Nasim Koerting, photographed by David Vintiner

Nasim Koerting

In Conversation

As restrictions ease and more people return to the office, SCP's editor Duncan Riches talked to Nasim Koerting, Head of Design at The Office Group, to discuss the future of the workplace.

The Office Group

Founded in 2004, The Office Group, better known as TOG, is a flexible workplace provider with over 50 locations. The majority of the spaces are in London, with others in Bristol, Leeds, Berlin, Hamburg and Frankfurt. They have a reputation for creating distinctively designed spaces that are sensitive to both the location they are in and needs of the clients using them. Nasim Koerting, Head of Design for the Group, is as well-placed as anyone to provide some genuine insight into the rapidly changing landscape of the workplace.

TOG, Douglas House, London, W1. Image by Simon Bevan.

The Changing Landscape

We met at 50 Liverpool Street, in one of the first in-person interviews I have conducted in nearly six months. One tends to forget the simple pleasures of meeting a new person face to face. It’s so much easier to understand someone in real life; through the intonation of their voice or the look in their eyes. Whatever way, it feels refreshing to sit down with Nasim for a good in-depth conversation.

I begin by urging her to be as unguarded as possible. We all know it’s been a tough year, for people, for organisations and for anyone seeking concrete answers about anything. However, it has also been a fascinating year for new ideas about work. For how we think about it as part of our lives, for how and where we do it (or want to do it) and for what purpose we actually do it for. For the first time in a generation, there is a sense that the door is open to a potential new future of work, as yet unimagined and unseen.

“Take the basic working from home idea” Nasim begins, “Honestly, pre-pandemic so many of the companies and corporations we work with were saying that they couldn’t work from home, like architecture and design practices. Now we are seeing that it has completely shifted. They are adapting to it now.”

We discuss that the pandemic seems to have put an end to the idea that if you are not “at your desk”, your work is not getting done. Many companies had to quickly skill up with digital applications and work in new ways, some have found it difficult, some less so, but many have navigated through the worst of the crisis, with some even discovering totally new approaches to getting things done. In fields where you have deadlines, work on projects with set timelines, surely it doesn’t matter where the work gets done?

“Especially being in the creative fields”, observes Nasim. “How are you expected to work all the time behind your desk when you are a creative? There is room now to say, this morning I am going to go and meditate for a bit, or go for a run. Last night I worked a bit later, or tonight I will finish later. Or this week I am going to work half a day on the weekend, because it suits me. You are creative when you are out in the world, that should be better understood.”

"How are you expected to work all the time behind your desk when you are a creative? You are creative when you are out in the world, that should be better understood."

Nasim Koerting

Towards Total Flexibility

My first proper question is to ask Nasim if she can remember what she was working on when the pandemic began?

“Well, we had a lot more in the pipeline, but now we are focused more on quality rather than quantity. We realised that people are coming back and they don’t want what they used to have. We need to really step up. We have completely focused on the return to the office and what that is going to look like. How can we make it the easiest and the best for people? Before we were kind of running – producing, producing. We had a formula, it worked and we ran with it. We stopped and we realised that everyone needs a more compelling reason to return to work, they are going to need something different. So, it’s completely shifted. We are re-looking at things we have been doing for many years and are doing it completely differently now. It’s huge for us. The pandemic has been an accelerator for change.”

Some people are saying the office split might now become 50/50, with desks and collaboration space equal. Do you have an idea of what new collaboration spaces look like?

“As expected, we are seeing a huge demand for video call booths, not just like telephone boxes, but for long calls, actual spaces to sit for a while and work and be on a video call. Also, loads of drop-in spots. Some clients have come back to us saying: we know we are a twenty-five person office, but we think we only need a working spot for five people and the rest is drop-in. So, a lot of downsizing, which is a good thing. The office keeps evolving and we have to evolve with it. Luckily we are an office provider, so we are testing it. That is the key. To record how people are responding to what we are doing is crucial to new understanding.”

Have you got a sense of how the working day and working week are evolving?

“We don’t know for certain yet. Although people are coming back, not everyone is back. So it’s difficult to see a fixed pattern yet. However, it seems to be all about flexibility and giving people choice. Larger corporations who would have had a huge office are wanting smaller offices but with passes for all of their people, to come in and out. With the understanding that people won’t be working in the office all day, or they might be working in a lounge for some of the time. We have nearly 50 sites in London, so some bigger corporations are wanting membership passes rather than space, so their people can drop-in in different parts of London. It’s ultimate flexibility, where you work, at what time, where you are sitting, all of it. So we are working with the idea of total flexibility.”

"We realised that people are coming back and they don't want what they used to have."

Nasim Koerting

Wellbeing at Work

It almost feels like the most progressive employers, who allow their staff ultimate flexibility, are going to come out on top. The idea that people who sit next to each other might need totally different conditions to be as productive as possible in the workplace feels new. Are we working towards the idea that working conditions might be more related to actual human need, rather than a blanket approach?

“Totally. I think it is the first time that we are all realising that we are human and not machines and robots. We can work in a different way, in a way we like. There are a few of my team that are absolutely thriving at the moment. They come in and they are even brighter than before, because they have had their three day week and have enjoyed clear focused work at home. It’s been about giving people choice.”

The whole idea of wellbeing really seemed to emerge and gather traction in the design industry a few years ago. Now it seems we might make a transition where employers are saying, if I create conditions for my staff to increase their wellbeing, they are going to be better at their job, more productive. Have you seen evidence of this?

“Definitely. A testament to it is our Notting Hill space United House, which we designed with Universal Design Studios, where we have got a dedicated meditation lounge. It’s a tricky one, because who wants to meditate in their working day? We really were not sure if this was a thing, but we decided to go with it. What we are actually seeing is decision makers in the companies realising that facilities like this will be a draw for people to go back to the workplace. If for instance you live in a tight flat share in London, maybe having a space to meditate is an appealing thing. I think for us, as flex-space providers, in terms of wellness, we are trying to help employers give their employees what they need.”

"I think it is the first time that we are all realising that we are human and not machines and robots. We can work in a different way, in a way we like."

Nasim Koerting
TOG, Liberty House, London, W1. Image by Jake Curtis.

Sustainability & Diversity

If you had a blank canvas now, in terms of creating a building from scratch, what would it look like?

“We actually have one in Shoreditch, which we are building from the ground up. I think it is our first ground-up building, and I am really pleased because it’s all about sustainability. It’s a full timber building, which is pretty groundbreaking in Shoreditch. More and more people are all getting conscious about our footprint in the world and it is something that cannot really be denied any more.There is an element of tick boxing around sustainability, but I think it would be great if there was a genuine sustainable response in terms of architecture in this next phase. In terms of the interiors, I am all about the human. Especially in terms of the designers we choose to collaborate with, we try to find people who really understand the human experience. I think the human can be lost when you are trying to establish ego in a space. Trying to be trendy, or trying to force a certain material into a project, you lose the human element. I love working with designers who get it.”

Architecture has been so male dominated, Zaha Hadid was a great antidote to all of that. She caused a great deal of controversy just by virtue of the fact that the male dominated establishment didn’t like where she was coming from. Yet she created groundbreaking buildings like the London Aquatics Centre, which is like no swimming pool I have ever known. It’s got incredible light and is just a joy to be in that space. That’s a rare sensation to get, when you are in a building and it feels special to be there. It elevates experience.

“It’s really difficult to find women and people of colour who are leading businesses. I am desperate for more of that, because they are the people who will bring the change, they know how to design for difference and diversity. I am telling you it is still a struggle to find the right people.”

Nasim is of Iranian Australian heritage and is also young for a business leader, so she is talking from first hand experience. I mention that in our recent In Conversation with Yinka Ilori, and that he felt that although change has been slow, there are many things to be positive about, and if we can’t progress diversity in design in London, then where?

“It is the place to make change. A particular young member of my team is blown away by the fact I am in the position I am. Not long ago, she didn’t think it would be possible. Recently, we were working together on a project to design an office for diverse people and she brought so many insights to the table. I use this example a lot, but she analysed how we design our showers. Her ethnic background means that she doesn’t wash her hair every day, and our showers are rainfall showers. She explained that walking into those showers would make her think – how I am going to navigate this? I had a similar experience because I wash my hair a little less too, but someone else on the team washed theirs every day. So we quickly realised we needed both a rainfall shower and a flexible head shower. It’s a tiny thing but it makes a world of a difference to somebody. If you don’t have a diverse range of people in decision making positions, then there is no way that change is going to happen. It’s not a big deal, it’s such a simple change. There are so many little things we can do to improve people’s experience.”

"If you don't have a diverse range of people in decision making positions, then there is no way that change is going to happen. It's not a big deal, it's such a simple change."

Nasim Koerting

Inspiration & Ideals

I think we have all missed going to design shows. How have you kept inspired?

“I got a bit upset last year, feeling uninspired. With no galleries, no fairs. What I have noticed that my team and I are doing more of now, which we should have been doing before, is looking inward. We are looking much more at English artists and designers, local makers – more inwards, which I think is a really good thing. We do have buildings out in Germany, so we have to be mindful of that, and make things locally relevant there too. However, I am loving what we have here. Yet I still think the UK has a long way to go in terms of design, we could be doing a lot more.”

I would be interested to know what changes you think we might see in product typologies in the workplace?

“There are definitely functionality changes – places to video call, places to plug in, places to work for a brief time, and so on. There is also the push on wellness that we touched on. Looking at things like circadian lighting, air filtration, openable windows and ultimately being able to monitor our buildings for pollution, heat and so on. These things are also being driven by our clients. In terms of materials, we are pushing for more sustainable materials in the products and environments we create.”

Lastly, what does an ideal working day or week look like for you?

“It’s fascinating to think about the evolution of work even from just a few years ago. I get tons of energy from working with our collaborating architects and designers. So an ideal would be spending a morning talking to them about one of our buildings and going back and forth with ideas. Going over plans, looking at materials, just having that close collaboration is so important to me. If it was a week, I would want a spot of inspiration, either going to a showroom, or seeing a designer or an artist, being in some sort of actual space, a gallery or studio. Definitely a dog walk. Ideally, I would wake up and meditate, which I never do, and listen to a good podcast. Then start work with emails first and then the more engaging collaboration work. It’s a really nice position to have the role I have in a flexible space provider. It’s great to be thinking about how we can make working lives better for people every day.”

"It's great to be thinking about how we can make working lives better for people every day."

Nasim Koerting
Nasim Koerting, portrait by David Vintiner.

A big thank you to Nasim and her team for making this interview possible.