When a well-known Manchester branding agency went into liquidation in March 2019, much was made of the fact that they’d just moved into very ‘cool’ and very expensive new offices. Prior to the bad news, their social feeds were brimming with shots of their staff in their new HQ. It had everything you’d expect, hardwood floors, exposed brick, lots of soft furnishings, trinkets, toys and the obligatory pool table.

After the liquidation announcement, it didn’t escape people’s attention that a large part of their struggle was overheads. The new office meant rent had gone from £800 per month to £2,500 a month and the founders lamented their inability to cover it. A basic business error, but one that is incentivised daily by the startup and business press, who values trendy surroundings over sustainability.

Glassdoor’s annual ‘coolest office’ list is a prime example of influencers incentivising businesses to splurge on aesthetics. Quirkiness trumps comfort and function and the thirst for ‘Instagrammable’ workplaces risks infantilising staff. Indoor jungles, ball pits, gaming rooms, they’re all fun, but are they really necessary?

Apparently not as much as people might think. A study by Kiwi Movers, London removals company who specializes in business relocations found that 86% of office workers saw no value in ‘quirky perks’ like hammocks, pool tables, ping pong and the other wacky and eccentric workplace accoutrements we see celebrated. Their CEO was moved to conduct the study after noticing that a lot of companies were putting their fun but pointless office accessories into storage.

Experts agree. Professor Sir Cary Cooper CBE, a leader in organizational psychology who is based at the Alliance Manchester Business School believes some companies are missing the point when it comes to environment.

“Businesses often confuse perks with culture. Providing recreational spaces and a fun environment are not the same as establishing a positive culture that makes employees happy, improves retention rates and increases output.

“There’s a growing trend for businesses to promote their superficial perks, such as welcome packs, free breakfast and ‘fun’ office spaces as if it’s a sign of a positive culture, but it really isn’t. Cool furniture is nothing more than a nice-to-have bonus and businesses should be wary of focusing on it at the expense of genuine culture.

“Anyone can order a few hammocks and bean bags from Amazon, but it takes years of hard work, research and commitment to values to establish a meaningful workplace culture.”

And this is where the confusion becomes clearest. Employees value comfort and good aesthetics. There’s no doubt about it. In fact, studies show that even mild discomfort like air conditioning that’s set too cold can hamper productivity. But that’s not the same as throwing in some fake grass and a pool table.

We had cool offices before Instagram. Mother, London’s Shoreditch warehouse headquarters was and still is one of the coolest. Clive Wilkinson Architects designed it and the impressive space welcomed Mother’s creative team in 2004. It’s 15 years old and still sets the standard for what a workplace should be. What’s more, there’s not a slide or a hammock in sight.

It’s a confident, assertive space. A 4.2 metre wide staircase slices through the centre of the 42,000 square-foot former warehouse, leading you to a stone desk. The desk – a nod to Mother’s kitchen table origins – is massive in the literal sense of the word – it can comfortably fit 200 people around it. As Mother grows, the desk grows.

There’s nothing self-conscious about the project either. There’s space everywhere, none of it filled with pointless toys or quirky furnishings. And despite the ample room and prominence of stone, there’s no problem with sound. CWA designed 2.1-meter-long lamp shades padded with acoustic foam to act as baffles Light fixtures were wrapped in marimekko fabric to add further sound-dampening qualities. 

What Mother have achieved in concert with CWA is a timeless work space that eschews the frivolous and eccentric affectations of what it means to work somewhere ‘cool’. It’s comfortable, inspiring and the ideal environment for Mother’s world-renowned creative team. And what’s more important, it’s been the agency’s home for 15 years.