Our next dream brief: creating the best workspace in the world

Interior shot of LEGO's People House building

For our intO the Future of Work 2022 report, our specialist team of researchers analysed the trends and indicators currently shaping the workplace, and explored the role offices will play in the future for knowledge workers.

When researching how the most innovative organisations across the globe are (re)designing their office spaces, our insights opened a window into a new shift, where businesses are looking beyond the physical elements of the office in order to create spaces that cater for flexible working models and support a strong culture.

But how can international organisations like Google, LEGO or Expedia, who have recently invested billions of dollars in the construction of their new HQs, know their offices will be future-proof? How can they ensure their newly designed working environments will respond to their workers’ needs and expectations?

We asked intO’s three Directors and our CEO how they would tackle the challenge of helping design the world’s best workspace for a client, and what research methods they would use based on their individual expertise.

Translating intangible values into physical spaces

Designing a future-proof office requires a complex and multi-faceted process. It’s critical to consider not just corporate values and culture, but the different needs and motivations of a diverse set of employees — whether these are cultural, collective, or very specific to individuals. But how can you translate those intangible values into a physical space? Some organisations from around the world stand-out for their creative, unexpected and multi-functional approach to office spaces, experimenting with innovative ways of repurposing and redesigning their workplaces.

This year, LEGO revolutionised the concept of ‘corporate campus’ with People House, their new HQ in Denmark, designed in line with their values by placing innovation and creativity at its heart. In China, Ronald Lu & Partners have developed an award-winning, eco-conscious concept that features biophilic design elements, serving both humans and nature. Also bringing nature into the workspace, Expedia’s new headquarters in Seattle is surrounded by beautiful, natural landscapes to provide employees with outdoor spaces where they can work from (including an open-air amphitheatre!). In London, Google’s new HQ (currently under construction) intends to become a wellbeing sanctuary for workers and a creative hub for the local community. 

But innovative workspaces are not only a thing of the present — or the future. Despite turning 50 this year, BMW Group’s HQ in Munich is still considered a symbol of pioneering spirit and leadership, representing the organisation’s forward-looking corporate culture that still stands to this day. ‘Built to shape tomorrow,’ as architect Karl Schwanzer describes it.

Scroll through the image gallery to see these innovative workplaces in context.



Photography credits (in order of appearance): LEGO’s People House; RLP’s Treehouse; Expedia’s Seattle HQ / Marion Brenner; Google’s Kings Cross HQ / Thomas Heatherwick and BIG Architects; BMW Group’s HQ in Munich.


Methods for success

Why are Google and Expedia confident that their new buildings will stand the test of time? Why is it that BMW’s HQ has remained relevant and fit for purpose for half a century?

To design the kinds of workspaces that companies, teams and individuals require, it’s important to look beyond what we need them to accomplish today. Designing with flexibility will cater for changes that can’t be foreseen and help to retain and attract talent — it’s not just about attracting people back into the office today, it’s about keeping them with you in the long term. But how can you plan for this?

To illustrate how intO’s interdisciplinary team would approach this challenge, we asked our CEO and three of our Directors: How would you approach a client’s brief wishing to design the best workplace in the world? Here’s what they told us…

Joanna Brassett, intO’s Founder & CEO

Joanna is a specialist in combining design research with social science and strategic innovation, effortlessly turning cultural insights into design opportunities and business strategies. She has a BA (Hons) in Product Design from Central Saint Martins, and an MSc in Culture & Society from London School of Economics.

For Joanna, research in this space needs an interdisciplinary approach that combines sociology, social psychology and anthropology, as she explains.

‘An approach steeped in design ethnography is needed here to experience and understand the worker’s world and provide empathetic insights into how their lives revolve around the workplace. 

‘Design ethnography encompasses a host of exploratory research methods that provides understanding about users, their lives, their language and contexts. For example, digital diary studies (text, photography, video and audio, or a combination of all) can deliver rich information about participant engagements with behaviour, frustrations, situations and interactions. Similarly, directed storytelling – rooted in the social science method of narrative enquiry – uses thoughtful prompts, guides and framing questions to document a naturally flowing account of lived experience.   

‘With open minds, we would ask, “How can we create the best possible working environment for this particular workplace culture?” and then we would implement ethnographic methods that would allow us to discover patterns and themes from the qualitative data generated. We would look to understand how this company culture has been formed, how it has evolved, who was part of it and who was excluded from it, as well as the boundaries and behaviours within.

‘But it’s not just about the inside of the office, it’s also about what’s outside. How can employees make the most of the environment surrounding the office space and how could it benefit them? Can they go to the gym after work? Can they do their weekly shopping on their break? Are there spaces nearby that can ignite inspiration like a gallery or a museum?’

Joanna sees the role of the office becoming more like a cathedral, where employees go once or twice a week to connect with their work community and the business’ values and rituals. 

‘As humans, we want to feel part of a tribe, and we desire that defining culture as much as we need air. Why are people going to come to the office? Because they want to belong. It’s all down to the culture.’

Joanna Brassett

Chloe Amos-Edkins, intO’s Research Director

Chloe manages the delivery of global research and innovation projects, and uses her skills in balancing insight with inspiration to explore, test, and validate our clients’ future consumer landscapes and products. Her specialisms including consumer insight, trend research, visual language direction and CMF applied to a broad range of sectors including FMCG, retail, transport, electronics and digital products.

For Chloe, research to support the design of the ‘best workspace in the world’ would also need to be underpinned with foresight, ‘particularly when making investment-heavy decisions with long-term impact, foresight is your friend,’ she tells us. 

‘If our client is radically redesigning the future of the workplace, we might also utilise the method of backcasting. This involves the creation of scenarios from progressive views and alternative theories that envision how change might unfold. Backcasting is focused on first articulating a desired future, and then creating tangible mid-term and long-term goals and objectives that will activate that future from the present.’Chloe agrees with Joanna’s ‘cathedral metaphor’, but also stresses that the pace of technological change will also dictate the most fulfilling and efficient workplaces of the future.

‘Developments in AI, the metaverse and haptic devices are undoubtedly going to shape what workers across all fields will expect from the workplace — and offices will need to be designed resiliently to adapt and accommodate tech innovation.’

Chloe Amos-Edkins

Onika Simon, intO’s Strategy Director

Onika specialises in developing alternative approaches to research design and analysis. With a dual background in strategic consulting and art curation, her approach to problem solving combines a laser focus on relevance with experimental processes. She is particularly inspired by unexpected formats for engagement and projects that demonstrate a commitment to sustainability at every stage.

From Onika’s perspective, the importance of a participatory approach to research and design would be fundamental to creating the ‘best workspace in the world’. Human-centric methods that include co-design activities are, she says, often overlooked.

‘The accolade of ‘best workspace in the world’ could only be granted by the workers that the space serves. So, I would stress the importance of having a really deep engagement with these humans — about their working lives in general, and all the workspaces they inhabit as part of it. The process of research can be as creative and enriching as the insights it delivers — and there are so many different exploratory research methods that, I believe, are underused. 

‘I might begin by encouraging workers to write a love letter, and a break-up letter to the physical environments they work in. Personifying these spaces will reveal greater layers of sentiment than asking people about how they feel via a survey. Let’s get to the heart of the moments of delight, connection, belonging and loyalty that these environments provide them with. And let’s discover if, when and why the relationships are turning sour. 

‘It’s important to remember that the ‘office’ may be so steeped in the daily routine of many people, that its features and failures become almost unconscious — like a muscle memory. I’m a big fan of using exploratory techniques during the scoping phase of research, which help participants to develop new levels of awareness and a greater ability to articulate feelings about their [in this instance] working environment. A selection of cultural probes might be sent to participants, including workplace maps, materials, image prompts and recording devices. These exploratory probes don’t deliver data for formal analysis, but instead begin conversations that inform subsequent, informative research methods. 

‘If budget and practicality was no issue, another method of my dreams for this brief would be the adaptation of the graffiti wall. Let’s wrap the existing corporate office — and everything in it — in plain paper, and arm people with marker pens to capture anonymous and in-the-moment commentary about moments of frustration and desires for change!’

‘While technology is obviously a key driver for workplace change, there’s a danger that we get swept-up by the promises of new features and capabilities, rather than first understanding whether they sync with the very real needs and desires of the people who will use them in our workplace and hybrid contexts. For example, VR promises great benefits for many lines of work, but I’m yet to be convinced about its potential for hybrid knowledge workers.’

Onika Simon

Xenia Adjoubei, intO’s Associate Director

Xenia is a Research Specialist in development, territorial analysis and sustainability & emergent technology. She specialises in areas of culture, architecture and urbanism, and was lead researcher in the Global Free Unit – a network for education through live projects in contexts of rapid economic and political change, such as refugee and migration crises.

Xenia is also excited to see places of work becoming more akin to ‘experience destinations’, where space is considered as an intrinsic part of the brand, and its purpose is elevated above mere form and function. Employee welfare, however, is also a priority, as she explains.

‘I believe that the concept of equity will become more and more important – across every layer of work, from recruitment to locations, business operations and right through to culture. We might think about a workplace (even in the context of a well equipped and supported hybrid environment) as being a great equaliser; in theory, everyone has the same access to technology, devices and hardware, shelter, training, minds, mentors – and perhaps even nutrition. That’s great in theory; now how do we design work to ensure that this happens in practice? 

‘If I were answering this dream brief, I’d begin with a really deep and rich historical analysis that covered the global evolution of knowledge work and focused on the relationship between physical office spaces and the progression of workplace equity. 

‘I’m also really interested in geography and urbanism, and when I think of this brief, I’m reminded of the Mappiness project, run by London School of Economics. The Mappiness app operates as a modern-day beep study. At randomly-timed intervals, the app prompts participants to self-report things like their current feelings, who they are with, what they’re doing and what they can see. The study is particularly interested in how people’s happiness is affected by their local environment (factoring air pollution, access to green space, etc.). This could be a really interesting method for studying worker wellbeing in the office, its surrounding environment and when working from home.’

‘History, as well as foresight, can guide us to map possible trajectories and scenarios, and studying it can help us avoid time-worn mistakes.’

Xenia Adjoubei

Xenia stresses that a truly multi-disciplinary approach would be required to answer any brief with ambitions to design the ‘best workspace in the world’:

‘The problem often is that designers think it’s all about design; tech specialists think it’s all about technology; real estate specialists think it’s all about location. The truth is that it’s a complex soup made from all of these ingredients – and more. Going back to Joanna’s point, you might have the best office space, but if it does not connect with, and enhance, the culture of the workforce it hosts, it’s not going to forge any emotional attachment. Likewise, offices designed pre-pandemic, that don’t effectively support hybrid work, have become severely outdated in just a period of a few years. I’d love to be the person that brought all these disciplines together to answer this brief!’

If you’re interested in learning more about the work we do and how our interdisciplinary approach to research design could help your business, please get in touch with our Research Director, Chloe Amos-Edkins: [email protected]

Methods Future of Work Publications Innovation Research

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