Architecture / Interior /

Designing People-First Workspaces

Architect and interior designer Steven Shaw is the mastermind behind gems such as Western Union’s regional headquarters in Australia, Unilever’s office in Jakarta and MTR’s corporate headquarters in Hong Kong. As the executive principal of Singapore-based Aedas Interiors, Shaw has 30 years’ experience in the corporate and retail sectors, designing more than 1,000,000 sqm in projects. “When it comes to the workplace, what makes my work different is my people-first approach,” Shaw said at a talk for the launch of VIVERE’s showroom at Jakarta Design Center in May. Delivering a mind-blowing talk on rethinking the workplace, Shaw shared how history repeats itself in the office while it also evolves. Here Indonesia Design chats with Shaw.

Photo by Bagus Tri Laksono
 and Steven Shaw doc


What were your first office design projects?

I was working for HLW in New York in the architectural group and they needed help for Chemical Bank’s world headquarters. I was on loan. I worked with Bob Brandt, who has written a couple of books on the workplace. Bob taught me a lot about facility programming and everything else–and that led to other things. I went to the Eggers Group and did WOR-TV’s office in Seacucus and it went from there.

How did you end up in Asia?

I was offered a job in Singapore a week before the 2008 crisis hit–and then the crisis hit. They said we still want you, but for half the pay. I said that’s great but I can’t work for half pay–the cost of living is still the same. So I went to Shanghai instead. Six months later that firm called me and said we still want you and can offer you the role at the original pay, so I relocated to Singapore. l feel that Singapore is a great base to work in a regional capacity across Asia.

What is the most important thing in designing a workplace?

It starts with who we are designing for. If we are designing for, for example, Dyson, we are dealing with engineers. People are the most important thing. After that, it is what does the company do, what do these people do and how do we design for them? The approach came out of necessity when dealing with
the client. Sometimes that necessity is what fosters or generates a new way of thinking or a new way of working.

Why focus on people?

Design is not about the aesthetic. It is about the approach and why are we doing something. If we wanted to, we could
put in 2,000 desks with 2,000 chairs. I don’t want to do that, because you’re not creating a place for people. But if you say, “We’ve got 2,000 people and they are working at a call center and we want to create an environment for them”, then it
is about what makes a great environment to enable staff to work at their best. That changes from place to place, and company to company.

How do you humanize an office?

You have to be comfortable working there. I can not put it into words, because that is different for each client. For example, Unilever here in Jakarta is about bringing an Indonesian feel into the workplace. We have batik fabrics, lots of colors that represent the variety and diversity of Indonesia and teak that we reclaimed for all of the pantry areas. While Dyson is populated with engineers, they are driven by a strong individual leader that has a strong focus on the design.

How do you connect office design and productivity?

We typically don’t measure productivity. However, I have an anecdote with Western Union. The industry average for a company like Western Union had an annual staff turnover of 28% – 34%. Over the 7 years they occupied their space, they averaged 5% – 7%. We saw their staff turnover against the industry standard was high. After the project, there was a decrease in turnover. When I built my own office in Sydney, we saw how our revenue dramatically increased, how our headcount increased and how our profitablity increased by changing the way we worked as a team. You’ve got to ask what do these people do and how can we help them work better. If you don’t ask what someone does, how do you know if you’re solving the their problem?


What’s going to change in the next 10 years?

We know that technology is going to change–but how is it going to change? We don’t know. We’re currently designing a project, but the client won’t move in until 2025. It’s a real challenge, because we don’t know what the technology is going to be then. When I did the MTR Headquarters in Hong Kong, I started in 1993, but they moved in in 1997. We visited furniture suppliers in 1994 and said “Don’t show us products, talk to us about how you see the future.” We tried to design the office–three years before they moved in. Today, the furniture is still there. It is because we used quality products. We thought about it. The office is pretty much the same–and it still looks brand new.

How do we think about the office of the future?

A lot of it is not looking forward, but looking back for inspiration. For example, co- working spaces: Until I researched them, I thought they were new and novel. It turns out the idea is 200 years old. For a law firm, dealing with technology is not a big thing– unless the court system is changed by the courts. For a software developer, it’s more about an enviroment that stimulates them, or how to create an environment that keeps them undistracted. It’s about the tasks that we think people are doing. We really need to talk to the client: “What are you doing? How do you think things are going to change?”


Design inspirations when considering offices?

When you talk about the workplace, it’s much more personalised. Therefore I don’t find it necessary to find a design firm that I would necessary look up to.
If you look at my body of work over all the years, it’s all unique responses to the client. It is not about my design aesthetic, it’s about the approach. Most of my research in the past, for example, on how the office looked in 1602, was not from research papers done at a university. I did the research myself. It was from maybe 12 different sources and companies.
I approached them and talked to the companies. It’s very specific. I think no one else had done this before.

What do you say about Google’s funky offices?

Everyone in Google has an assigned desk. Most people haven’t been to a Google office and think it’s cool, fun space only. But Google looks at it this way:

“You’re important for this company, so you get a spot to sit–but we want you to also get out and mingle with other people and interact and aspire and innovate.” That’s why there is the fun space.


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