The Stoddart Review's 'Workplace Advantage' report makes the link between the design of a workspace and the productivity of those who use it abundantly clear. But as Nick Martindale reports, workplaces require constant review if that link is to be maintained.
9 February 2017 | Nick Martindale
The link between the design of a workspace and productivity is something that anyone working in FM will be all too aware of.
The Stoddart Review's report, The Workplace Advantage, makes plain the fact that the workplace tends to represent the second biggest cost an organisation faces, behind staff. Yet equally it points out how only one in two workers say their work environment helps them to be productive. Not only is this a sorry indication of how little employees value their surroundings, it also raises the issue of just how much more productive we could be if we were able to offer inspiring workplaces.
One of the report's main themes is the need for space to evolve with the needs of its occupants, creating a state of 'perpetual beta' rather than a project that is ever truly finished, or that can be completed and left in its initial state for years on end.
"Workplace is a journey and not a product," says Neil Usher, workplace director at Sky UK, who contributed the concept of perpetual beta to the report.
"As business change becomes ever faster, the ability of a fixed asset like workplaces to respond is fairly limited. We need to see that when we invest in space it is something we will continually adapt and change."
For many in the sector, this will merely confirm a trend that has become apparent over recent years as organisations have sought greater operational flexibility, with increasingly mobile employees.
"This idea of permanent beta is not a new thing," says Sam Sahni, head of workplace consultancy at Morgan Lovell, "because by the time we have defined, designed and delivered a project things have often changed already. Certain teams may have merged, headcounts may have grown or shrunk and requirements may have changed. In some cases organisations have changed their branding which means the corporate colours are very different."
There can often be different profiles within organisations, too, he adds, which can dictate both the initial layout but also measures that can be built in to allow businesses to change as teams move around. "At times an organisation may have four types of working styles and each would have a very different requirement in terms of storage, technology and culture," he says. "On certain floors people are expected to be at their desks from 9 to 5, but then you have other floors where people have to be out selling."
Building block beta
Workplace planning firms have a key role to play here in encouraging clients to look at their existing space and use, and factor in potential needs before making any changes. "By continually studying how employees use the space, you can create an environment that fits around them and that can be adapted to their changing needs," says Cyril Parsons, managing director of Office Principles. He gives the example of people disappearing into stairwells to make vital calls on mobile phones, because the office is too loud. "It might be that they need acoustic booths in the main office area that afford them some privacy," he adds.
There are already several measures through which office design consultants or fit-out firms are injecting extra flexibility. "There's a lot that can be done with proprietary products; we might call it furniture but it's a bit more than that," says Neil Usher. "It's quite possible to take a café space or a call space and to furnish it more than build it." He believes occupiers need to collaborate with manufacturers to design products - or tweak existing ones - that will meet their unique needs.
Workplace consultants have also looked to tweak their own offering in line with changing client requirements. Sahni talks of a "Lego-driven approach" where partitioning systems are built in to allow rooms to be divided up without having to insert or knock down walls. "If we put in a medium-sized meeting room they could put a wall in between and create two small meeting rooms, or one small meeting room and two quiet rooms, so everything could work in multiples of each other," he says. Having the right technology is another focus, he says; for example, having similar screens at desks throughout the building so people can simply take their laptops with them to plug in elsewhere.
Furniture firms have also been adapting to meet the needs of a shorter workspace lifespan. "One way they have done this is by producing flexible furniture," says Adrian Powell, owner and director at Active FM. "For example, storage that also serves as seating or even seating systems that can change shape, be stackable and move around, depending on the space available. Furniture suppliers are also offering lease options, allowing furniture to be upgraded to keep up with the latest trends."
Paul Eatock, director of sales at Spatial Office Environments, says there has been a definite move towards "less static" products. "Unless you're building solid, permanent walls in an office block, there's no reason why you can't build complete flexibility into the design," he says. "This could mean an increase in removable partition walling, more loose furniture, collaborative pods instead of meeting rooms or clever desking solutions which can be repurposed and adapt to change willingly." Acoustic pods can sometimes do away with the need for physical walls altogether, he says.
Things that make you go hmm
Steelcase, meanwhile, is using the power of the internet of things to help organisations monitor employees' use of space, including conference and meetings rooms. "Usage trends offer key space managers the quantitative data they need to understand when and how their spaces are used," says Christian Neubauer, EMEA manager of technology products. "Overlaying this against the intended application of a room can lead to more effective space configurations for workers, and increase employee satisfaction and engagement."
Yet those working in FM roles or workplace consultancy still have a battle to overcome the traditional mindset that exists in many organisations. "Collectively, we need to get our heads around the need to get the workspace to move more in step with the business, and people not being unduly concerned about adapting, because that can be one of the blockers," he says. "People say they have spent all this money and don't want to be tearing it up already. You shouldn't really be tearing it up at all; you should just be repositioning a few things and adding to them."
Leeson Medhurt, workplace consultant at 360 Workplace, says there is still a lack of confidence among senior management about how to manage agile workers. "There is a resistance from C-suite executives who still believe in presenteeism as the best way to manage staff," he says. "Around 80 per cent of businesses believe that a remote workforce is difficult to control and prefer to take larger leases to accommodate everyone physically. This may not change until the younger generation rise up the ranks."
Landlords are often also reluctant to adapt workspaces, he adds, as it can incur additional expense and put more pressure on the infrastructure services in the building. "The current belief is that to design buildings to accommodate agile working will not only make them attractive to a smaller market, but will also not yield the substantial return it would cost to make these changes in the first place," he says. "So why would landlords change their working model?"
A meeting of minds
Andrew Mawson, co-founder and director of Advanced Workplace Associates, says the debate on measuring productivity in a space has moved from square foot per person to include an element of how that space is used, but also needs to factor in the "human performance".
"Primarily what we need to be doing is creating workplaces and workplace managers that that have at their heart the desire to maximise the performance of every individual, team and community. Workplace management should be as much about these things as space efficiency and cost. An agile office might mean fewer desks and more people sharing work stations rather than renting more space or relocating the office," he points out. "This might allow existing space to be used for collaboration areas: training areas, a kitchen, a crèche, a prayer room; storing stock, or a staff gym, or it might enable an organisation to sublet an entire floor."
The report, says Usher, "will hopefully open the consciousness of a lot of people to the contribution that the workplace can make to productivity - and those of us in the industry, whether supply or demand side, can get on board with that".