Office design: room for improvement

In the opening scenes of the 1960 film The Apartment, Jack Lemmon’s ‘Bud’
Baxter is one of 31,260 workers seen pouring into the tower block of their New
York insurance employer. Bud’s desk ­- 19th floor, section W, desk 861 -­ is
symbolic of his status within the firm.

His ultimate aim in life is to become a junior manager, at which point he
will get a small office that looks out over the endless rows of clerks. Senior
management is out of reach ­- theirs is the promised land of plush offices three
floors up, with their own executive washroom.

The film may be satirical, but the concept of an office design that reflects
a strict hierarchical structure, one where the size and position of your desk
and office indicates your rank within the company, has proved surprisingly
difficult to dislodge.

It’s only really in the last decade or so that the rank-equals-square footage
approach to office design has been pushed aside in favour of open plan areas and
concepts such as hot-desking or hotelling, designed to respond to a more
flexible, technology-enabled workforce.

This has happened largely organically ­ employee lifestyles change,
technology improves, and workplace design flexes and adapts accordingly. But
there has also been a socio-economic shift in terms of the perception of the
workplace’s role in employee welfare and performance, and productivity.

Boosting the UK’s business productivity is an ongoing preoccupation for the
current government. In his most recent Budget, Gordon Brown issued a rallying
cry for industry to place a greater emphasis on creativity to improve

The design press will regularly feature the ‘trendier’ advertising and media
professions who take creative design one step further than mere hot-desking.
Everything from games areas designed to encourage imaginative thinking to
surreal ‘womb rooms’ designed to ‘incubate ideas’ have all been tried.

Such designs look great in print, but they’re rarely relevant to the majority
of UK businesses. But the changing nature of employment and the enormous
advances in technology have nevertheless had significant effects on the way
offices are designed and run.

Take a larger accountancy firm ­ in any one day, perhaps only 60% of the
total number of staff is likely to be working in the office, which means that
providing a desk for every employee can be something of a waste of space, and
money. Simultaneously, the pace of technological change means that different,
more flexible approaches to working can be easily supported.

Technological advances and changing work patterns, however, are essentially
evolutionary forces that have had corresponding natural effects on workplace
design. If we are to argue that good design of the working environment can play
a part in producing the kind of performance improvements that the chancellor,
among others, has called for, we must ask what evidence exists to support the

A report by The British Council of Offices and the Commission for
Architecture and the Built Environment published in May addressed that very

According to the report Impact of office design on business performance, an
employee’s workplace is responsible for 24% of their job satisfaction level and
in one major UK company, staff turnover at a call centre reduced by 11% after a
move to new well-designed offices and output doubled during the same period.

Common sense dictates that a happy worker is a more productive worker. And
yet according to Morgan Lovell’s own survey of 2,000 office staff, one in three
employees feels no pride in their workplace and say it adds to their stress,
whilst one quarter of all employees would feel more committed to their employer
if improvements were made to their workplace.

It’s not as if employees are asking for plasma TV screens or regular
massages. Highest on the wish list are comfortable chairs and desks, natural air
and light and clean toilets. Even simple things such as adequate daylight can
reduce absenteeism by 15% and increase productivity by up to 20%, the report

But to see the benefits of workplace design as confined to just the workforce
is, in itself, limiting. Good office design reflects a good corporate image. Our
poll found that 13% of UK businesses say they have moved premises just to
enhance their corporate image in the past three years.

There is growing acknowledgement throughout industry of the importance of the
workplace to all aspects of business performance. Our research tells us that
nearly one in four medium-to-large UK businesses is planning to make significant
changes to their premises within the next 12 months.

Certainly we are seeing more companies give the thing that represents their
second biggest overhead ­ their premises ­ the attention it deserves. More
client briefs are focusing on design elements that will combat stress, for
example, with the provision of adequate and thoughtful break-out space becoming
the norm rather than the exception.

Few organisations would knowingly ignore an opportunity to improve
performance. It is the perceived cost of that improvement that causes concern.
Yet many offices could be better geared toward employees just by addressing
simple things such as furniture, lighting, temperature and air quality.

Not every office needs to be redesigned. Employers may be waking up to the
importance of the workplace but if they don’t know how to make the improvements,
change will be slow.

So there is still work to be done. And in the main, the onus is on the design
industry. It is our responsibility to communicate the benefits of seeking advice
on the amount, type and design of commercial space a particular business
requires for optimum performance. And to do this we need proof. The more
research that finds its way into the marketplace the better.

Andrew Bradley is London managing director of design consultancy Morgan

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