· 10 min read · Features

The people side of space

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Workstations that rise or fall according to whether you want to sit or stand at your tasks, pods that bring peace to a noisy office, a reception in the middle of the office so it is equidistant from all staff – welcome to the brave new world of the office environment. Time to sit up and take notice.

 

Later this month, 5,500 employees from PwC (formerly, PricewaterhouseCoopers) will start a two-month long process of moving to a brand-new, 10-storey, 48,000 sq m office called 7 More London Riverside, part of the More London development. Located just a stone's throw away from London Bridge and City Hall (also part of More London), the Norman Foster-designed office is remarkable not just because it is one of London's most ecologically-friendly office blocks (it will produce 25% of its own energy requirements through solar panels and other onsite generation equipment), but staff will have enough room to swing not one, but a clowder of cats. When the building is 'full', incredibly there will be one employee per 80sq feet; this compares to the firm's existing office density of 175 staff per 80sq ft.

The new building's design - including having no storage, no closed-off offices and floor-to-ceiling glass - is the brainchild of Anne Muirhead, whose job title is the rather grand-sounding 'head of PwC's future working environment team'. "Our mission," she says, of a team she has headed since 2003, "is to understand the future of work as sequence of events: what type of people we will need in the future; what sort of work they will do, and how the space they will work in can best suit this."

According to experts, this 'future-proofing' approach, in which the concept of the office is modelled around the type of work firms do and the culture they want to create (see case study), could soon be the start of something more mainstream - the new language office-designers have long sought for clarifying what has traditionally been the rather woolly subject of office environment. Lynda Gratton, professor of management practice, London Business School, launched the second phase of her Future of Work research in January. She declared that the extent to which HRDs "are prepared to adopt innovative practices and respond to new trends that impact on them" is singularly what will determine the success of firms' 'future signatures'. Gratton has identified 32 different trends she feels will impact most on companies in the next 20 years. These include the rise of Generation Y and of a more peripatetic, yet creative-hub-seeking, workforce. She puts these trends into five main clusters - one of which is 'job design'.

This importance of this work lies in the fact that Gratton has identified statistical relationships between 20 areas of 'future risk' - which she sees as including collaborative working, enabling flexible working, virtual teams, intergeneration working and performance management - all areas office designers are now focusing their efforts around. To take one example, Gratton finds companies that score well in having a workplace environment conducive to 'intergenerational working' will also be good at harnessing 'virtual teams'. This is because the two are interlinked to a statistical relevance of 0.8 (0 being no relationship, 0.5 being a strong relationship). Suddenly, office design has real metrics it can get its teeth into.

Theorising office design around real relationships is another world away from the dizzy days of the dotcom bubble. Then, start-ups were falling over themselves to be seen to have the most 'funky' office designs, with a notion it somehow fostered that elusive and oh so profitable creativity and productivity. Lastminute.com famously had a ping-pong table as its boardroom table, which directors could open out after meetings. One creative agency had a patch of real grass in the middle of its office, which was called its 'thinking area'.

"Office design has moved on from being about playrooms and cushions," argues Zoe Humphries, head of workspace futures at the applied research arm of furniture and workspace consultancy, Steelcase. It spends a staggering $50million annually researching better workplace design.

Humphries says: "Organisations need to think about the people side of space, its impact on efficiency and effectiveness, and its relationship to engagement. HRDs need to look at space as a strategic asset. The way work happens is changing, so space needs to reflect this. It is not about squeezing people into offices any more. Work is more collaborative, but the traditional use of space hasn't moved on with this."

Ten years ago, according to Steelcase, work was 20% a collaborative affair and 80% individual - which explains the rows of workstations in offices up and down the land. But Steelcase predicts that this ratio will be reversed in 10 years' time, which is why things need to change. "In collaborative companies, space utilisation surveys show workers are not actually sat in their desks for 20%-40% of their time," says Humphries. Breakout spaces are only part of it. "It is easy to have a bit of empty space and call it a breakout area, but it doesn't get to the root of the problem," she adds: "We still see staff that primarily use laptops tethered to workstations (designed for deep, cathode ray-tube PC monitors), because the office is not Wi-Fi enabled. We see managers being given BlackBerry phones - but they never leave the office. Meanwhile, salespeople, who are mobile, are not given them. It is about marrying a new culture of working, where HR and facilities managers have sat down to produce something that actually works."

For many people, even those who are not experts in office design, smoothie-maker Innocent is well-known as epitomising a modern, quirky office. Its 10-year-old warehouse HQ, 'Fruit Towers' (see picture), in Shepherds Bush, west London, has been converted to house picnic benches, a classic K6 red telephone box and fake grass. It even has a kitchen where its food technicians work slap-bang in the middle of the floor space. While it may not have originally been planned as Humphries might wish, John Durham, Innocent's head of IT & environment, says it has very much been designed around the culture and working practices of the company. "We want to ensure people enjoy working here and feel relaxed," he says. "The fact everyone can see our foodies making new recipes, reminds us all what we're about. On the other hand, we've got beanbags to sit on, when we want a bit of peace and quiet. Our 'village green' grass has a raison d'être - it's where we all sit together on a Monday morning, at our weekly company meeting. We're always about being ourselves."

Later this year, though, Fruit Towers' lease runs out and Durham's task has been to find somewhere new that carries on with this theme. A location at Portobello Docks near the Ladbroke Grove canal will be where the next phase of Innocent's future starts. But he is confident and this time has chosen a location with a high environmental rating to reflect the company's sustainability credentials.

While Innocent is a success story, the problem, recognise experts, is that despite workplace environment and ergonomics theory getting increasingly stronger, there is still a perception that office environment is not - given current economic difficulties - mission-critical. There are pioneers, such as Roger Haslam, professor of ergonomics at Loughborough University, who is running a four-year research project examining workplace design for older workers and the factors that affect performance of groups of employees, but generally, the message is a tough sell.

"This will always be the case, not just now," says work design consultant Elizabeth Gleed, who is working on the £990m refurbishment of the BBC West One (Broadcasting House) building near Regent Street, London, home to BBC Radio. "Only when facilities managers and HRDs see they can actually create more agile workplaces will the penny start to drop, especially, if used - as the BBC is doing - as a catalyst for organisational change too."

The BBC building will house 4,500 staff by the end of the year and, according to Gleed, has been designed around "increasing collaboration". She adds: "We have been very deliberate about design, creating spaces and adding furniture (such as free-standing meeting tables), so that after an hour staff wouldn't want to stay there. It facilitates short, sharp meetings, where people will get things done, but then they'll go on and be productive elsewhere."

Office furniture and interior design that helps achieve the aims of workplace is a burgeoning scene. Austrian furniture designer Bene is one company leading this. It exclusively invited HR magazine to its Vienna HQ to talk to Diane Persdy, HR manager, at Unilever, Vienna, which has just kitted out and designed its entire new office environment using Bene's 'Parcs' range of furniture. (see box out). "We wanted to move away from hierarchy and more towards fostering collaboration," she says. "So, to mark moving to our Hoch Zwei, Vienna office last March, we took people out of the classic closed office cubicle environment. Now all of the workplaces are in the open-office style and have the same dimensions, all the way up to the managing director." According to Persdy, the culture of the office has changed "massively". She believes the partition-less furniture complete with acoustic shields has helped create a much quieter, calmer environment, while also improving the sharing of ideas.

Central to its design has been strategically located zones forcing staff to move away from their desks and innovative 'Toguna' pods (see pictures) - small, circular, half-open, free-standing seating areas specifically for brainstorming, short meetings or discussions that require intense concentration. As at the BBC, these pods are designed to be sat in for short, but productive spells only.

Kursty Groves has just published 'I Wish I Worked There' (Wiley, 2010) - an account of a year-long international tour of some of the best offices in the world, featuring the likes of Virgin, Lego, Nike, DreamWorks and P&G. She says it is small innovations such as these pods that HRDs can learn from and integrate into their own offices, rather than rebuilding their entire office. However, she emphasises: "Innovation rooms on their own fail miserably. They only work when there's a synergy between work, the space, the culture and environment of a company. Plonking in a 'pod', but then having protocols about who can or can't use them defeats the object."

Groves began writing 'I Wish I Worked There' after noticing "there were lots of interior design books, but all from a people-less point of view.. She adds: "What I learned was that companies often do things, not as designers might suggest, but as they help make working better." At Nike, it purposely has 'secret rooms', which staff really engage with. "They like the notion there's lot's of 'top secret' stuff going on in there," she adds.

Groves concludes: "There are countless pieces of evidence which show that workplace design and environment have a positive relationship to high performance. The ultimate responsibility of HR is to deliver a strategy and a brand through its people. It is often said that if you are worried about what your competition is doing, the first thing you need to do is look at your people. They will provide the answers and they will produce great ideas and engage with work - when they are in an environment that suits them and the aims of the company."

 

PwC: more from More

"The whole point of More London is to open out our environment and make sure people are not at their desks all day," says Anne Muirhead, head of PwC's future working environment team. "It was all borne out of research that told us we needed to grow our business by a certain percentage, and that to do it we needed more collaborative working. We aid this by allowing in more light, having break-out spaces, café areas and even quiet rooms. There is no hierarchy, no cellular seating. Ironically, the only people who do have 'offices' are partners, but this was something the rest of the staff actually suggested. They wanted them to have their own space, almost as if it is something they appreciate is private." Muirhead says: "There has had to be some cultural communications to go with this. We have removed all desk-side storage - mostly to reflect new data protection rules, that force companies such as us to know that confidential documents are safely stored on a central server. It is also to reduce clutter and create a hot-desking working environment [there are four times as many people as there are desks]. Some people were used to 'nesting' and creating their own space around them, but they have slowly come round to this new way of working." Muirhead says she is creating a more living, breathing office - some 20%-25% of people who work in More London won't actually permanently live in London, but they will be from other offices. "It is opening up closer colleague collaboration," she says.

 

Nota Bene

Wandering around furniture maker Bene's Vienna showroom is like walking around an Aladdin's cave of ingenious modular seating and furniture designs, interspersed with mocked-up offices designed in collaboration with work psychologists to figure out what the most motivating colours are. Bene, founded in 1790, lives by what it designs. Its offices all have acoustic walls and ceilings made from porous glass granules that soak up 80% of ambient noise. Some of it is sheer technical wizardry (iPads that control lighting and shutters and super space-saving projectors sunk into tables that allow the desk to be pushed right up to a wall and still be able to project), but everything is modelled on making working life easier.

The 'Reception' at Bene is in the middle of the room, not at the front, making it equally close to everyone, while the HRD's office has a workstation with an adjustable height, enabling her to stand up and type or sit down, depending on how she feels. All lighting can be set to users' own preferences, depending on whether they feel tired (lowering it to, say, 60% daylight) or alert. There are no ceiling lights - all lighting comes from free-standing lamps, creating less harsh and softer areas. There is a there is a courtyard replicated inside, while the internal office layout deliberately mimics the higgledy-piggledy layout of the street outside. Desks are matched to the four types of worker Bene identifies: the anchor (likes to stay put); the gatherer; the navigator; and the connector. They also have small 'business boxes' - tiny rooms for guests who may drop in and work there for a few hours at a time. One client that installed all Bene's products together has measured a 52% rise in productivity

 

What the research says about environment

Environment also includes noise: According to 2009 research by sound dampening provider, Acoustics at Work, most workers are not able to get used to noisy offices; they are a distraction that staff do not get used to. It found 80% of office workers believed their productivity would increase if their working environment were more acoustically private, and in a review of peer research, found office workers' ability to focus on tasks improved by 48% when noise was reduced.

Environment also includes ergonomics: A study of 450 staff over a 12-month period by Steelcase found that when staff sat in chairs for six hours a day, more ergonomically designed chairs improved productivity by 17.8% and also contributed to their having fewer muscular-skeletal problems than a control group in less ergonomic chairs.

Environment also includes other stuff: Recruitment firm Office Angels surveyed 1,500 staff to find out what would make offices better to work in. The most popular answers included: TV screens; pets (including tropical fish); cappuccino-makers; table football; games consoles; and natural air and light.

 

Is environment really just about empowerment?

Kenneth Freeman, technical director of Ambius - the workplace environment specialist, which provides sound-absorbing art, plants and even introduces scents into atriums and workspaces - believes it doesn't actually matter what the exact intervention to an office is, it is more about staff feeling they have had some control in it. He bases this philosophy on ongoing research with the University of Exeter, which is testing 2,000 people's responses to their changing office environment. It has already found that staff working in 'enriched' spaces (those simply decorated with plants, or pictures) were 17% more productive than those in 'lean' (stark) spaces. Those sitting at empowered desks (where individuals could design their own areas), were even more efficient - being 32% more productive than their lean counterparts, where the individual's area was redesigned by a 'manager'. Freeman says: "Simple things feed into a sense of wellbeing, which feeds into performance. It shows there is more to it than just ergonomics." He adds: "We would say that if staff don't feel empowered and are just 'presented' with a new set-up, there could be an awful lot of money that is being wasted. We have found that the lasting impact of a change of office environment falls away faster when employees do not feel involved. Interestingly, research shows that after time, employees won't tend to notice plants being there, but what is significant is that they do notice if they are taken away."