How to Design a Workplace that Works

Thinking about moving to new office space or renovating the one you already have? Douglas asks top commercial designers how to get the best results — and visits the United Way’s stylish new space and Workday’s funky yet functional digs for examples of how to do it right.

Photograph by Jeffrey Bosdet.

lot of people spend more of their waking hours at their workplaces than at home, yet most offices just aren’t the sort of venues they would opt to spend more time at.

Not so for the almost 40 employees of Workday, whose 7,000-square-foot Victoria office was designed to be the extension of a playful and eclectic home.

“People come into the space and go, ‘Like, wow. I can really visualize myself working here,” says Stuart Bowness, Workday’s vice-president of media cloud engineering.

Their Bastion Square office exudes warmth and a feeling of community. It’s functional, yet swathed in sophistication. Open work spaces, bold colours, exposed brick, comfy couches and vintage items reflect Workday’s culture.

The eclectic space also became a recruitment tool. “We were able to bring the best and brightest engineers to the city. It correlated with our workspace. They love it. It continues to be why people choose to work in our office,” Bowness says, adding that the roughly $150,000 spent to create the office they wanted was definitely a savvy investment.

Kyla Bidgood and her team at Victoria’s Bidgood + Co. created Workday’s office, starting even before new space for the rapidly growing tech company was chosen and working with their client until the last piece of furniture was assembled.

Workday’s office, designed by Kyla Bidgood of Bidgood + Co., highlights the company’s lively, playful and positive work environment, and features unique elements such as private meeting and breakout areas. Photograph by Jeffrey Bosdet.

Bidgood, one of only 22 registered interior designers (RIDs) on Vancouver Island, says owners often have great ideas about a new office design. But then, as they get into it, they abandon once-ambitious plans because they’re too busy running their businesses. So usually, the result is less than appealing and doesn’t reflect the company’s mission or its culture.

“I’ll walk into an office and have no idea what they do,” says Bidgood. “The space doesn’t tell their story.” 

She also gets calls from business owners who tell her something “doesn’t feel right” in their office. Problems include purchasing unsuitable office furniture, too-obvious over-branding, keeping the square footage too low and ignoring employees’ comfort and wishes.

When Bidgood takes over, it’s performance time. “A good designer is like an actor. We put the client’s personality through our filter, using our expertise.”

Some of that expertise includes not thinking about design in a sequential way.

“[Professional designers] are taught to think in a non-linear way. We approach problems from all angles,” says Ann Squires Ferguson, RID, a partner at Victoria’s Western Interior Design Group. Often a client will tell her they need a new space, but in reality they’re not using their current space efficiently. For example, graphic designers will be in one area, sales people in another. Instead, the office should be designed to create “collisions” where those who need to talk to each other do so in naturally occurring, meaningful encounters.

Squires Ferguson doesn’t view design as some rarified practice where she comes in from on high and dispenses specialized knowledge. Instead, the goal is to design an office that makes people who work there happy and thus boosts productivity — which is why she spends much time speaking with owners and employees.

“We’re bringing humans into spaces,” Squires Ferguson says. “It’s not about the space. It’s about the people.”

To gather intel, she interviews staff and stakeholders to understand their wishes and concerns. She then synthesizes the information and creates bubble-like diagrams that are brought back to the client. Space is sorted into public/private and active/passive categories, not into departments. She also creates three layouts, giving the client choice.

“I spend time looking at how the space supports the purpose of the business. People ask me about paint colours on the first phone call. That’s so far down the line,” she notes.

According to Ann Squires Ferguson, wall graphics, such as the one in United Way’s reception and the ones along the hall, are a small investment and wonderful way to promote brand messaging. Photograph by Jeffrey Bosdet.

Last summer, Squires Ferguson began consultations with the United Way of Greater Victoria as the organization relocated from a three-storey Fort Street space to a 7,100-square-foot, singe-floor space on Courtney Street. By December, the 20 staff moved into what the United Way’s director of operations calls a “fresh, beautiful space with lots of colour.

“Even the landlord was surprised,” says Janet Tudor. “There were no glitches. We had to do a demolition and were on a tight time frame, had to get materials quickly, yet we came in on budget and on time.”

Gone were the cubbyhole offices in favour of open, light-filled spaces. As well, because Western Interior Design acts as contractor during construction, it shepherds the project through all stages, even travelling to Vancouver to oversee the purchase of office furniture. 

One notable and often overlooked problem when new office space is acquired is that clients don’t realize how long it can take to get new furniture, or else they opt for off-the-shelf, assemble-it-yourself furniture, which is typically poor quality and not suited to office demands, Bidgood notes.

Georgi-Anna Sizeland, an RID with 30 years of commercial experience, believes office space has to be strategic. “It needs to be purposeful. What behaviours do you want to encourage in this space?” asks Sizeland. Creating a setting where the balance between collaborative efforts and heads down to work is one goal.

A solution is to design hubs where the coffee area overlaps with the meeting area. As Ferguson notes, such spots become places where ideas are traded. Others choose the middle ground: few offices, open work areas, some private spaces, stand-up counters and lounge areas, Sizeland says. “Clients think when they lease existing space, they can drop people in. That doesn’t work.”

Like Squires Ferguson and Bidgood, Sizeland interviews a cross-section of staff or, with large companies, uses focus groups. She finds how employees spend their work days, what the company culture is and what employee expectations are. For instance, older workers may like to shut doors and work in private spaces, while younger employees may prefer communal space, she says. As Workday’s Bowness notes, “Try to get a millennial to work in a cubicle; good luck.”

In the end, a good design solution should save the company time and money. For a 30-person company, if Sizeland reduces the per-person office space by, say, 10 or 20 square feet, presto, there’s the space for a meeting area or lounge. “And for a small company that’s growing quickly, that’s leasing space for only a short time, why use 10-year carpet when three-year carpet will work?” she says.

Workday has worked with Kyla Bidgood since 2013 and is now working with her again to prepare for the company’s move to its spanking-new, 15,000-square-foot offices in the under-construction development at 1515 Douglas. For Bowness, this relationship highlights the importance of choosing a commercial designer whose style you like and whom you get along with at a personal level, because the process is highly collaborative.

He recalls that when he first saw the once-barren Bastion Square space, he couldn’t imagine its potential.

“Kyla saw it. She made the space eye-popping,” Bowness says.

He also sees the dollars and sense in bringing in a designer instead of relying on staff. “If I would have loaded the work on our management team,” he notes, “it would have been a hugely burdensome task. If you can outsource it and get a professional to do it, you’re massively ahead.”

Bidgood and her team coordinated the work, ran interference with the contractors, ordered the goods and furniture, installed it all and, oh yes, did the design.

“They probably saved us a huge amount of pain,” Bowness says, “delivering a product far above what we would have visualized.”