Building a space for innovation isn't all about buying bean bag chairs and replacing staircases with carnival slides. Sue Weekes explores how companies can succeed by simply adapting offices to suit the needs of their staff
A recent report by the consultancy firm PSFK Labs, The Future of the Workplace, depicts the sort of futuristic and inspiring office we all dream of working in: carefully thought through co-creation areas, soundproof pods, mobile and pop-up workspaces and far more health-conscious desk areas and furniture. Inevitably, many articles that focus on future workplaces begin with the line ‘the office of tomorrow will be very different from that of today’. While it is not difficult to find great examples of innovative workspaces, with the likes of Google, Apple and Microsoft leading the way, for the vast majority of workers it’s likely that the workspace of the future will look very much like it does today.
Dr Craig Knight, chartered psychologist and director of Identity Realization (IDR), which uses psychology and science to create working spaces that quantifiably maximise productivity and wellbeing, cites British architect Frank Duffy’s Orbit Study: Information Technology and Office Design as beginning the discussion on areas such as flexible workspaces when it was published in 1983. In reality though, he believes that in many organisations, the office is stuck in a cycle of “reinventing itself”.
“There is a lack of willingness to change, especially in ‘lower status’ office spaces,” he says. “People are quite happy to design beautiful office spaces for knowledge workers, but the spaces that belong to most office workers today are stuck with the methodology developed by [famous industrialist and potter] Josiah Wedgwood.”
Increasing evidence suggests that a pleasant office space is far more than a nice-to-have for employees and can increase productivity, employee engagement and innovation as well as employee wellbeing. Employers still need convincing though, and Jason Miller, co-founder of the performance and development consultancy Tinder-Box, believes this is because it isn’t easy to see a return on investment. “People understand that a good working environment equals a good working attitude and employers know that they have to offer a certain level of professionalism and comfort,” he says. “But I see less people spending incremental money on creating something that will foster innovation. They see it as bringing a discretionary income and they can’t tie the returns down to the money they will spend.”
Dr Knight contends that part of the problem stems from managers not understanding how to measure the impact of creating a more inspiring workplace on productivity. “The closest they can get is to look at cost-savings,” he says. “So they would say ‘we save £50,000 on rent by squeezing more people into this space’.”
Humans are like any other beasts on the planet – they are at their worst and least productive in a lean space
Creating an inspiring workspace doesn’t have to mean ploughing large amounts of money into the project, but it does demand careful thought. “It is not sufficient to throw a few ‘La-Z-Boy’ chairs and colourful couches in an empty conference room, or to set up a fussball table in a hallway, and hope that your team will start utilising this as a brainstorm space,” says Leif Huff, partner at global design and innovation consultancy IDEO and managing director at IDEO Munich. “All of IDEO’s 11 locations around the world are located in lively city neighbourhoods, and the design of all our studio spaces has been driven by our collaborative processes and with our social values in mind.”
At IDEO, all workspaces are open plan, often without dedicated permanent desks for individuals, although project teams have dedicated workspaces for collaboration. “The right space design will help foster collaboration, take down barriers and silos between departments, and allow for the expression of personality of individuals and whole teams,” explains Huff. “Companies need to give people the opportunity to work in an environment that is human-centred, which means that they need to create enough openness so that people don’t need to ask for permission when they want to adapt their workspace to their needs. Designing the right space for our own teams is not a goal in itself – it is a prerequisite so we can do great work with and for our clients.”
Adam Landau, director of DeVono Property, which has helped to create innovative workspaces for clients such as Red Bull and technology company Mimecast, says there has been a major shift towards building spaces that allow people to work more collaboratively. “Instead of having a boring meeting room with one table and 12 chairs, people are going much further, saying ‘this area is a think tank where we can write on the walls, have a drink, and work on our iPads at the same time’,” he says. “You create the right environment and revolutionary ideas come out of that.” Red Bull’s new offices have a recording studio and editing suite and lots of communal spaces to brainstorm and work together, he says.
Creating an inspiring office space doesn’t necessarily mean getting in external design advice – sometimes the best source of this comes from inside the company. Giving the individual control over what they do with their workspace, for instance, can also unleash innovation and improve productivity. Dr Knight has been involved in workplace research for more than 10 years, with IDR growing out of a PhD research group at the University of Exeter. Research results have consistently shown that the more control people are given over the layout and design of their workspaces, the happier, more motivated and productive they are. Two studies, one carried out at the university and another in commercial offices, saw participants undertake a series of tasks in a workspace that was either lean (bare and functional) or enriched (decorated with plants and pictures), empowered (where the individual was allowed to design the area) or disempowered (where the individual’s design was redesigned by a manager). Those working in the enriched spaces were 17% more productive than those in lean spaces, but those sitting at empowered desks were almost one third (32%) more efficient. “This brings us back to the notion of identity realisation,” explains Dr Knight. “The optimum space is one that reflects the identity of the people that work in that space.”
Give up control
His message to managers is to “release authority” to employees to shape their own workspaces. This could be done by offering them a ‘table d’hote’ of options to design their space or some other form of enrichment that flies in the face of the lean approach that has dominated many workplaces for decades. Dr Knight contends that while it might be logical to think that an employee will work well in a lean space, if you look at it through anything other than a “management lens” such as a scientific, psychological or biological one, it doesn’t. “If you put an ant in the equivalent of a lean jam jar or a monkey in a lean cage, they will become miserable and stressed,” he says. “Humans are like any other beasts on the planet in that they are at their worst and least productive in a lean space.”
Ambius, which provides interior and exterior landscaping services to business, supported the research by the University of Exeter and claims that allowing employees to make their desk “their home” has a marked impact on performance and wellbeing. “Heads of businesses should allow staff to have a family photo, a picture on the wall or a plant near their desk, or let them choose whether they have a phone on the left or right hand side of their keyboard,” says Kenneth Freeman, head of innovation at Ambius. “Companies who make a workplace as sterile and lean as possible deny people the opportunity to set up home at their desk and will find that this can lead to employees losing their sense of identity.”
Freeman adds that while layout can have a huge effect on productivity, and in some cases can reduce negative emotions, there are major gains to be made from improving the psychological comfort through “nature-inspired” biophilic design. “By using combinations of plants and art and even fragrances, and sound and light effects, organisations can do much to improve the health of their staff and also increase the productivity and financial health of their business,” he says.
Indeed, research carried out by research agency Toluna Quick Surveys and London-based desk plant provider Desk So Green, found that seven in 10 UK workers feel desk plants improve productivity as well as overall wellbeing. “If employees can see a plant from their desk it has a positive effect,” says co-founder Ollie Preston, who adds that Metro newspaper recently bought 140 desk plants as part of an office refurbishment. “They were trying to bring an inspirational edge to the office and we played a part in their thinking on that.” Preston also says that employees can buy plants themselves and this area of its business has a one in three take-up.
Specialists involved in helping organisations create more inspirational workspaces confirm that it is the creative, media and technology sectors that are leading the way. That said, Identity Realization has completed a workplace enrichment programme that has brought about a 14% increase in productivity for a firm in the accountancy and auditing sector, and DeVono Property reports that it is seeing some major law firms try to move away from the cellular office approach to a more open plan one. “The biggest issue for these companies is client privacy, but phone booths that allow you to have a conversation with someone in private are becoming more popular,” says Landau.
Offices at home?
Looking ahead, it is hard to imagine what the future office will exactly look like because of the shift towards home and remote working as well as hot-desking. In theory, the latter would seem to discourage the current trend towards team and collaborative working, and a 2007 study of employees in the finance industry appears to support this view. Putting Employees in their Place: The Impact of Hot Desking on Organisational and Team Identification by Lynne J Millward of the Department of Psychology at the University of Surrey and S Alexander Haslam and Tom Postmes of the School of Psychology at the University of Exeter, found that where an individual was assigned a desk they felt more identity with the team whereas if they didn’t have an assigned desk, they felt more of a connection with the organisation.
While technology will help to meet some of the challenges that hot-desking and remote working might bring, Landau believes that the office will always remain the hub. “People need to be around like-minded people and need to brainstorm and come up with inventive ideas,” he says. “You can’t always hide yourself away at home as you won’t grow as a person.”