Explore the Nest family
Explore

Published 23.11.2021

Interview — Space matters

Lene Becker is Founder and Director of LAIKA, a Copenhagen-based studio focusing on workspace design. With heavy emphasis on the activity based working environment Lene Becker and her studio have led workspace transformations for global companies like Vestas, Novo Nordisk and LEGO. LAIKA continues to be a driving force in the way we think, dwell and create in our offices.

LENE BECKER — Founder and Director, LAIKA.
University of Copenhagen, Work and Organisational Psychology, 2017.
Istituto Europeo di Design, Interior Decoration, 2005.
L’.cole Brassart de Dessin Publicitaire, Advertising, 1993.

How has the way we design our workplaces changed during the last 10 years?

“I’m particularly aware of the bad reputation open offices have got. People do not seem to understand the difference between open offices and the activity based working environment. The real change has been in the way we are starting to design our offices according to how we work. Still, even though most of us acknowledge the fact that we work in new and improved ways today compared to earlier, the layouts of many offices are basically the same. Today, work happens everywhere else than at our desk. Our job is to try to understand the various functions and facilities to support people in the work.”Often, because the company doesn’t facilitate the conversation about what a changed workspace means, you don’t win anything. Instead, you basically just lose your desk.

How would you describe workplace design today?

“I think the most important part is to understand how fluid our working day is. Hardly anyone comes into the office, sits by their desk in solitude and leaves eight hours later. People roam around. And that’s interesting. No matter the profession, most of us have two major needs: We need to be able to collaborate and we need to be able to focus.”

That’s it.

“Yes. In some departments the balance is 80/20, in others it might be 40/60, and sometimes it’s 50/50. But all of us need to be able to switch between these two states of mind throughout the day.”

And we are not ready for it?

“Lots of offices are designed with rows and rows of desks, and then identically looking meeting rooms. It’s very generic, and doesn’t align with the fact the people are involved in tons of different workflows all over the office throughout the day. The majority rarely spend time at their desk.” Concentration and collaboration. It doesn’t have to be more complicated than that.

“It’s the most important thing to understand. But apart from that we are not religious in any way. Some of our competitors work with generic concepts, a kind of onesize-fits-all, that they try to use every time. It also makes sense in many cases, but we try to push for solutions that include the staff. Simply by asking questions. What kind of group is it, what is the culture of the organization? Sometimes it almost feels like a violation if we take away their desks, so of course we need to have a conversation with them if we do it. Our work doesn’t have to avoid challenging the way things are, but we are probably a bit softer with heavier emphasis on the process. Some might consider us the hippies of the industry. We just insist that we need to include everyone to avoid empty facilities because people work from home.”

So what exactly do you focus on?

“Of course we always follow a process plan that might seem linear but rarely is. We always include people from management who understand how the physical surroundings can be used as a strategic tool, just like HR and IT play a significant role in the development of a company. They have to understand how a new office layout can foster better collaboration between domains, or create room for concentration and production and so on.”

It’s not only a way to save money.

“Exactly. When we split up tables or refurbish a space we make room for other facilities. Our job is to explain the potential to the management, and co-create a vision for the project. A vision can be to create innovation or to break down silos. And to help that vision come true we need to understand what kind of processes they have and how they work.”

And this does not always comply with the oldfashioned way of doing things?

“Different kinds of systems call for different rooms, different boards, different layouts. Our experience is that the more we invest in understanding the employees, the more respect and happiness we create. We create room for employees. And at the same time, at the end of the day our job is to design something that looks good. It’s hugely important. All of us know the feeling of visiting a home that is just a nice place to be. That’s the feeling we are trying to evoke.”

Are some industries more innovative than others when it comes to workplace design?

“A good rule of thumb is that a company has to dedicate a notable budget to workplace design to support its brand the best way possible. And that’s typically companies of a notable size. LEGO is a great case to explain that. They wanted to create an incredibly attractive campus, and continue to develop it, because they are located in Billund, Denmark, far from everything else. And because their competitors do the same, of course. Companies like LEGO understand how workplace design plays a vital role in recruitment and employee retention, and how you can evoke a certain feeling to a place instead of just putting up a big logo behind the reception desk.”

Mindful Monday, post-lunch meditation, walking lunches, Wednesday squats and the list goes on: LAIKA knows the importance of living the company culture instead of just talking about it.

It’s a matter of attracting the right people with more than just the job.

“Exactly. There’s a tremendous amount of company culture in this.”

And it’s a matter of more than just adding a lounge area here and there, I guess.

“All of us have seen offices with empty lounges that no one uses. Often, it’s simply because they are placed in a working zone. Add to that that there is no clearly defined culture about if it’s okay to sit down to read or chat, and the purpose of the sofas is completely lost. We like to say that our process is actually an organizational analysis, but instead of a report we design and furnish a space that supports the ways and beliefs of the organization.”

What’s an example of that?

“We often disband kitchenettes, and move the coffee machine and the snacks to a large area with project tables and boards that encourages people to stay for a while and have a conversation with their colleagues. We urge people to talk to each other, work with each other. We know how important it can be to drift off every once in a while, and we can meet that need by having for example a jigsaw puzzle on a table and encourage people to put it together. Simple things like that. By doing so, your mind connects in a completely new way when you go back to work.”

Some companies might have doubts that they lose working hours by putting out jigsaw puzzles?

“Absolutely. There are also lots of companies that we don’t work for. Companies that think we are preaching some terrible nonsense. But I believe there’s enough examples of incredibly talented organizations with plenty of work for studios like ours.”

Is your recipe the right one always?

“Not at all. But there have been so many bad solutions. Lots of projects where things just don’t work. When I give keynotes, I usually start by saying sorry. The difference between the open office plan and the activity based office is that you go from free seating and back to fixed seating. Often, because the company doesn’t facilitate the conversation about what a changed workspace means, you don’t win anything. Instead, you basically just lose your desk.”

And then you refrain from it.

“Indeed. And that’s because of the human aspect of belonging. We want to belong. We like to feel and know what we are a part of. And of course have colleagues and be close to them.”

“Often, because the company doesn’t facilitate the conversation about what a changed workspace means, you don’t win anything. Instead, you basically just lose your desk.”

Are companies aware of the importance of good workplace design?

“Lots of companies are not aware of it to begin with. But as soon as we begin to talk about it, they are quick to realise its potential. Every once in a while companies invite me to a briefing where I’m told that they need 300 workstations and 30 meeting rooms. I respond, ‘how do you know that? How do you work today? Do you even know how you are going to work in two years, or how many colleagues you are going to have then?’ And then they look really, really tired.”

What problems do they want you to solve?

“What we see a lot is empty workstations, people roaming the office to look for quiet areas to talk on the phone, or desperately looking for an empty meeting room or just anywhere with a whiteboard. Or a person on the phone in a meeting room with room enough for 10 people. When we begin to have a conversation about what we see, companies usually realise that they cannot just do like they always did. They need to reconsider lots of things. But basically, it’s just a matter of trying to understand what people value.”

LAIKA’s office in Copenhagen, Denmark.

In your opinion, what’s the most important or interesting trends in workplace design?

“The human dimension. What people actually need. Change is impossible if we fundamentally want to change the work people collaborate without involving them. The new black in workplace design is something called biofeelia. Not so long ago we just called it plants. The new thing is an understanding of the importance of access to nature, birdsong and lots of green vegetation to feel good. It can be outlook from the window, furniture made from natural wood, the tactility and materiality of textiles and so on.”

What happens if companies do not consider the design of the workplace?

“We’ll end up with terrible and boring offices that people are a bit ashamed of and do not want to invite clients in to. There’s no sense of belonging. No pride. I like to compare the office to our private homes. Sometimes we are proud to have guests and show them around. Other times, not so much. If you don’t take pride in your physical surroundings, there’s a lack of ownership to it, it’s not worth it. Things don’t matter.”

How do you think workplaces are going to look in 5-10 years?

“I believe the future is going to be a lot more flexible than today, with not only changing processes during a day but also changing competences. Teams need to be able to fluctuate between early-stage and late-stage projects, so everything we work on has to be portable and flexible. And then of course we need to see and acknowledge the individual all the time.” +

HOW DOES YOUR OWN WORKSPACE LOOK? DO YOU HAVE YOUR OWN TABLE?

We are around 25 people and our office is 500 m2. I guess we have 20 workstations. No fixed seating. We have a few fly-in spots, and then regular workstations in our project area where we also store our projects. We have a communal eating area, meeting rooms and a lounge area. During my workday I’ll typically be seated in our fly-in area because I’m in so many meetings. I don’t really need two screens. The last fantastic thing is that we have a quiet zone where we are only allowed to contact a colleague if something is extremely important.

AND WHAT HAPPENS AT WORK?

We work a lot with different concepts throughout the week: Mindful Monday, post-lunch meditation, walking lunch on Tuesdays, Wednesday squats, Thursday wine and so on. We have a walking map by our door that says “Just go already.” Our company is named after a dog, and we have a few illustrations of a dog doing squats in the area where we also have yoga mats. We are trying to express our company culture in so many ways instead of writing it on the wall.”

WHEN ARE YOU MOST EFFECTIVE? OR MOST CREATIVE?

It’s an interesting question. I think our society’s notion of effectiveness and creativity is utterly wrong. We usually understand being effective as being productive, but this basically leads to stress. The majority of my own workday consists of talking to people, being available, and meeting clients. Was I effective? Yes. Did I produce anything? No. But I know that if I have to produce anything, I can be found in the silent zone.”

THAT’S INTERESTING.

It’s the same with creativity. Our idea of creativity is to create something from nothing. But you can be creative in so many different ways, be it alone or together with your colleagues. One of the great miscoceptions of our time, in my opinion, is that just being available without actually being productive doesn’t add any value. It certainly does. When are we creating? What is your job really? Questions like these are extremely important if we want to avoid working from home tomorrow because we didn’t do anything today. Yes, you did. You had a massive impact on your workspace and on your colleagues. Things overlap. They are connected. The workspace has to be as well.

WHAT IS THE SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT FACTOR IN RECENT YEARS THAT HAS SIGNIFICANTLY CHANGED YOUR WORK LIFE FOR THE BETTER?

The corona virus has to be the factor with the biggest impact. And while the situation was of course unhappy, it also came with a potential paradigm shift. Leaders have seen how their employees are actually working even though they are not being watched, and this faith in people may result in pay for results instead of working hours. And with that comes a much greater openness towards new ways of accommodating ourselves at work.
We’ve also seen how employees are not necessarily happy with sitting alone by themselves and just producing. There’s a lot of co-creation and knowledge sharing going on during a day, and we now know how essential community is to our work life. With the right management and dedicated communication I believe this comes with great potential for new habits and a stronger corporate culture.