Better work by design: the workplace environment

A report into recruitment, job satisfaction and productivity carried out by architect firm Gensler in 2005 found that poorly designed offices cost UK businesses £135bn a year. And research into turnover and productivity compiled by government body the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment found that while 76% of staff satisfaction is linked to salary, technology, management and work-life balance, 24% is influenced by comfort, air quality, temperature, noise, lighting and office layout.

HR professionals are aware of the importance of this issue. About 60% of HR managers responding to a Sheffield Hallam University survey felt that the office environment had an impact on the effectiveness of staff. They believed that collaboration, knowledge sharing and the development of ideas were affected by workplace design.

HR involvement

However, Alexi Marmot, director of AMA Alexi Marmot Associates, which provides advice on workplace design, says awareness is not enough. She would like to see senior HR staff take a more informed and proactive approach. “If the HR department knows that a move or a refurbishment is going on, and they are not invited to meetings, then they need to invite themselves,” she says.

“But often, they don’t see it as part of their remit even when they are involved. Offices would function better if HR, IT and facilities managers were brought together.”

What, then, would the ideal office look like in terms of productivity? “A workplace should be a well-designed, efficient, effective place – not something technical and fixed, with no humanity,” says Marmot. “And it should ideally be a place in which you can take pleasure in what you do.”

Some organisations are taking this message seriously. In London, staff working in Chiswick Park business area have access to shops, a gym and parks complete with lakes and barbecue areas. Capital One’s headquarters in Nottingham includes restaurants, coffee bars and games rooms. And Northern Foods has developed an open-plan, Wi-fi enabled space at its Leeds head office, offering staff a variety of work areas and a kitchen for food demonstration.

But aesthetics and ergonomics are not always compatible, warns Graham Osmond, managing director of workplace consultancy Osmond Group, which liaises with HR, occupational health and ergonomists to develop effective work spaces. “Designers and architects often have a clear idea about how they want an office to look visually in terms of branding. They may not want to compromise on that. But where possible, ergonomics should be a holistic procedure – it’s about how these things interact.”

Osmond says the difficulty in measuring impaired performance is one of the problems that HR has to overcome. “Employers tend to use absentee rates as a measure because this is easy to do,” he says.

“But it is not measured how people perform when they come to work but are not well. For instance, if an employee is off sick with a bad back, it’s unlikely they would have been putting in a peak performance until the day they went absent – there would have been a decline over some weeks.”

Standing room

Simple design can have a dramatic effect on productivity, as well as making the workplace more congenial, Osmond believes. “We have desks that we can sit or stand at and have short break-out meetings where we all stand up,” he says. “These usually last about 10 minutes and are focused on one subject.”

Staff are less likely to chat and prolong a standing meeting, and the process is facilitated by having areas with desks at standing height as part of the open-plan design.

Adrian Leaman, education director at the Usable Building Trust, a charity that aims to promote feedback between users and designers, sees a key role for HR in keeping office design practical and people-focused. “The best offices meet people’s needs properly and quickly,” he says.

“People are suspicious of big-name designers and can be scathing if the building makes users look stupid by being impractical or self-indulgent.

“Designers can’t conjure solutions out of thin air. They can only respond if they know what the problem is in the first place. It’s important to listen to what staff are saying about their work conditions. Above all, take complaints seriously and be seen to act on them, whatever they are,” Leaman says.

Adaptive technology

One way to make the workplace fit for purpose is to apply the same principles used when assessing the workstations of people with disabilities to the working conditions of all employees. Organisations such as the charity AbilityNet can help employers make IT safer and more efficient to use for all staff – those with specific needs and those who have no health problems, but would still benefit from best practice advice about using technology.

BP (British Petroleum) has developed a detailed protocol for healthy computing and workstation design using best practice advice from AbilityNet. “By understanding and applying the basic principles of adaptive technology, we are preventing health issues from converting into problems for our staff, who are benefiting both in terms of wellbeing and productivity,” says Angela Whitehead, BP regional occupational health nursing director, Europe.

The company plans to disseminate information about healthy IT use via its intranet, giving employees the opportunity to improve their wellbeing and performance, and is aiming to make voice recognition an option for staff who want it.

This innovative, flexible approach is one which HR managers can learn from, says Andy Nicholson, managing director of ergonomics consultancy Hu-Tech

“Aesthetics and practicality can be unified,” he says. “The best practice approach is to collaborate with other disciplines. It’s about using space. What do you have to do? And what space have you got to do it in?

“The key players need to be brought together, and their dialogue must be ongoing, because business needs change. A key role for HR is to stress the need for continuous improvement, and to be flexible about what you have, and how you can move forward.

“Good design is important, but it’s not a panacea,” says Nicholson.

Top tips for good office design

  • Collaborate – get together with IT specialists and facilities managers to share expertise and ensure employees are getting a seamless service.

  • Give staff control – particularly over ambient temperature, lighting and noise. Allow them to open windows, give them desk lights, and provide them with sound-proofing screens if they want to work in a quiet environment.

  • Create communities – set up break-out areas where staff can relax, have a hot drink and escape from their desks.

  • Have fun – workplace design needn’t be deadly earnest. Put desks by windows with a view, if possible. Where practical, cluster desks around internal ‘streets’. Decorate the walls with interesting images, use bright colour, and install pool tables or other recreational items where space permits.

  • Put people first. HR has a key role in ensuring that innovative design does not take over. Good office design is built on what staff need, and should be practical and people-friendly.

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