In research collated by the British Council for Offices (“BCO”), the relationship between design and business efficiency has been reported, and the impacts are astonishing. The Council reports that a “2 to 5% increase in staff performance can cover the total cost of providing their accommodation” and “If companies can enhance knowledge worker productivity in this century anywhere near as much as they did with manual labour over the course of the last one, the payoffs will be astronomical.”
The full report is most illuminating and notes the positive impacts of first getting the basics right, such as air quality, lighting, fundamental comfort of the furniture etc, however in this short review I will focus on the findings relating to improved performance directly correlated to the design of the office and surroundings.
Companies that have tracked turnover levels and made an explicit link to changes in the workplace report benefits. At a financial services firm in Sydney, staff turnover was reported to be down from 25% to 11% following an office refurbishment. In a different industry with similar findings, a major UK call centre operation reduced turnover by 11% after a move to new premises and output more than doubled (from 35 calls per employee handled pre move to 74 calls post move) over the same period.
COMMUNICATION VS. CONCENTRATION
In the 1990s research and practice proclaimed that knowledge transfer was paramount to organisational productivity. In an interesting finding the BCO research has found the best knowledge transfers are by lucky accident, but the best insights need periods of intense and private reflection as well as periods of exposed communal activity. This is quite a challenge when designing your new office, as it creates a paradox between engineering team environments with sufficient ‘quiet spaces’ to allow good quality thinking.
A balance is important between these two apparently conflicting goals. We need time to communicate AND we need to think and reflect quietly and privately - all in the same work environment. This is where a skilled designer can help you articulate your needs and achieve an environment with workable zones.
Successful communication has been found to require a certain ‘density,’ and thus a kind of overcrowding and chaos in order to develop the quality of collaboration that is often required in team-developed solutions. However this is different for every organisation and no ‘rule of thumb’ density is appropriate for all organisations. One of the few findings that have been consistently found by researches who advocate ‘team spaces’ and ‘individual privacy’ is that the older style boxy cubicles perform badly on every measure of team and individual effectiveness.
VARIETY OF WORK SETTINGS
Both individual workstations with tall dividers and open-plan environments have their drawbacks. The modern aim is to offer a variety of spaces to accommodate the range of activities undertaken within a firm. Given that the more functions and activities people have to cope with in a given day, the less likely it is that a single work environment (e.g. only a workstation or only a private space) will work well. Providing a range of settings allows individuals to be suitably accommodated and to use the zone that most suits the activity they need to perform.
INTO THE FUTURE...
As the majority of work carried out in organisations moves towards the ‘knowledge worker’, we are witnessing a shift of focus from ‘physical stuff’ to ‘human capital’ and intangible assets such as R&D, marketing, HR, innovation and branding. Your office design needs to move and change with these changes in work dynamic. Work environments designed for paper-based processes are less appropriate for knowledge transfer and connect communities of people and autonomous workers.
The impacts of office design, and matching it to your changing needs, are critical. In the rapidly changing world of work, the implications of linking office design with business performance are so important that innovation is critical in the design of your offices, and good design will have lasting positive impacts on your productivity, cost-effectiveness, and efficiency of your organisation.
It is worth revisiting a small fact from the BCO, when considering your renovation or move, a “2 to 5% increase in staff performance can cover the total cost of providing their accommodation.” This means that in the long term, though the immediate cost of office fit-out can be substantial, it is not material in the long-term financial stability of your business.
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