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The Power to be Productive

By Gary Wheeler, FIIDA, FASID, AIA Associate

"Workplace design should enable clients to do their jobs easily, remain flexible so that end users can adjust the space according to their particular work style and be adaptable so that it can work well into the future."
—Gary Wheeler

How is productivity defined? Is it in terms of how many activities can be juggled in one day or how many items can be checked off a to-do list? In these times of working mothers, employees clocking in overtime hours and executives wearing multiple hats, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to accomplish efficiently all that is required at the office and at home. But design has the ability to transform the way we live and work and can play a major role in improving productivity, says workplace design expert Gary Wheeler, FIIDA, FASID, AIA Associate, Director of Workplace Europe for Gensler London. Perspective sat down with Wheeler to get his take on how design excellence can improve business performance.

What elements of workplace design can help increase productivity and efficiency?
Workplace design should enable clients to do their jobs easily, remain flexible so end users can adjust the space according to their particular work style and be adaptable so that it can work well into the future.

Clients don’t think about productivity in terms of number of papers filed or words typed per minute; they think, “How can you help make my processes easier?” and “How can you affect my bottom line?” Productivity can be measured in a number of ways. It can be measured in terms of how many quality employees a company can attract and retain. Clearly, a company that constantly is forced to interview, hire and train new employees is not being efficient.  The British GCHQ's new circular offices were designed to make workers accessible to one another and to increase information-sharing capabilities.

Productivity also is measured in terms of information shared. In London, for example, most employees work in an open-plan environment, and even in law firms, it’s common to find shared offices. This trend — double occupancy — not only saves on square footage, but also evokes a team atmosphere and encourages mentoring among senior and junior employees. But workers do need their own personal space from time to time. For this purpose, I like to provide multiple spaces where people can go to use their phones or laptops. In these “quiet rooms,” employees aren’t disturbed.

All successful workplace design should improve employee attraction and retention, strengthen information-sharing capabilities and augment workers’ abilities to get things done.

How can design increase a company’s attraction and retention rates?
A good example of design positively affecting a company’s employee attraction and retention rates can be found in Clifford Chance’s new Canary Wharf offices. When the world’s largest law firm moved its offices out of the city of London and into Canary Wharf in 2003, it needed to find a way to convince current employees to make the move with it.

Gensler treated Allen & Overy executives to a day on the London Eye wheel in order to brainstorm ideas for the law firm's new offices outside of the typical corporate setting.

The new office’s design incorporated a 24/7 coffee shop, a full cafeteria that also served as a large meeting room, a sky-lit swimming pool on the eighth floor with views of the docks, a full-time gym with trainers, a travel agency, a bank and a hairdresser, among other amenities. The client wanted to find and keep the best talent, and didn’t want employees to worry about finding time to deal with personal matters and errands. The thinking was, “If you’re going to give me 10 hours a day as a lawyer, then I’m going to give you all of this.” The new office design provided a high-performance work environment that services both employees and clients.

Initially, Clifford Chance anticipated losing a significant number of its employees in the move. In the end, it lost less than 3 percent. Even support staff decided to stay with the firm. Employees decided it was well worth the longer commute.

How can a designed “team atmosphere” improve information-sharing?
As an example, when Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) decided to move staff located in 50 different buildings spread across two campuses into a single location, the intelligence agency called Gensler to help. GCHQ aimed to find a new sense of identity, and design played a key role in that. Part of the goal was to create a flexible environment and a sense of community in this traditionally compartmentalized organization.

The new headquarters, completed in 2004, features a circular design to keep GCHQ’s three divisions closely linked. Open-plan offices ensure staff members are no more than five minutes apart. The new design increases productivity in terms of knowledge sharing — something critically important in a nation’s intelligence agency. David Pepper, the Head of the GCHQ, referred to the facility as “not just a roof over our heads, but a building that embodies the organization we aspire to be.”

How do you determine which elements you’ll include in a design for a particular client?
When I’m approached by a client to create or reinvent an office space, the first step is to develop a deep understanding of who this client is. Designers must have an intimate knowledge of the client’s corporate culture, internal processes and line of communications.

My first step is to host an envisioning session where the client can brainstorm and conjure up images of what the future of his or her company might be. For one client, law firm Allen & Overy, we rented a car on the British Airways London Eye wheel and rode around all afternoon discussing ideas and seeing the whole of London at our feet. In this case, it was helpful to get out of the typical meeting space and creatively think outside of the box. The exercise also was successful at building trust between the client and our team.

When Clifford Chance moved out of London and into Canary Wharf, Gensler incorporated an eighth-floor swimming pool, a full cafeteria that also served as a meeting room and a 24/7 coffee shop in the new office to convince employees to stick with the law firm during the relocation.

It’s also imperative to do ongoing research from the client’s point of view. Web questionnaires — one convenient option — can give every employee, from senior managers to receptionists, the chance to have his or her voice heard. Focus groups can achieve a more in-depth understanding by obtaining opinions about the direction the company should take from the employees who best know the daily operations.

Focus groups and Web questionnaires may be successful at determining what employees say they want, but how do you ensure what they’re asking for is what truly will be useful to them?
In addition to focus groups and questionnaires, site observations can be incorporated — the “fly-on-the-wall” method. For instance, most employees in North America contend that they prefer to work in offices with doors. In reality, on average, offices are occupied only 30 percent of the time and office doors are seldom closed. Site observations allow a designer to watch the ongoing habits and trends in an office space. We study what employees actually need versus what they believe they want.

Generally, we don’t find that employees feel overlooked as a result of a design because we involve them in the design process. They have the opportunity to participate in focus groups and Web questionnaires, and they feel they were heard.

Once we’ve collected our data, we provide our findings to the client. Generally, I’m able to make several recommendations that can be achieved immediately and inexpensively, such as adding a cash machine or adding security to walk employees to parking lots. Next, I start planning a design that meets these particular needs.

Are most offices today as well-designed and efficient as possible, or do we have far to go?
We still have a ways to go. Currently, inefficient offices may cost British businesses more than $236 billion a year. In fact, Gensler’s white paper, “These Four Walls: The Real British Office,” states that a more thought-out workplace could make British workers 20 percent more productive.

American businesses may be dealing with even worse statistics. Workplace design in the United States is perhaps five to 10 years behind European design for several reasons.

First, London doesn’t have the long-established commercial infrastructure that’s found in U.S. cities such as New York or Chicago. Many buildings in London were destroyed by bombs during World War II. After the war, inexpensive replacements were quickly built to accommodate businesses. Whereas the Empire State Building, Sears Tower or John Hancock Building would never be torn down to create newer, state-of-the-art office buildings, oftentimes architects and designers in London have the luxury of creating new ones from scratch.

Secondly, we have the cost of real estate. According to the Financial Times, the West End of London is the most expensive commercial real-estate market in the world, followed by Tokyo in second and third places. The first American city to appear in the survey is New York at No. 27.

Lastly, building lease lengths are different in Britain than in the United States. While America typically sees 10-year leases with five-year outs, Britain sees 20-year leases. Some of my clients even have 50-year leases. With longer leases, company executives are more inclined to further invest in their offices.They plan for the long-term.  But things are looking up. American companies such as Haworth, Herman Miller and Knoll are bringing design ideas from overseas to the United States based on European research.

Design Can Make the Difference

In Gensler’s white paper, “These Four Walls: The Real British Office,” 200 British middle and senior managers were surveyed about how productivity is affected by design and how their work spaces could be improved.

If my workplace were improved, it would increase employee productivity by:

  • Legal Services 22 percent
  • Managers 21 percent
  • Media, Publishing 21 percent
  • Financial Services 19 percent
  • Senior Managers 15 percent
  • Average 19 percent

My workplace could be improved with:

  • Better light/daylight 16 percent
  • More breakout/meeting space 16 percent
  • More personal space/better use of space 16 percent
  • Add or improve climate control 15 percent
  • Less noise 8 percent
  • Better furniture 7 percent
  • More privacy 6 percent
  • More storage 5 percent
  • Opening windows 4 percent
  • Other 7 percent