Christina Dreesen: "The workplace is fundamentally a social experience, as well as an important learning environment and a cultural sphere of life."

Thomas Geuder
19. December 2022
Christina Dreesen (Photo: Arup) 

Thomas Geuder: Mrs. Dreesen, as an architect you have been able to realize numerous national and international office projects over the past 30 years. What characterizes your work at Arup, where you have been employed since 2011, and what is the focus you are able to establish in the company that is important for your aspirations?

Christina Dreesen: For us architects, Arup is a synonym for innovative engineering. What many people don't know, however, is the wide-ranging and multidisciplinary development the company has undergone — beyond pure engineering design — and the extent to which we are shaped by ecological and social values. Ove Arup defined these values as early as 1970 in his key speech, and the company still adheres to them today. For me, it is precisely the creative, interdisciplinary and international collaboration, as well as the pronounced focus on our employees, that motivates me. My work in the Arup team brings these aspects together: people-centered planning and consulting, combined with our technical expertise and incorporating the important sustainability issues that move us today. 

Charlotte Street, London (Photo: Hufton+Crow) 
Charlotte Street, London (Photo: Hufton+Crow) 

Your current work deals intensively with the transformation of the working world, quite intentionally with people at the center of your considerations. What does that mean in concrete terms?

I probably don't need to describe how the pandemic years, the associated digitalization pressure and the changing demands of employees have accelerated the transformation of our working world. There is a new awareness of the benefits of human interaction, more collaboration and well-being. The workplace is fundamentally a social experience, as well as an important learning environment and a cultural sphere of life. Employees want more flexibility in choosing where they work, multifunctional and health-promoting spaces, and technology-based tools for seamless or agile collaboration. Working models based only on space efficiency and return on investment are now outdated and ignore the users' well-being. 

Many of our clients' organizations are already embracing these changes to strengthen their culture and identity. In concrete terms, it means that we develop work concepts together with our clients by inquiring about and analyzing their activities, requirements and needs in advance; we then take these findings into account in a co-creative process during planning and also contribute our technical know-how to achieve a sustainable result. 

Charlotte Street, London (Photo: Hufton+Crow) 

Your reference projects include some globally active companies for which you have developed office concepts and strategies. Tell us about your planning experience: what do you think have been groundbreaking developments in office design in recent decades, and which have turned out to be aberrations?

It's true, office concepts of the last 50 years have undergone an evolution, parallel to the social developments of their time. Just think of the individual offices of the past, separated by long dark corridors, which were later replaced by large (and noisy) open-plan offices as a solution for space efficiency. Ironically, digital technologies, once perceived as separating and isolating, have in the last two years helped bring us together when communicating and have made our work in many areas possible in the first place. 

We are moving away from rigid processes and hierarchies, from the formation of silos and inflexible working hours and locations. People's working environments are just as complex as they are themselves. We ourselves shape and form them. Today, it is a matter of taking a holistic view of the personality and the quality of the working environment. Our insight is that there are no universally valid workplace concepts, because every organization is different and finds its own solutions. However, the new workplaces must offer scope for creativity and different activities. 

We also notice that architectural psychology is taking on a driving role: health-promoting spatial solutions, lighting quality, the right acoustics, color design, biophilia — the diverse needs of a neurodiverse workforce are being recognized. The taboo with regard to mental health in the workplace is also gradually dissolving. 

Charlotte Street, London (Photo: Paul Carstairs / Arup) 

Architecture and interior design, that is the architectural shell and the interior fit-out, are often considered separately from each other when planning office buildings. How sensible is that in the future, especially against the backdrop of the flexible usability of buildings?

There used to be economic drivers for this separation. If we look at this today from the current perspective of circular building, there are advantages. The ever-increasing need for flexible use of interiors also calls for a separate consideration of the building envelope and fit-out, especially as we need to increasingly focus on the existing building stock in the future. Reusability of structures and materials of the building envelope, combined with a modular and flexible, ideally easy to dismantle interior, contribute to long-term, multifunctional usability. Additionally, there are adaptable building services systems for modernization and conversion measures that can respond as flexibly as possible to the interior fit-out. The new rental or used furniture models, which enable regular, user-friendly replacement, are also worth mentioning. 

This cycle-oriented way of thinking inspires me as an architect and challenges much of what I have learned at university and in practice over the past decades. But that's exactly why it's exciting. We are moving away from consuming to using and ultimately to reusing. 

Charlotte Street, London (Photo: Paul Carstairs / Arup) 

Working in offices has changed dramatically since the corona pandemic. You could also say that employees' expectations of their workplace have undergone a fundamental change, for example in terms of home office. All of this is bringing about a change in corporate culture, the details of which have not yet been fully discussed. What advice do you give to companies that are confronted with the current processes of change?

Meanwhile, we need to accept change (the so-called VUCA world, an acronym of the words volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambivalence/ambiguity) as part of our lives. By doing so, we become more adaptable, resilient and able to respond more quickly to new conditions. Organizations that recognize this also know the value of tailoring change processes to their needs, whether it is the introduction of a sustainability strategy, a hybrid work environment or the digital transformation of the company. However, it is always the people of an organization who must support this change process in order for it to succeed and for a change to become a true transformation.

When introducing a new, for example hybrid, way of working, it is very helpful to closely support the change management. The commitment of the management to the implementation of the vision and a sympathetic ear for the employees' ideas and wishes, their needs and their fears, also enable "pulse control" throughout the entire process. This allows adjustments to be made on an ongoing basis. Transparent communication via various media throughout the process ensures that everyone stays informed and that no rumor mill develops. Finally, to anchor the new conditions, feedback rounds and resulting optimizations should always be part of the follow-up.

Charlotte Street, London (Photo: Paul Carstairs / Arup) 
Charlotte Street, London (Photo: Paul Carstairs / Arup) 

Digital work can basically take place anywhere, but personal contact with colleagues in the team is also important. A more personal question: How do you currently work and what would your ideal workplace of the future look like?

I go to our office because I want to meet my colleagues. Face-to-face communication or casual get-togethers are irreplaceable. The working environment in the office also helps me: there are areas for different activities that I use according to my day's  work. To do this, I change places with my laptop several times a day and therefore move around a lot more. For focused work, I prefer the home office — which is possible thanks to the digital tools that allow a seamless connection to the office. My ideal would be a balanced mix of activities with colleagues in the office, quiet and focus at home, physical exercise in between, and the possibility to also work in alternative areas, e.g. on a roof terrace or in an urban garden.

Charlotte Street, London (Photo: Paul Carstairs / Arup) 

Christina Dreesen is associate director at Arup and head of the Change Advisory department in Germany.

She is an architect with many years of experience in planning and executing wide-ranging projects in real estate, project development, aviation and education, with a focus on project management, change management and sustainable building. Christina's field of activities includes the implementation of Future of Work concepts, incorporating sustainability and circular economy strategies. Together with her team, she also accompanies the change processes of her clients, especially related to the transformation of the world of work and to the changes that are emerging due to climate change and the digital transformation.

A Focus on New Work, Sustainability and Home Office 

Under the motto "Home of Consumer Goods", Ambiente, Christmasworld and Creativeworld will be held simultaneously for the first time from 3 to 7 February 2023 at one of the world's most modern trade fair centers. The new design of the Working area under the umbrella of Ambiente, the world's leading trade fair for the sector, will create forward-looking impulses in particular. At Ambiente Working, everything will revolve around office supplies and office equipment — with a view not only to the classic office but also to mobile working, home offices, co-working spaces and the Future of Work.  | 
Future of Work Academy at Ambiente in Frankfurt

The Future of Work Academy is aimed at architects, facility managers and planners, as well as retailers of office supplies and equipment. Following its successful premiere in 2017, this year eight lectures will highlight the current changes in the world of work, digital solutions for collaboration and sustainable concepts for a modern workplace. During Ambiente 2023, the Future of Work Academy will offer lectures on 4 and 5 February from 10:30 am to 2:30 pm, each of which will focus on different perspectives on the topic of work. 

Lectures at the Future of Work Academy on 4 and 5 February 2023

Peter Ippolito (Ippolito Fleitz Group), Nina Delius (schneider+schumacher), Sophia Klees (jack be nimble lighting | design | innovation), Klaus K. Loenhart (STUDIO TERRAIN), Prof. Tina Kammer (InteriorPark.), Klaus de Winder (de Winder Architekten), Hans Schneider (J. MAYER H. und Partner, Architekten), Monika Lepel (LEPEL & LEPEL Architekt Innenarchitektin)

​Ambiente Working – Future of Work Academy – Registration

World-Architects is content partner of Messe Frankfurt.

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