Is design the key to bringing employees back to the office?

Giving people a nice place to work can pay off, argues the founder of a local design-build firm.

New DP World office by allSPACES

Credit: allSPACES. The new DP World office in Vancouver

Giving people a nice place to work can pay off, argues the founder of local design-build firm allSPACES

The sun may be setting on the pandemic, but employees still want to work from home. As a result, many B.C. companies find themselves at risk of seeing their office spaces go to waste. That predicament raises the question: if employers want to lure people back to the office, will the standard Dunder Mifflin setup cut it?

Lucia De Olazaval, founder of Vancouver-based design-build firm allSPACES, doesn’t think so. “This new generation isn’t going to put up with that,” she says, especially when it comes to employee retention. “They don’t care about the money as much as they care about the lifestyle, so employers need to change their mindset. And trust me, I had to do it, too.” 

When De Olazaval left Peru to move to Vancouver 20 years ago, she had a degree in interior architecture, but she wasn’t familiar with the concept of design-build. After working at Counterpoint Interiors (now Counterpoint Projectsand Syncore Business Environments, she fell in love with the model of a one-stop shop for design and construction and launched her own boutique firm in 2009, with one employee.

Lucia De Olazaval, allSPACES founderallSPACES. Lucia De Olazaval, founder of allSPACESIt’s commercial only, so we don’t do residential,” De Olazaval says of her company, which has permits to build in the Lower Mainland and also works elsewhere in B.C. and across Canada. “I made that decision because I like the fast pace of the construction and design in offices. The turnaround is really quick, and we control the entire process.”

The company has grown to nine staff members and moved into a bigger office downtown. Much has changed over the past 13 years, according to De Olazaval: When I interview people, they ask, What perks do you have at allSPACES? It’s very different from interviews 10 years ago, where they just wanted to get a job. Now people don’t want to work that way; they want to feel like they’re part of something more.” 

There are many ways to cultivate that feeling, De Olazaval suggests. “You can do it through furniture, wallpaper, texts around the walls.” During a recent redesign of global shipping agency DP World’s office in Vancouver, allSPACES added projectors along the ceiling that beam maple leaves onto the floor. That way, when associates from another country visit the location, they see Canada represented in its design. “It doesn’t have to be expensive, but it has to be innovative, it has to be different,” De Olazaval says. 

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Also, instead of installing traditional private offices with big windows, allSPACES built workspaces on the windows and put the offices in the centre. The company also replaced the original walls and fluorescent bulbs with glass structures and warm light.  

The new DP World office by allSPACESallSPACES. DP World’s new kitchen, designed and built by allSPACES

When you walk into an office and it’s very open and it’s all glass, [you feel a sense of] transparency,” De Olazaval explains. “And the employees—what I heard is that they have way more employees in the company, and they’re happier. That’s the key—companies investing in their employees. And you hear that a lot, like, How do you invest in employees? Well, give them a nice chair. Give them a nice place to work, a nice kitchen, because that’s what they’re going to use.” 

Modular furniture can transform a company’s work culture by serving as a workstation, a lounge area or a collaborative space, the designer maintains. “I love that—a sofa that converts into a table, a chair that doubles as a table,” De Olazaval says. “That’s what I think we’re moving into—offering flexibility to our employees.”