The Welcoming Workplace research study was carried out jointly by academics in the UK, Japan and Australia.

Ready for future demands

By 2020, nearly half of the adults in the European Union will be over the age of 50. In the developed world the combination of increased longevity and low birth rates is causing long-term demographic change that will inevitably impact upon the world of work. Staff will increasingly work beyond today’s normal retirement age and this will require changes to work patterns and to the design of the workplace itself.

This is one of the challenges that Kinnarps has considered very seriously in the development of new workplace products and it has underpinned this development work with investment in robust research.

‘Welcoming Workplace’ is a recent Kinnarps UK supported research project, undertaken by The Helen Hamlyn Centre at the Royal College of Art, London, in partnership with Kyushu University in Japan and the University of Melbourne in Australia.

The project focused on the issue of an ageing workforce with specific reference to the knowledge economy, in which many older people now find themselves working.

The term ‘knowledge worker’ was initially used to describe doctors, academics, scientists and similar professionals, but is now taken to include most executive and managerial roles within business,industry and government. It refers to work that depends on applying theoretical knowledge and learning, rather than on the use of formulae and repetitive process.

Knowledge workers drive the success of many modern organisations and the attraction and development of such talented people has become a priority. A key goal for management, and in turn for office designers, is to find ways to improve the performance of knowledge workers, many of whom tend to be older because they have acquired their high level of professional experience and expertise over the course of a long career.

“Changes are required for an aging work force, both in the way that we work and in workplace design.What is most important for us is to work towards future requirements and to start to change our way of thinking now.”

The ‘Welcoming Workplace’ research studied knowledge workers aged over 50 in three ‘knowledge industries’ (pharmaceuticals, technology and financial services) in three different countries. The purpose of the study was to use a range of design research methods to give a voice to the ‘silent’ group of older knowledge workers,including research chemists,process engineers and financial analysts, within the work environment – the researchers having recognised them as a group that traditionally avoids drawing attention to itself.

Research was carried out in the offices of major companies in London,Yokohama and Melbourne. Both older workers and the senior managers in departments such as facilities, property and occupational health, who are responsible for their welfare and productivity, were interviewed. Experimental design interventions were then built onsite,in rapid response to the findings, to further deepen the dialogue around people’s expectations, needs and preferences. More than 80 corporate staff worldwide participated in the study.

The findings of the research project can be divided into two categories: the physical requirements of the workplace, and how the office can support different work styles.
The findings were then used to produce a detailed report, written by Dr John Smith of the London architectural practice JSA Architecture and sponsored by Kinnarps UK, which provides design guidance for office developers, designers and facilities managers on ways to help older knowledge workers remain productive at work for longer.

The report provides guidance on five types of physical and psycho-social requirements: vision, hearing, physical ergonomics, cognition and health and wellbeing.

The report also investigates various ways of working that are not always catered for in the average open plan office. In particular, the need for three alternative types  of space for knowledge work was identified: spaces to collaborate, to concentrate and to contemplate.

“One of the most important conclusions from the study is that the open-plan offices which have dominated for so long are far from ideal for older employees.”

Welcoming Workplace identified that a design approach, which introduces general workplace improvements that benefit the whole workforce, is more likely to succeed in supporting the specific requirements of older workers than singling them out for special needs design.

The research project and the report have been used as the basis for a touring seminar on workplace design, which has been accredited by the Royal Institute of British Architects. A Welcoming Workplace exhibition visited the Royal College of Architecture and Kinnarps’ London Showroom and a book ‘New Demographics New Workspace: office design for a changing workforce’, written by the leading members of the research team, will be published by the World’s foremost business publisher, Gower, this Spring.

SUSANNE HELGESON