A considered approach to office design could help employees become even more productive — so why are so many companies still getting it wrong?
Improve the office environment and the benefits are immediate
Workplace designers have always struggled with delivering cost savings (making the most of the space) and generating value (making the most of the people). In its first product catalog in 1948 Herman Miller defined the ideal working environment as “a daytime living room that would be welcoming and humane , where the most important thing in the room is not the furniture, but it’s the people.” Yet in 1960, when Robert Probst became president of the company, he reflected that “today’s office is a wasteland. It saps vitality, blocks talent, frustrates accomplishment.”
More than 50 years on, this observation still reflects the majority of commercial workplaces being designed around the world. Companies have achieved cost savings by reducing the space per person through furniture solutions that focus on standardization. This became the norm because offices needed to support the uninterrupted flow of paper processing and visual supervision.
But the nature of work changed. As it has become more about the value of knowledge, connectivity and the production of ideas, we have become confused about the purpose of the office. Traditional work environments of rows of desks are now obsolete; instead we need to shift the focus from efficiency to engagement, to redefine how and where work is best accomplished and to explore how the workplace can inspire and enable a more diverse workforce than ever before .
Organizations are realizing that they are fighting a war for talent. As that intensifies, employees are behaving more like customers, being choosy about who they work for and looking for organizations that convey particular values and culture through their workplace. What they’re looking for is more humanity in the office and environments that energize them and connect them with the organizations values — and one another.
Attention –grabbing design
Over the last two decades, many media and technology businesses have used their workplaces to distinguish their brand and attract talent. This can be traced back, to the offices of advertising agency TBWA / Chiat Day, designed by Clive Wilkinson architects , in Los Angeles back in 1998. A large warehouse was renovated to create a vast ‘city’, including a main street, central park, work ‘neighborhoods’ and a range of diverse structures accommodating meeting spaces and project rooms. It might sound gimmicky but the space supported a vibrant creative community, attracted talent and over the next 10 years also allowed the agency to double in size within the same space, effectively balancing the cost to value conflict.
Some organizations however, think this type of redesign is easy. They look at what others have done and believe they can bring more life into their workplace by adding bright furniture and a games room. Although the place might look a bit different, it usually feels the same; soulless and energy- sapping. Changes to the design of the workplace are only effective if there is an empowering workplace culture to support it.
When space is designed with purpose it can have a big role to play in making our work life more productive and meaningful. The combination of open plan office design and email has shattered people’s capacity to focus on in-depth work due to interruptions, distractions and a lack of choice of environment. We’ve come to see multitasking as an essential skill when in fact it destroys our productivity.
Nature and activity
For people to thrive they need to move, have access to daylight and alternate between different physical and mental states. Yet the impact of the workplace on health and productivity is often an afterthought.
A joint study between Harvard, SUNY Upstate Medical University and Syracuse University has demonstrated that the cognitive performance scores of those who work in green environments are, on average, more than double those of participants who work in conventional high density environments with artificial light and limited choice of settings.
Employee satisfaction makes business sense. 90% of operational expenditure is on people, so even a modest improvement in employee wellness, can have a huge financial implication for employers — one that is many times larger than any financial savings associated with an “efficiently” designed building.
Work flexibility- being able to work from home or from somewhere outside the office — is becoming increasingly common and can allow office buildings to be used more intensively. But although, we do not have to go to work — to be working, we still want to connect with others face to face. And office space isn’t going anywhere according to Johanna Frelin, CEO of a Swedish creative business school and consultancy called Hyper Island. “Workers expect to do things when it suits them so we have to create workspaces where people actually want to go.” she says. This is key. Designers need to look at the places people choose to go to work and learn how they can inform and change their office plans.
In this way the boom in shared workspaces in particular, is changing the conversation surrounding the traditional office building. A successful co- working space shares many characteristics with a great coffee shop ( the original shared workspace), creating serendipitous interaction and community. Big corporate players are also now embracing the use of co–working spaces in city centers and close to where people live ( to cut commute times), by even incorporating them in their own buildings to support start-ups and collaboration with partners and customers. The National Australia Bank (NAB) Village, is a co working space within the NAB Melbourne headquarters designed by Woods Bagot. It provides a destination for partners and customers to meet, collaborate, share ideas and connect in a relaxed and informal and productive space.
Conclusion — changes to come
“Office building strategy needs radical change.” says Sir Stuart Lipton, the British property developer behind- among others — Twentytwo Bishopsgate by PLP Architecture, which is currently under construction in the City of London. “Office buildings have become stereotyped, built for investors rather than consumers. People must be allowed to feel they are in spaces which respect their humanity.“
In the coming years our own working habits will resemble a menu of working environments , including traditional offices, and an assortment of other shared and third spaces. Similarly the property portfolios of investors will increasingly become a wide network of social and adaptive workspaces; their corporate offices will both shrink and blend in with these other spaces.
The focus of workplace design is returning to people. Commercial office landlords are now expected to provide amenities outside of the traditional leased space and also curate events that make their building a destination for talent. A building such as Twentytwo Bishopsgate is a case in point: it will incorporate over 100,000 sq ft of amenities, services and events space within a building of 1.4 m sq ft. These new models are changing the office from a container of routine work into a lively destination for creativity. Finally, 70 years after it was envisioned we are seeing the workplace become “the daytime living room.”
Originally published in Issue 103 of Monocle magazine — May 2017.