A number of studies are linking workplace design with improved employee productivity and retention. But does having a funky office really make such a difference? Melanie May reports.
Given that most employees will spend 40 years of their lives in employment, the environment in which they work should be important. But, given most will also do their jobs perfectly satisfactorily whether or not they have table football, a smart in-office cafe or comfy break-out rooms in the building, just how big a priority should office design be from an HR perspective?
The proliferation of office design companies suggests some businesses take the design of their premises very seriously indeed. Providers range from suppliers of sound masking (such as specialist BDS), which claims to reduce workplace stress, to layout analysts (such as Work Inc Group). All of these point to some form of human metric improvement (some anecdotal, some actual), but leading the campaign for definitive proof has been architectural company Gensler.
It spectacularly ignited the office environment debate two years ago with the launch of These Four Walls, the first definitive study into this area, which claimed that the workplace environment does affect how people behave and how they view their job and employer. It found four out of five workers said the quality of their workplace affected their job satisfaction.
Since then Gensler has been working with clients such as Carinthian Television, which, it claims, saw retention increase by 150% after it helped the company move from its cramped Soho office in London last autumn to roomier Chiswick Park, which also includes break-out areas. In fact Gensler now believes a better workplace could increase UK productivity by almost 20% and estimates inefficient offices could be costing British business more than £135 billion a year.
Interior landscape and design firm Ambius has also conducted research into how people relate to their workplace environment. It found the more staff can manage their workspace, the more engaged they feel and the less absenteeism there is. "The more control you give people, the better the outcome," says Kenneth Freeman, international technical director at Ambius.
Progressive HR departments seem to be catching on. Freeman reports that, whereas office design used to be the remit of the facilities department, he is seeing an increase in interest from HR.
Fabio Torlini, acting HR director at website hosting company Rackspace, backs this up. He reports a recent increase in interest from clients in how its office, which feature a games room and a canteen where staff receive free breakfasts, is organised. "This is very new but big companies now come to see what we've done and to learn from us. People are starting to take notice," he says.
Jeremy Myerson, professor of design studies at the Royal College of Art and author of Space to Work and The 21st Century Office, believes this is not before time. He feels office design has been allowed to become a neglected area. "It's the Cinderella of design disciplines, and HR professionals have a huge responsibility and opportunity," he says. "A really good office recognises that work is essentially a social activity and a lot of HR managers want to ignore that."
So what features make a good office? There must be a purpose behind everything, says Jayne O'Brien, chief marketing officer at consultancy Regus. When designing its own Business Lounge, a drop-in office space for people on the go, the focus was productivity. "Our designers came up with ideas for a working environment that enables people to concentrate on doing business. The lighting is ideal, the density of hot desks is just right and the seating is comfortable. Also there are 'think-pods', which give privacy if needed."
When office design consultancy Morgan Lovell helped to design Rackspace's offices the company wanted features that would help build teamwork. The games room was part of this solution, along with open-plan offices so no one is cut off from everyone else.
Rackspace's employees were also involved in the design. Torlini explains: "We look after companies' websites and keep them online. To enable us to meet our high service levels, we have to have a very high level of employee engagement, so our staff are extremely important to us."
How better office design facilitates teamwork seems to be the common request from HR departments with break-out rooms especially in demand. "HR managers are concerned about engaging employees, and more companies see their offices as a way to inspire staff and attract talent," says Paul Kelly, head of marketing at Morgan Lovell.
Skype UK (and its owner, Ebay) is just one example of how office design has been crucial to its business. Not only has it recently created a relaxed cafe area where staff can meet or just take a break, but desks have also been arranged to allow for optimum networking. "We laid out the desks in an almost random pattern so people had to weave their way through. It makes you bump into people you wouldn't necessarily talk to," says a Skype spokesman.
However, brands must ensure they do not get carried away with a desire to appear cool. Red Bull has some of the quirkiest offices around, including a slide and a bar, and the office has also been designed from an employee wellbeing perspective with lots of light and space. However, Red Bull's own acting HR director, Carla Cringle, warns that features like these must not be installed just for the sake of it.
"There has to be a reason," she says. "With us, it reflects our brand values. The offices are not play areas but creative spaces - we're a very creative company and we want an environment that stimulates creativity. There is a purpose behind everything here."
There are still some things you can rely on to work for everyone. "It's worth remembering everyone is a human being, and human beings like space, light and diversity," says Jim Lusty, head of innovation at innovation firm What If! Changing the office environment doesn't have to cost the earth either - plants and frequently changing posters (see Product News, p62) are just two ideas that can make a difference.
The Holy Grail, of course, is finding a metric to prove all this matters, which is hard to come by. However, Myerson says: "The best metric you can use is the recruitment and retention of staff. If you can reduce turnover, that is a big win."
This is backed up by the experiences of HR directors such as Red Bull's Cringle. "There are no metrics in place here yet but our employee retention rates are very good and we have a very engaged workforce," she claims.
WHAT'S ON THE HORIZON
A number of new offices are under way. We look at what's different about them and who's going to be based there.
10 Exchange Square, London
Situated at the gateway to Exchange Square, with a galleria extending the full width of the building, tenants include lawyers Herbert Smith and global investment managers Western Asset.
201 Bishopsgate and The Broadgate Tower, London
Emitting almost 50% less CO2 than conventional buildings on this scale, and with 20% recycled materials, 201 Bishopsgate tenants will include Henderson Group, and Mayor Brown, Rowe and Maw LLP. The Broadgate Tower is let to Reed Smith Richards Butler LLP.
BBC Broadcasting House, London
Housing the BBC, phase one, the refurbishment of the old building, is complete, with phase two, a combined news centre, due in 2010. Features will includestate-of-the-art broadcasting facilities and a flexible and agile working environment with new public spaces, inside and out.
The Willis Building, City of London
The design was originally based on the interlocking shells of a prawn and resembles a fish tail in shape. The tower reduces in width and height down to six storeys to the east, and contains a roof terrace and roof-top pavilion. To be completed this summer, most of it is let to the Willis Group, a risk management firm.
WHAT'S SO GOOD ABOUT THESE OFFICES?
WHAT IS IT? The Blizard Building, Queen Mary, University of London
Who's based there? More than 400 scientists from the Institute of Cell and Molecular Science, Queen Mary, University of London
What the press says: "It takes your breath away the first moment you see it. Rational and romantic, questioning, quixotic and necessary." - The Guardian. "The extraordinary colours and shapes conjured from the fertile imagination of Will Alsop are transforming London's dreary office landscape." - Evening Standard
What the HR team says: "This building breaks the mould in terms of science practice in the UK. Our vision was to create a light and airy building researchers will enjoy working in and, crucially, one that promotes cross-fertilisation and the sharing of ideas." - Nick Wright, warden of Barts and The London, Queen Mary's School of Medicine and Dentistry
WHAT IS IT? Fruit Towers, Brackenbury Road, London
Who's based there? Innocent Drinks
What the press says: "Their airy offices sit in a quiet estate with faux-grass walls, trendy young staff and the company's minibus parked outside, epitomising the fresh feeling Innocent is trying to create." - BBC.co.uk. "Fruit Towers is unlike any other workplace in Britain. For one thing it is carpeted in Astroturf. It all feels a bit like a cult - but a terribly nice one, with wholesome intentions and good table manners." - Sky News
What the HR team says: "We want to create a business we can be proud of. To do this, our strategy is to create the best possible environment in which staff can thrive. The current office layout is as it is because that's what people have told us they want. We'll always listen to what our employees have to say, and if there is something they'd like to see more or less of, we'll change it." - Jenny Whitmore, head of culture
WHAT IS IT? 77 Kingsway, London
Who's based there? PR agency Fishburn Hedges
What the press says: "Fishburn Hedges, with 166 employees, has built a strong sense of camaraderie through practices such as its 'FishTank' meetings, in which groups of staff take it in turns to come up with ways of improving the organisation." - Financial Times
What the HR team says: "The office is completely open-plan with a culture of no divisions. There is no traditional line manager structure and we have a major desk move every 12-18 months so that people mix. We pride ourselves on the fact that people generally know and care about each other." - Rebecca Walker, head of people development
WHAT IS IT? Aurora House, Uxbridge Road, London
Who's based there? Market research agency Dunnhumby
What the press says: "The company believes in sharing its success. The in-house gym is free to use while softball, volleyball and games teams play throughout the year. Pool and table football facilities provide a lower-octane workout." - Financial Times
What the HR team says: "We want our office to help rather than hinder the natural interactions between a young and motivated workforce. A recent redesign of our London office has created a bright, creative and uncluttered environment that provides unlimited opportunities for spontaneous meetings within an overall atmosphere of calm and simplicity. The dunnhumby gym, a Friday finishing time of 16.00, car-parking, sports/beauty treatments on site and a great all-day cafe complete a very special office space." - Francesca Peters, HR director