. 

These dramatic times call for bold responses. We know that every office, business, and workplace is different. But that's kind of the point. In this age of ubiquitous disruption where flexibility is king, the key to drawing the right talent – and keeping it – lies in being agile, considerate and innovative.

There’s no better place to showcase those selling points than your workplace. We’re encouraging business leaders to ask themselves: “If we want the best people, how do we structure our office to attract them?” For advice on office design, consultancy, or a fit-out, book a free consultation to see how we can help build you a workspace fit for this new world.

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