Published on:

28 July 2021

Updated on:

12 October 2023

Read time:

11 minutes

Future workplace - Creating a workplace destination

In our latest webinar, Office Principles’ Hannah Robinson chaired a panel discussion with some of the key protagonists who are helping to shape the housing association’s new workplace destination.

  • Stephen Humphries, assistant director of development and sales at Saxon Weald, a housing association managing more than 7,000 rented and shared ownership homes across Sussex and Hampshire.
  • Hannah Nardini, workplace consultant and interior designer at WKspace, who specialise in commercial interior design, occupational psychology and change management.
  • Matthew Byway, managing director of environmental consultancy, Alphacello, who provide services in areas including environmental building services.

Since the global pandemic, we can be sure that nothing will be the same again.

The way that we think about the workplace has changed forever: offices will no longer simply be places to work in, but will become destinations that are both collaborative and creative, and focused on the wellbeing of people.

Saxon Weald is on a journey to create a workplace that has a purpose and delivers an experience.

Establishing a purpose

Saxon Weald has built a reputation for delivering great homes for its tenants but for its latest project, the housing association called on Office Principles to create a destination for its own employees.

Based in Horsham, West Sussex, Saxon Weald’s three-storey head office comprises more than 8,500 sq ft of space.

The problem? The workspace was originally designed for just 70 staff but had seen 140 desks crammed into a building that was last refurbished 20 years ago.

It was a situation that Saxon Weald’s leadership team wanted to change. Like many organisations, the pandemic proved to be the catalyst for kickstarting the process.

“We took the blinkers off and what was staring us in the face became clear,” explains Stephen Humphries. “Our culture was about to change!”

Saxon Weald established a project purpose and brief to meet three key corporate objectives:

  • Great customer experience
  • Be a great place to work
  • Value for money and be financially sound

Stephen adds: “We now understood that a complete remodelling of the head office was required to consider a new, more agile working ethos, where flexible working was a requirement.

“We wanted to provide a much larger meeting forum, space for extensive in-house training and a central café style eating area to avoid people eating at their desks or preparing food within the working environment. We also wanted to improve the office carbon footprint to provide an exemplar illustration of what can be achieved.”

Choosing an office design, consultancy & fit-out partner

Saxon Weald designs and builds homes, but by its own admission, commercial work is very different.

So how did the housing association approach the task of choosing the right partner to help take the project forward?

“With an idea of what we thought we needed and would cost, we undertook a two-stage tender process to invite office fit out companies to tender for the refurbishment of our office,” explains Stephen.

“We appointed Office Principles around three months later. Not only did their tender meet all of the criteria, the OP team had lots of enthusiasm for the project that matched our vision.

“Procurement isn’t just about price, it’s also about company ethos, people and added value. OP stood out as they understood where we were, our lack of experience in delivering a new office for the future and how they would work with us.”

A bold and brave project brief

Workplace consultant, Hannah Nardini specialises in understanding the psychology of work and the workers within.

Her consultancy, WKspace, works closely with organisations to understand their people and culture and creates statistically reliable strategies that help to produce smarter and more efficient workspaces.

Some of her clients can naturally become fixed on what they think their workspace should look like, regardless of the data and what their employees tell them. Not so Saxon Weald.

She says: “Saxon Weald were clear about their ambitions, despite the pandemic and that was really interesting as a lot of businesses were holding fire. It wasn’t a case of ‘wait and see what happens’, they wanted to make the project happen; it was a bold and brave brief. There was also an open mindedness, everything was on the table and that presented a real opportunity to do things in a different way.”

Hannah’s consultancy focused on four key activities:

  • Leadership visioning – a collaborative process that allowed each attendee to share their thoughts and opinions.
  • Engagement survey – a short employee survey with a 6.2 minute average response time, tailored to meet Saxon Weald’s objectives.
  • One to one interviews – with 15 employees, designed to better understand team dynamics.
  • Team workshops – an opportunity to ‘sense check’ gathered data and test new ideas.

Hannah explains: “Leadership visioning allows us to understand where a client’s baseline is, gauging views and building a direction of travel. It was clear that there was a strong people focused culture at Saxon Weald, people stay for a long time and are friendly and supportive. But there were challenges. It was felt that the office was uninspiring, cramped and had a lack of meeting space.

“Performance had actually improved during the pandemic and leaders believed that the lessons learned through greater flexibility, work life balance and online meetings, should be retained.”

Although short, the accompanying staff engagement survey has considerable value and meaning: every question counts.

It produced reliable and meaningful data, allowing Hannah and her team to build a greater understanding of Saxon Weald’s people. The results were revealing.

“What was particularly interesting was that people were heavily weighted in the extrovert category,” says Hannah. “They found working from home rewarding but social isolation was acute, so we didn’t want to undermine the culture. People wanted social space, collaborative working and to feel part of a work community.”

Moving the office refurbishment forward

The entire process – of engagement and data gathering – was quick. It took just three weeks to cover all levels of the organisation and consider the different perspectives that had been highlighted.

But how do you bring employees – many of whom have had an allocated desk space for the entirety of their career – into a future where spaces are entirely flexible?

Hannah says: “The most successful projects have leadership support, you cannot underestimate the impact of role modelling. We had a team who were leading this from the top but were also listening and that’s important as people will work with you if you bring them with you.

“People are realistic, they won’t ask for a swimming pool or a five a side football pitch. Yes you may get requests for beer on tap or dogs in offices but people have the best ideas and my job is to get those ideas out of their heads. With a little bit of insight, you can plan better and by engaging people you can better mould the direction the organisation should be taking.”

The message from Saxon Weald’s employees was loud and clear: share space; focus on wellbeing; introduce a flexible working framework and make the office a place people want to be.

A sustainable design

Organisations are becoming ever more conscious of their environmental responsibilities, which is driven, at least in part, by a need to meet government targets.

In the case of Saxon Weald, there is also a genuine desire to deliver a sustainable headquarters that will set the tone for how they approach the build and repair of all other properties in their possession.

Enter Matthew Byway, a sustainability consultant who worked on the next phase of the Saxon Weald project.

He looked at Saxon Weald’s pathway to zero carbon and how to dovetail that with the sustainability initiatives the organisation had already put in place. His work took in a host of design considerations, including sustainable materials, product selection and low impact carbon material and products.

Matthew also considered the impact of the project on employees.

He explains: “We looked at maximising daylight for them, providing them with ergonomic furniture and, with Covid requirements at the moment, we looked at indoor air quality too. We wanted to keep the staff awake, alert and really looking forward to coming into the office.”

To develop his facet of the project, Matthew used a sustainability accreditation. There are five such accreditations currently available on the marketplace, which can be problematic for occupiers to navigate.

Based on Saxon Weald’s requirements, Matthew elected to use SKA.

“SKA is a RICS approved assessment method that provides a benchmark for rating the sustainability of commercial fit outs,” says Matt. “It’s brilliant at scoping out the elements of a refurb project and helps tenants to assess fit out objectives against a set of sustainability good practice measures.”

Buildings are estimated to contribute to around 40% of the UK’s net zero carbon emissions.

Little wonder that the government has legislated a target of achieving net zero carbon on all new buildings by 2040 (or 2050 in the case of existing buildings).

How does this translate to Saxon Weald?

“We’re looking at passive design and energy efficiency measures. We’re looking at energy efficient systems and low in zero carbon sources, such as photovoltaic panels. We’re also now looking at how we monitor, verify and report on energy performance. They are all key things that have been designed into Saxon Weald’s project.”

Acquiring recognised accreditations such as SKA can also help people to feel safe and confident in returning to the office environment, providing genuine health benefits in the process.

“The beauty of accreditation systems is that they give you a very transparent way of proving that you’ve done the right thing and incorporated fantastic measures,” adds Matthew.

“Buildings play a leading role in supporting our health and wellbeing as well as our collective ability to prepare for and respond to health challenges, like the one we’re experiencing now. Sustainability criteria and accreditations can promote clean contact areas, improve air quality, maintain water quality and support movement and comfort.

“We can even strengthen our immune system by the types of things we put into buildings, whether it’s the filtration system or the lighting system and the way it’s designed can also foster mental resilience.”

Office Principles’ refurbishment of Saxon Weald’s headquarters is due to be completed later this year.

The speakers

Stephen Humphries

Assistant Director of Development and Sales

Saxon Weald

Hannah Nardini

Workplace Consultant and Interior Designer


Mathew Byway

Managing Director