Office blues

Making a connection between office design and employee productivity is notoriously difficult. Yet, the people at the British Council of Offices (BCO), which represents the UK office sector, and government advisor the Commission for Architecture & the Built Environment (Cabe) are convinced that it exists. More importantly, they think it is time UK business leaders sat up and took notice of the issue.

John Sorrell, chairman of Cabe, states: “People who work in well-designed and well-located workplaces feel more valued, and are more productive and more likely to stay. A high-quality working environment can raise company profile, improve access to new customers and markets, help local regeneration and protect the environment.”

Richard Kauntze, chief executive of the BCO, says: “On average business costs are split 85% on people and 15% on offices. Businesses now invest a great deal in their human resources, but still, in too many cases, fail to take the same amount of care with their offices. This is a mistake, because the quality of an office design can have a huge impact on the productivity of the people working in it.”

The two organisations have recently joined forces to produce a report entitled Better Places to Work, in which they describe the six principles of good office design. There are few surprises.

  1. Workplaces need to be accessible by a wide range of transport options.

  2. They need to fit in with their surroundings.

  3. They need to include, or to be near, shops, gyms, and other non-work amenities.

  4. They should minimise energy use during and after construction.

  5. They should be adaptable for a variety of uses.

  6. They should be properly managed and maintained.

The report describes 10 offices which it says are good examples of how to apply these six principles. Chiswick Park in West London is one of them. It is an office park for more than 3,000 people and comprises six office buildings, which was designed by the Richard Rogers Partnership.

Henry Williams, director of developer Stanhope, describes the philosophy behind Chiswick Park: “We believe that people who enjoy work, do better work. There is a health club and bar and brasserie. The buildings are set amid extensive landscaping, with lakes, green space, and all sorts of wildlife. It really is an urban oasis in the heart of West London.”

Since the development opened in 2001, Foxtons, Teletex, One.Tel, Vue Cinemas and Technicolor Network Services, have all relocated there, and many report that the location has had a beneficial effect on the motivation and productivity of their staff. For example, an employee of telecoms operator One.Tel commented: “It has a really good balance between a professional place to work and a fun place to work.”

Yet, while it might seem intuitively the case that well-designed offices are conducive to productivity the problem that Chiswick Park, the BCO and Cabe all face is that there is precious little evidence to confirm this.

The BCO and Cabe point to a 2005 report they produced. The impact of office design on business performance reviews just two databases and four earlier reports and contains some anecdotal evidence to support its conclusion that employee productivity rises if workers are comfortable, can breathe easily, are at the right temperature, feel as though their surroundings have been designed with their welfare in mind, and can easily interact with colleagues.

The evidence might not be compelling, but few would disagree with such an obvious conclusion. Indeed, the time may now have come for a more comprehensive study into the quantifiable links between office design and employee productivity. Twenty years ago, business leaders needed this sort of firm evidence to persuade them to invest in human resources. They will surely require the same before they begin to invest in better office design.

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