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Special | the office after the office
initiated by Evoline
Offices are like Grand Prix racing
Adeline Seidel talks to
Tanya Ruegg and Stefan Camenzind
10/22/2013

Adeline Seidel: You say that you combine emotional design with Swiss quality. I can well imagine what Swiss quality is, but what is “emotional design,” and what do we need it for?

Tanya Ruegg: Frequently, spaces are given as neutral a design as possible, especially offices. After all, tastes differ and you don’t want to “annoy” people. As a result, the feeling these spaces exude is likewise somehow “neutral”. In our designs we place people and their feelings at the very center of things. People should feel good, and above all feel something. You can kindle various feelings by consciously giving spaces different designs. What’s important is the ‘mixture’ of spaces, so that there’s something at hand for each design preference as well as for different moods.

Tanya Ruegg and Stefan Camenzind from the architectural office "Camenzind Evolution" in their office in Zurich. Photo © Adam Drobiec

How do you go about pinpointing the users’ preferences, needs and wishes?

Stefan Camenzind: We have various ways of engaging with the users, all depending on the size of the company, for example workshops, interviews, online surveys and discussions with psychologists. But if we want to create something the users have not yet experienced, then the question “What do they want?” does not get us anywhere. We want to get to the bottom of wishes that cannot be readily formulated by asking questions such as: “What are their needs?”, “What are the company’s core values?”, “With what values do you identify?”

Tanya Ruegg: The design of the “Google” office is a mixture of ideas that we devised in workshops held with staff members as well as aiming to convey the company’s values and identity. Moreover, we developed various psychological survey and analysis methods in order, among other things, to study types of personality and perceptual patterns. What was interesting about “Google” was that the majority of the staff were one type of person, and the specific design of the setting was meant to support the everyday activities of that type.

We took a look around in the office that has with his designs influenced workplaces all over the world. Photo © Adam Drobiec
Photo © Adam Drobiec

This kind of examination tends to entail qualitative analysis. Do you also use quantitative methods in the surveys?

Tanya Ruegg: Of course! For example, we measure how often and how long a meeting room gets used. And also the size of offices and the paths the staff cover. That said, our design methodology hinges on working with psychologists and spatial psychologists.

Given there’s so much preliminary effort involved before the design starts, do you also monitor after project turnkey, to see whether the design met your objectives?

Stefan Camenzind: Offices are like Grand Prix racing – you’ve always got to improve. And you won’t if you only sit down together every five years. This is why many companies have an annual budget to adapt and improve their premises. They consider their employees their key asset – and the greatest cost factor, which is why the surroundings need to be the best possible.

Tanya Ruegg: We often use quantitative methods in our monitoring work, such as measuring usage: Which rooms are used how often and for how long? Qualitative measurements would, for example, be “measuring appreciation”. It’s crucial to use both methods. Only if we take usage and appreciation together do we start to focus on the real value of something, functionally and culturally.

Photo © Adam Drobiec
Photo © Adam Drobiec

Could you give an example of how the results of these studies are then brought to bear on adapting the office architecture?

Tanya Ruegg: A good example would be the slide in the “Google” head office in Zurich. Measurements showed it is only used sporadically. So one could assume the “thing” is a waste of space and should be abolished. But when we asked “Google” staff “What does the slide mean to you?” we found out that they all greatly appreciated it, even if they did not use it. All in all, the slide constitutes the single greatest identification factor in the building. So removing it would be a disaster! Other elements, such as the igloo, are used rarely and not appreciated, which is why they’re no longer there.

You’ve said you believe companies should invest more in office design that has a real benefit. What do you mean?

Tanya Ruegg: Few employees attach great importance to a desk. Whether a desk is expensive or not neither boosts productivity nor makes the staff member in question happy. What makes a huge difference, however, is whether the coffee machine is good or not! And a company should therefore focus on investing most in what makes a difference from the staff’s point of view.

Not that the “Google” offices you designed are especially cost-effective.

Stefan Camenzind: “Google” is super cost-effective! The cheapest desks available on the market were used. And the room dividers also cost very little. Acoustically they’re good, even if they fly in the face of any architect’s sense of beauty. But that’s not important, as the users neither notice these details nor appreciate them. That said, 20 “Googlers” spent six months discussing which pool table by which brand should be purchased, and what surface it should have.

What are the biggest technical challenges when planning office environments such as the one for “Google”?

Tanya Ruegg: Technology takes absolute pride of place. Lighting, illumination, ventilation, ambient surroundings – these factors have to be perfect for the concept to work. That said, user requirements speak a very clear language: Today employees attach prime importance to being able to work flexibly, so they might swap their desk for the kitchenette, the sofa or their home, and this is something we need to bear in mind. My advice would be not to place any restrictions on employees. This should be standard practice in all offices.

Stefan Camenzind: Nowadays, thanks to the invention of Wi-Fi, equipment battery runtime poses the only limitation on our working habits. For our planning, this means that power must above all be supplied at the work station, but then also everywhere else, be it in the gondola, diner, kitchen or garden. In a “Google” office, all informal items of furniture are therefore unobtrusively equipped with the necessary technology.

Photo © Adam Drobiec

How flexible are these office environments as regards power supplies when structural changes are being introduced to the layout of the rooms?

Stefan Camenzind: In our planning, we tend to position power points on the floor, but they are not permanently installed in the false floor. Usually there is a grid in place that makes it easy for us to open up the floor and move the power point a few meters to where it is needed. Drilling a hole in the false floor is very easy and the cables can be laid accordingly. It’s all very simple really.

Tanya Ruegg: It’s important that cables are easily accessible, ideally right at the desk. Also, it would be annoying to have to take my charger along with me everywhere, so it’s a good idea to have charging points installed throughout the office. Essentially, these are very simple things, however, in the majority of today’s offices they have not been done properly. More than often you see floors covered in a mess of cables. Or there are too many cables to fit into the cable duct of the conference table. I’m really astonished at the state of conditions I get to see. Still – it’s important to have fancy and expensive furniture!

Why do you think that is?

Tanya Ruegg: The reason is that the needs of the user often take a backseat between the expectations of “buying nice furniture” and “having beautiful architecture”. Another thing is that during the planning process in a major company the purchasing and IT divisions often don’t get the opportunity to exchange their ideas. The fact we succeeded in bringing them together in the planning for “Credit Suisse” was almost revolutionary.

Stefan Camenzind: We joined forces with the IT division, the telecommunications provider, procurement and the “architectural division” and wired up a desk by way of experiment. It soon transpired that there were far too many cables for the desk at hand. Which shows that by bringing the various divisions together it’s indeed possible to make considerable savings and prevent things going in the wrong direction, or substandard equipment from being purchased.

Photo © Adam Drobiec

What is the life expectancy of the superbly tailor-made office rooms such as we find for “Credit Suisse” or “Google”, especially given the wide spectrum of different rooms currently provided?

Tanya Ruegg: We don’t do what we do purely for the reason that something happens to be “trendy” or because it might suit our taste. We do these things in full awareness of the users’ needs and see to it that they reflect the values and culture of the company. We know from experience that rooms with certain values attached to them will not diminish in “popularity”. Sure, our requirements may change, however our values and beliefs tend to resist change or hardly change at all.

› www.camenzindevolution.com

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