Companies could boost their productivity by between 1 and 3.5 per cent, adding as much as £70 billion to the UK economy, by focusing on how the workplace might be used to generate revenue, instead of regarding them simply as a cost to be managed. That is according to the newly published The Workplace Advantage report from The Stoddart Review based on a meta-analysis of 200 studies by workplace expert Dr Nigel Oseland. Taking a new approach to how space is used to help employees to be productive and changing who is responsible for the decisions is the first step. The Review, a collaboration between business leaders and workplace experts, found that only a little over a half (53 percent) of the UK’s office workers can say their workplace enables them to be productive. For the rest, a workplace that’s unproductive is also affecting their pride in the company, its image and culture. It found that too many businesses are prioritising filling up their offices with people rather than asking themselves ‘what will make their staff productive’. As a result, as many as 70 percent say their office is too noisy and they are disappointed by the lack of different types of workspace including communal areas and break-out zones.
The challenge for most large organisations nowadays is often likened to being something akin to making an elephant dance. This metaphor has become a bit of a cliché in its own right since the American businessman Louis Gerstner used it as the title of his memoir describing how he had turned round the fortunes of IBM in the 1990s. It all boils down to how organisations can stay ahead of the curve in a world in which innovation is not only relentless but which can spring from unexpected and external sources such as changes in the economy and government policy. And, of course there’s nothing quite like a harsh economic climate to drive innovation. The pressure on budgets across the economy in general and the public sector in particular is driving a revolution in the way property is procured, designed and managed in the UK.
Colour forecasting is one of the often under-the-radar disciplines that help to identify and shape trends in product and interior design. That is why designers keep an eye out for the latest announcements from Pantone or DuPont for their colours of the year, seek the guidance of organisations such as the International Colour Authority or consult colour forecasters as they work to stay one step ahead of the game and offer clients the very best advice. But how do those responsible for forecasting colours go about it? One idea we can dismiss straight away is that they are merely reacting to what they’ve seen on a catwalk. There is more science to it than that and influences can flow in both directions with trends in interior design and the arts influencing fashion designers.
Some of our most important impressions of a building are formed in one of three key public spaces. Loos, lifts and lobbies are the places workplace designers and managers can gain crucial ground in the battle for the hearts and minds of employees, customers, suppliers and whoever else happens to find themselves on their premises. When it comes to the provision of washrooms in both our workplaces and public spaces, the loudest voices of complaint most commonly arise from women who always seem to endure the worst of the queues. And the problem has been with us for a very long time.
One of the particular and often unspoken issues that shadows in any debate about flexible working is what we mean by the term. We’ve been talking about new ways of working for a good quarter of a century now and what is generally understood about the practice has evolved considerably. The very idea was conceived at the birth of the new online era so is inextricably tied up with the Internet and new technology. That is why it first became a significant business issue in the mid 1990s as we felt the pre-shocks of the coming seismic disruption of the Internet. Laptops became commercially viable for the first time in the early 1990s and the UK’s first text message was sent in 1992. Authors such as Charles Handy were popularising the notion that our entire relationship with work was about to change. Inevitably, a deal of nonsense was talked and a number of what turned out to be blind alleys mapped out. We were told we would all soon be working from home and the office would die out as a result. A new vocabulary emerged to describe these changes; teleworking, telecottage, hot-desking and road warrior. In Wales, a man called Ashley Dobbs even created a televillage in Crickhowell specifically aimed at providing a home for the predicted army of telecommuters. By 2000 the scheme was bust and while the language that went with it began to seem archaic, the ideas it espoused went mainstream, making it all redundant anyway. Continue reading
Most of the arguments put forward for enlightened workplace design are fact based. That’s useful but such arguments can also ignore the fact that we respond to our surroundings on an emotional level as well as a functional one. Once you accept that office design is as much about how it makes people feel as how it helps them work, then the design process can be as much about EQ as it is IQ. While businesses can shy away from dealing with the emotional facets of working lives, there is a growing movement that advocates not only greater awareness of the importance of emotional intelligence but is also able to draw attention to the benefits it brings to organisations and individuals. This includes how emotional intelligence can be one of the key predictors of organisational and individual performance.
The growing influence of emotional design
One of the world’s most eminent proponents of emotions in the workplace is the management writer Daniel H Pink. “People want to have sovereignty over their own life,” he said in a recent presentation to a London summit on EQ. “They want to know why they’re doing something and to make a contribution. I believe we do better ourselves when we treat our emotional intelligence with the same importance as our mental intelligence. Whilst blanket adoption of this idea may be some way off, its influence is certainly growing and as an increasing number of case studies show, it is having huge impact.”
The message is clearly being taken up by a growing number of large organisations. One of the issues raised by Pink is the importance of relationships and what he called ‘progress rituals’ which not only strengthen the bonds between individuals but also increase engagement and improve performance. He cites managers who hold weekly face to face meetings with individuals and encourage staff to keep track of their achievements. Dan claims that such simple, regular processes can even help reduce levels of stress and sickness.
In many ways these are not new ideas, but their time certainly seems to have come in the context of the new economy. As long ago as the 1940s we knew that workers benefit from being aware of their role and place in the organisation and enjoying a degree of control over their work processes and surroundings. As Abraham Maslow highlighted when developing his famous hierarchy of needs theories, humans are fundamentally simple beings. Once their physiological needs for food, air, security and water have been met, people will seek to address their psychological and emotional needs for things like self-worth, relationships and self-actualisation.
Emotional design, happiness, wellbeing and productivity
When these are not met, that is when we encounter a range of emotional and psychological issues ranging from lack of motivation and underperformance through to disengagement, stress, depression and absenteeism.
The design of our surroundings can be one element that helps us to meet these needs, to help us to be happy and more productive. Offices can nurture relationships, offer privacy yet a feeling of connection with others, a place in the world and a specific community of people with the same goals and a space in which we can feel valued.
Designing for everybody
It is one of the defining characteristics of contemporary approaches to office design that we also are able to offer people a greater degree of choice and control over how and where they work. This is not always a practical or task based issue, but can also be about the emotional needs of different personality types. When everybody is obliged to work in a homogeneous space such as an open plan office, they will respond to it in different ways, so often the best option is to design office spaces that give individuals some control over where and how they work, in what sort of surroundings and with what level of privacy.
Offering staff some kind of control over their work space satisfies one of their basic emotional needs. Giving them some degree of autonomy will help significantly in raising their emotional happiness, which they will attribute to being happy at work. Conversely, if they are instinctively uncomfortable in their workspace this will translate to general unhappiness at work, even though they may not realise it.
There is much about our human natures and thought patterns which is innate and unconscious. Ensuring that workers are happy depends on them having their fundamental emotional needs met and satisfied. It’s great that this issue is now being given the recognition it deserves.
The changing way we work presents particular challenges for the development of commercial property. As we’ve highlighted before, the days are gone when designing an office was largely determined by the number of people who occupy it and the main determinant of the space needed for them was the size of their desks based on their status and what they did. Now, those are just some of the characteristics that need to be taken into consideration alongside others such as how much meeting and shared space is needed, whether certain people need a dedicated workstation at all, how to give people choices about where they work and with whom and how the building can adapt to changing teams and objectives.
In shows and the media, we are often invited to pass judgement on products and ideas that have been created by other people. The reviews that follow often cement some form of accepted view, even if we often outsource the decision making to people who are better placed to decide, or at least better enabled to express an opinion. Such judgements would not function at all in this regard unless there was some underlying consensus about what constitutes good and bad design at the same time that we all believed we know what good taste is and we all know a good piece of design when we see it. In so far as the consensus is universally accepted, we are all right. But how much do we really understand about the things that surround us and their design? And how meaningful is the consensus? In JG Ballard’s novel High Rise, recently made into a film, he writes of the disdain Anthony Royal, the architect of the eponymous tower has for the tastes of its residents.
One of the enduring forces that shape facilities management thinking is the growing business case for treating buildings as a strategic asset. But the allocation and design of space is not just about cost. It is also about how to meet the needs of an increasingly mobile and flexible workforce and one that is just as likely to see the workplace in terms of technology as it is in terms of a building. The changing work culture of knowledge workers also means that they have been demanding more and more control over how and where they work. So much so that it is now the norm for people to expect autonomous control over their time and space. They don’t want a firm to tell them where, how and when to work, but they would like some great choices.
There’s a good reason why we find it hard to equate our working life (and specific aspects of it such as workplace design) with our personal happiness. It’s because it’s all very complicated. So complicated in fact that you can quickly sidetrack any discussion on the subject by asking elementary questions such as: ‘what do you mean by happy?’ or ‘should it be the role of work to make us happy in the first place?’ While some people may try to tell you that if you do X then Y is the inevitable result, all the research on workplace design and management shows us that things are not that straightforward at all.