You can lead your clients to water, but can you make them drink?
Gray Puksand’s Heidi Smith details how designers are now not only
designing spaces, but lasting and sustainable organisational change

Heidi Smith believes the biggest mistake a designer can make is assuming they know the solution before they design the workplace. The Melbourne-based Partner at Gray Puksand has spent the past 12 years specialising in workspace strategy and knows a thing or two about designing environments that enhance employees’ experience. For Smith, adopting a ‘people matter’ design approach is necessary in delivering actual workplace change. “Designers who only respond to the latest hottest strategy without taking the time to get to know their clients may ultimately only be designing pretty spaces,” she explains. “But unless those spaces provide for the client’s needs, they can’t be considered successful.”  

Adopting people-focused design strategies is integral to realising a responsive workplace, because insight into the client’s needs is only gained through an understanding of a company’s culture, as well as through exploration of the project’s opportunities and constraints. To this end, Smith regularly utilises intensive workshops and focus groups, uncovering her client’s corporate personality to formulate a design expression based on this personalised foundation. 

Gray Puksand’s recent Australia Post office fit-out in Melbourne’s Lonsdale Street is the result of such people-focused client engagement. As Smith says, “We spent over four months getting to know the teams that would be occupying the space, understanding their challenges and aspirations and testing various outcomes before we even put pen to paper for the test fits.” The final scheme reflects the staff’s commitment to wellbeing, which is expressed through a domestic scale fit-out incorporating informal meeting areas and intimate booth seating. 

This focus on wellbeing in the workplace is not uncommon and Smith has noticed the emphasis business leaders place on the happiness of their staff has increased exponentially in recent years. This shift has given rise to the agile workplace, resulting in flexible work environments that not only feature more end-of-trip facilities, but also accommodate spaces for in-house yoga, healthy food offerings and gyms. In this knowledge economy investing in employees is crucial to a company’s performance; there’s no denying organisations are only ever as good as their people.

But while well considered people-focused design can enhance and influence employees’ experiences within a workplace, it can’t do so on its own. “Delivering actual change is an immeasurable prospect and design is only one part of the overall puzzle that is cultural change,” explains Smith. “Actual change relies on people and their individual attitudes. It also relies on the collective understanding that an organisation has on agreed behaviours and aspirations.” 

A design engagement program must run in conjunction with a cohesive change management strategy, and together this will yield the best opportunity for delivering actual workspace cultural change. So informal meeting areas and booth seating may be popular features in contemporary workplace design, but they won’t be effective tools for change unless all employees are properly educated in how to use them as, for example, part of the company’s overall operations strategy. Smith also understands that achieving the desired type of workplace interaction can only happen if employees themselves feel invested. Tailoring design decisions so they convey a relatable story serves to reinforce the company’s vision, ultimately supporting and encouraging its cultural aspiration

 

Words
— Leanne Amodeo

Photography
— Christine Francis