Designing workplaces to facilitate increases in productivity requires a couple of basic questions be answered: what is productivity, and how is it measured?
An easy way to increase a company office’s productivity is to get the same output from fewer people in less space. Installing open-plan offices with a hot-desking policy is one route to instant savings.
But recent reports and surveys find that doing this can lower an individual’s productivity markedly because it makes the same work harder, more stressful and less satisfying to do.
In 2008 the US National Institute of Building Sciences estimated that 10 per cent of a building’s running costs are tied up in rent. Energy and maintenance eat up another three per cent, and the remaining 87 per cent are costs related to occupant salaries or productivity.
Activity-Based Working (ABW) was developed by Dutch firm Veldhoen + Company in the mid 1990s. It can incorporate hot-desking, but is more than that.
A partner at the firm, Louis Lhoest believes hot-desking is “more about a property solution than a way of working”. ABW is concerned with processes before property.
Employees can choose which spaces suit what they are doing at a particular time, and it’s this choice that is a key difference between ABW and hot-desking.
One way to catalyse innovation is through moments of ‘serendipity’ – basically getting people to bump into other people. Designers can force these encounters by creating spaces, such as generous stair landings and in-office cafes, which encourage the random connections that once only took place in the smokers’ zone, tea rooms and at the watercooler.
New buildings being designed for ABW use have highly localised air conditioning, so that it can be turned down or off in areas not being used.
Existing buildings being retro fitted for ABW or hot-desking need to have their air conditioning reevaluated for the new employee densities – a stuffy office is not a healthy or productive place.
A 2004 Finnish/Singaporean study found that if indoor temperatures are three to six degrees higher than a person’s preferred neutral temperature, their productivity will drop at least 30 per cent.
It’s unfortunate that when construction estimates overrun and need to be cut, as often happens, air conditioning is often one of the first components to suffer, thanks to its invisibility.
More than half (54 per cent) of Australia’s workforce don’t spend time outside during winter work days, placing themselves in the ‘at risk’ category for Vitamin D deficiency.
A lack of UVB exposure, which you can’t absorb through glass, can lead to a variety of ailments that can dampen productivity and increase presenteeism, as well as leading to muscle and bone problems in later life.
Design can assist by providing work-enabled balconies, external stairways, and placing cafes around the outside of a building rather than just within it.
Jason Heredia believes that to make meeting rooms better spaces for generative collaboration, the door needs to be open or the walls need to be removed.
Passersby can perch at perimeter benching for a while, listening and even contributing.
From detailed observations, he also advocates seating that is lower to the ground, for better connections, and designing in the ability to push back from the table while being able to have your devices within reach on pull-out trays.
One person’s interaction can be another’s distraction. ‘Pink noise’ is currently used in offices to mask the sounds of others, or the starkness of silence.
It sounds like a low-volume stream of white noise mixed with distant crashing waves. Technically speaking, most musical melodies have the same pitch variations as pink noise. Like music, pink noise falls in between chaos and predictability, so it doesn’t annoy or bore us.
A 2006 Spherion study found that most perceive this as beneficial to productivity and job satisfaction. Headphones also act as ‘do not disturb’ signs, useful in an environment of perpetual interruptions.
The downside comes when people feel they need to use these devices all day to block office noise. They will also miss out on shared learning possibilities and risk hearing damage, which is hardly the aim of a healthy and collaborative office.