New presence culture

Reimagining the workplace: The office lost its dominance during the Covid-19 pandemic and is now jockeying for position with working from home, third places and the workation. Innovatively designed work environments are providing vital inspiration. By Elke Hildebrandt

The New Work Harbour in Hamburg’s HafenCity district is widely regarded as one of Germany’s most attractive workspaces. The innovative and digitally optimised headquarters of New Work SE (the company behind brands such as Xing and Kununu) provide an insight into new ways of working across around 20,000 square metres of rental space. There are no traditional offices here, nor any fixed workstations. The accent is on open-plan office landscapes, combined with quiet zones and funky creative spaces that don’t feel like work at all. The quirky options include a cosy fireside lounge, a characterful pub and a fully equipped band rehearsal room. “We’ve created a place that is radically unlike the office we’ve always known,” explains Petra von Strombeck, CEO of New Work SE. “Alongside rooms for discussion, collaboration and focused work, there are plenty of spaces to relax and recharge,” reflecting the belief that “nobody can be productive all the time, we absolutely need mental distractions as well.” 

How hybrid working environments measure up – the unknown quantity

So what additional perks – critics like to talk dismissively about “ball pits” – are worth the investment? And how much office space do you need to create an attractive hybrid work environment? When planning for the move to New Work Harbour began in 2019, the company allowed for a sharing ratio of 1.2 people per traditional workstation. However, that figure almost doubled over the course of the pandemic as more experience was gained with remote working. New Work SE soon realised that the ratio needed to be amended upwards to 2:1. Requirements had thus changed quite markedly by the move date of September 2021. Less space was needed overall, while there was an increased demand for coworking spaces. Robert Stüer, managing director at Schnittger Architekten + Partner and one of the architects responsible, recalls that “the sharing ratio was increased significantly due to the pandemic.” He believes that going forward, hybrid working companies will only need half as much space as previously, or maybe even just a third. At the same time, he admits that anyone who does go into the office will expect to find an attractive workplace. 

Plenty of space for offices with a non-work vibe

Rather than taking less space in the iconic office building, New Work SE decided to go ahead as the anchor tenant. The opportunity was taken to create a whole range of new workspace options on the sixth floor, opening up creative potential for the 900 or so employees with stunning views across the River Elbe. While floors two to five were designed as work zones for the various teams, as per the original plan, the top floor was transformed into a unique coworking space. It is now home to completely new space concepts that are ideal for flexible, creative collaboration. “The pandemic has shown that we missed interaction and physical closeness when working from home for extended periods. We need a space where our corporate culture can really come alive,” explains Petra von Strombeck. Christoph Stanek, Senior Manager for Corporate Communications at New Work SE, stresses the importance of the employee perspective: “We need to create incentives if we’re to be seen as an attractive employer. The office is a key component of an employer’s brand.” 

In Vienna, digital company New Work SE acquired a historic building close to Schottentor gate and transformed it into an office that applies the new principles of collaboration, participation and autonomy. Nonterritorial workstations are interspersed with meeting rooms, creative islands, quiet corners and many other areas.
NEW WORK SE/Rafaela Pröll

Giving some space – literally

Through adopting new working patterns, companies also break down traditional hierarchies and provide space for agile leadership and new structures. The associated cultural transformation fundamentally alters the design of the organisation. “When it comes to developing new ways of working, some companies are still behind the curve while others are forging ahead,” comments Martin E. J. Becker, based on his own experience. A partner at Drees & Sommer, he is an expert on workplace consulting. Becker also stresses that trust-based working hours are an essential prerequisite for reaping the benefits of new working patterns. For staunch advocates like New Work SE, the company name speaks for itself. The building at Am Strandkai 1 gives staff space in the truest sense of the word. The spaces and furnishings are digitally state-of-the-art, multifunctional and as versatile as a Swiss Army knife. The move to the new headquarters was explicitly viewed as a change process, with employees closely involved in the two-year planning phase and year-long refurbishment/remodelling. 

Chameleons are the epitome of adaptability. Their unique survival strategy is also gaining in importance for office workplaces. The growing need for communication and collaboration must be facilitated across different work locations such as the office base, homeworking environment and popular third places.
Drees & Sommer SE

Imagine you’ve got an office and it’s half empty

“When introducing new working patterns, establishing the right office concept is really about analysing the company’s DNA,” says Daniel Sieber, managing director of planning and consultancy company Sieber. The Berlin-based architect has worked on all of New Work SE’s office spaces across Europe since 2016. He not only designed and implemented the concept for New Work Harbour, he also refurbished a landmark historic building in Vienna and collaborated with the workforce there to transform it into the New Work Base. Importantly, the innovative working environments created in Vienna, Hamburg and elsewhere are not static, nor can they be simply applied to another location. But they do provide inspiration, above all for the workforce. “We intentionally invest in generously proportioned, well-equipped spaces because we believe it allows us not only to recruit great people but to retain them,” explains Stanek. That naturally leads on to the question which is currently uppermost for office tenants, property investors and owner-occupiers: “What must a modern office provide in order to differentiate itself from home-based environments and exert a gravitational pull on employees?” Instructing staff to return to the office does not really sit well with the ethos of a new, self-determined world of work. Accordingly, New Work SE has had a 60:40 rule in place since May. This states that employees may spend 60 percent of their time working away from headquarters; team members agree among themselves on the remaining 40 percent. Since then, occupancy has fluctuated between 20 and 70 percent. Stanek stresses that the new arrangement is still in the trial phase. 

The office as an employer brand’s flagship store

Drees & Sommer, a consultancy specialising in construction and real estate, has been at the forefront of new working concepts for many years and also practises what it preaches. The company has created two so-called New Work Hubs at its offices in Stuttgart and Munich. This transformation work has been recognised with multiple prizes, including the Munich office picking up the international “Best Workspaces 2022” award for architecture. The newly designed space at the Munich site mimics the structures of a small town and provides parallel facilities for collaboration, communication and focused work as well as for relaxation and refreshment. A marketplace forms the heart of the office. Employees no longer have their own dedicated workstation; instead, desk sharing offers the opportunity to make the most economical and flexible use of the office space. 

Alongside the commercial dimension, workplace expert Becker also highlights the emotional aspects: “If you want to stay ahead in the world of the workplace, you need to invest in the quality of your space. It needs to showcase the employer’s brand in much the same way as a flagship store. You have to be able to feel and experience the brand values and corporate culture.” Becker also attaches great importance to the fact that materials and furnishings are chosen according to the Cradle-to-Cradle principle, as an expression of a company’s environmental awareness.

Digitalisation makes hybrid environments work smarter

Overall, the office has simultaneously become both more and less important since the pandemic. Drees & Sommer believes that offices now form a new counterpoint to mobile working and third places – and complement those options, as explained in its Workspace Benchmark 2021 trend study. What are now needed are work environments that facilitate the different ways people work and support the different places they work. There is no avoiding the rise of office digitalisation, with developments such as booking apps and smart building technologies. The use of technology should not be an end in itself, though, nor should it be restricted to standalone solutions, says Lars Scheidecker, CEO of Union Investment Real Estate Digital GmbH. “Deploying technology to accommodate new ways of working is about streamlining our everyday (working) lives, linking different work types and locations, and escaping the constraints of traditional work practices – whether in the office, when working from home or at the gym in your lunch break.”

These changes will feel big for doubters of desk sharing, and these new workspace concepts will not suit every business. The aspiration of creating an attractive workplace that people can use if they wish, but are not required to attend, takes some getting used to at first. The same applies to the individual freedom and different management culture that come with it. In many cases, these new experiences have yet to be made. The office world is clearly facing a major transformation process and it remains to be seen to what extent the new presence culture becomes established.

By Elke Hildebrandt

Title image: NEW WORK SE

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