The quest for a proper understanding of the links between the places we work and our wellbeing and productivity has been ongoing for a very long time. It predates the health and safety debate as we now know it with roots in research such as that carried out at the Hawthorne Works in Chicago in the late 1920s. The Hawthorne work has become seminal not only in the study of productivity and wellbeing, but also in wider management thinking. When it was discovered that productivity fell back to some degree at the end of the experiments, a second interpretation was postulated; namely that the workers were not merely responding to better conditions but also to the experiment itself. They welcomed the focus on their wellbeing.
This same complex relationship between design and management is still the underlying principle of health and safety in offices. Obviously there are elements of design in the workplace that address the safety and wellbeing of the people who work in it. At a basic level this will meet the relevant legislation for lighting, ergonomics or air quality and so on but people like to know that their employers are paying attention to their wellbeing. Meeting legislative obligations is best seen as the foundation for a more enlightened approach to worker wellbeing.
Ergonomics is defined as the relationship between people and their environment. That relationship is inherently a two way thing. At the heart of that must be the belief that you are looking after people for the right reasons. It’s no longer enough to try to minimise the risk of harm, you have to look at improving wellbeing and productivity.
Similarly, when it comes to lighting design, general guidance in a number of types of buildings is available from the Society of Light and Lighting, at www.cibse.org. But here too there is an opportunity to look at the issue in a more sophisticated way. The wrong approach and a tight budget can lead people to focus on accepting the norm to meet their legislative obligations. That’s great on one level but it is the human issues that must underlie decisions about light. The office has become more of a social space, more domestic and that has to be reflected in lighting systems. The most important thing is to create something more humane than the harsh, cold over-illumination you get in a lot of offices as a result of adopting the lowest common denominator approach.
You can even apply lighting design to deal with specific workplace issues not normally associated with light. For example in open plans one of the reasons why there can be a lot of background noise is that people are talking too loudly as harsh direct downward lighting creates shadows across people’s mouths distorting the visual clues you get about what someone is saying and causing everybody to speak more loudly.
This problem of acoustics has become particularly acute in recent years as more and more sources of noise have been introduced to workplace and as space standards have changed. According to the British Council for Offices most people work in the UK work in open plan offices at workstations that are on average about 20 per cent smaller than they were ten years ago. We’re closer to our neighbours, so we are more likely to hear them.
The problem is highlighted in a report from the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE), people enjoy a 38 per cent improvement in their ability to perform many tasks if they work in a workplace where acoustic conditions have been optimised. The same survey also reported that people perform 16 per cent better in memory tests and 40 per cent better in mental arithmetic tests, when they aren’t disrupted by undue noise. Other reports go even further. A study published in the British Journal of Psychology has highlighted the role that ‘irrelevant noise’ plays not only in disrupting work, but also in increasing stress levels and decreasing job satisfaction.
Although we are aware of the harmful effects of noise and much as many people claim they would like to work in enclosed offices, the cost of space and the contemporary focus on teamworking dictate that the open plan is here to stay as the norm for most of them. Fortunately it is possible to reach some sort of balance between the often conflicting need for us to work in privacy but also communicate as part of teams.
At the heart of this typical trade off is an understanding that we are dealing with complex and changeable factors. And when we say that, we’re mostly referring to the human occupants of buildings. The best summary of what this means in practice is Neil Usher’s masterful round up of the characteristics of what he terms an elemental workplace. Taken in each isolation, each factor seems straightforward. The art of workplace design lies in ensuring they all come together in a coherent whole.