When asked to describe the future of workplace design, Anna Breheny doesn’t hesitate for a second. “Multifunctional, flexible and human-focused,” she says.
Breheny’s expertise spans the globe. Originally from Australia, the Interior Designer, Creative Director and Founder of the Sydney-based Breheny Group has worked on projects from boutiques to chain stores, residential to retail design, in the Middle East, United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia and beyond. The unique mix of styles and cultures she’s been exposed to through work and study have informed her understanding of holistic design – and exactly how that affects the people using it.
Now, as the world recalibrates after the COVID-19 pandemic, she draws on this experience to bring an optimism to her approach to work. “I think the pandemic was really important to show ourselves that we could do anything, anywhere in the world,” she says. “We’re not defined by the ‘traditional’ anymore.”
This means working with a team that’s spread out across the globe, cherry-picking the best personalities and abilities from anywhere and everywhere, and tasking them with a project that perfectly matches their skill sets and interests.
Breheny’s passion for collaboration was sparked when she was young. She grew up in a large, close and supportive Irish family spanning several generations. These days, the Breheny clan has members involved in art, design, construction and property in various capacities. “I set up my company so that we can one day work together and expand to include other legs of the business under The Breheny Group,” she says.
“We’ve now proven that we can all work remotely and we can work with technology. No problems there,” Breheny acknowledges. “But what many or most people are missing is human interaction. So the workplace needs to become a place where you can connect in person with others. In terms of what we need to do to get people feeling happy at work, the whole human-focus thing is more important than ever.”
In a workplace that fosters and encourages connection, each space needs more than one purpose. Breheny explains that it’s important to cater to different working styles, generations and personality types by providing as many varied settings as possible.
“There might be some really busy social areas, collaboration areas,” Breheny says, “but then there might be quieter zones – wellness rooms, or a place to go to meditate, pray, breastfeed or just lie down if you’re not feeling well. There needs to be different types of furniture, different table heights, different levels of light and noise.”
Breheny feels strongly about creating spaces using the principle of biophilia – bringing the outside in and mimicking nature in a way that has a positive effect. Think plants and greenery, access to natural light, natural ventilation and celebrating any external view.
“I always try to minimize walls as much as possible and maximize connection to the outdoors,” she says. “Ideally, you can see outside, out a window, at every point on the floor.”
The return to the office
This high-quality, seamless end-user experience, as Breheny calls it, is what will get people excited to return to the office. Breheny explains that when a building tenant creates a beautiful space with a lot of wow factors, they can present it to their staff as a desirable place to work.
“They can say, ‘This is a space we’ve chosen for you. We want to support you in being at your most productive, happiest and satisfied self at work’.”
“It’s a good time for employees because the power’s gone back to the people,” Breheny adds. “We need to pull together and keep demanding high standards, so that we keep it heading in the right direction. Hopefully, it’ll be the open-minded, people-focused, positive thinkers that drive this.”
Breheny thinks workplaces and employer-employee relationships were headed in this positive direction anyway, but the COVID-19 pandemic pressed the accelerator. “It sped us up to reach this point faster,” she says. “And it also increased the budget. The money available now is a lot more than before because businesses are appreciating how important it is to invest in their people.”
Breheny describes a recent project that sounds like a dream office. “We made a bright, airy lobby, warm timber floors throughout, with a beautiful concierge point that feels more like a hotel or restaurant than a traditional reception desk. You can see outdoor views from every single corner, every point of the floor space. In a gathering area, leather bench seating, small tables and tier seating can be arranged for large meetings with Sydney Harbour in the background. Everywhere, there’s this beautiful, natural light and a lot of greenery. We created that feeling of peace and calm, and brought lots of nature in.”
In addition to running her design group and helping to revamp offices as we know them, Breheny teaches part-time at the Sydney Design School – a twist in her career-path she never saw coming, but one she’s since fallen in love with. “I’m always telling my students to really push the boundaries, create your dream workspace,” she says. “Anything’s possible. So be really brave and be really bold and just go for it. This is the most exciting thing – and this is the world we now live in.”