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Workspace design: Is there substance behind the style?

Workspace design: Is there substance behind the style?

Workspaces are increasingly incorporating vibrant features and comfy breakout spaces, but is there really substance behind the style? Move Commercial investigates whether fixtures and fittings have a genuine impact on staff performance, creativity and efficiency, and how employers can get it right.

Words by Christine Toner

Every good business leader understands the importance of employee engagement. If your team isn’t on your side you’ve got no chance. As the former CEO of GE Jack Welch once said: “It goes without saying that no company, small or large, can win over the long run without energised employees who believe in the mission and understand how to achieve it.”

And one of the most important elements of keeping employees engaged is getting the environment in which they work right. Most of us will spend more than 30 hours a week at work and if we don’t feel inspired or motivated by our surroundings it’s unlikely we’ll produce our best work.

But what makes for a good office environment? Are the vibrant workspaces like those of Google and Facebook really likely to impact on staff performance?

“Yes they do,” says Mark Penketh, managing director of Wirral-based office furniture firm The Penketh Group. “Creating interesting and engaging spaces that help people to collaborate with their colleagues is so important. Collaborative environments encourage teamwork, boost creativity and expand possibilities.”

According to reports, Google allows its employees to use a fifth of their working week to do whatever they choose. Its headquarters feature a volleyball court and gym.

Architect Clive Wilkinson, whose firm is behind the Google headquarters design along with offices for the likes of Nokia, Microsoft and Disney, has often highlighted the importance of office design.

“Good office design includes providing a solution and listening to the client’s aims, goals, targets and work patterns.”

Speaking to architectural bible Dezeen he once claimed: “In our design practice we are fundamentally trying to address psychological issues. One of the reasons I really like workplaces and interiors is that the impact on humanity is much more powerful than dealing with inert architectural shells, or the decorative outside dress of a building – which frankly is what most architects do.”

Providing an inspiring environment is just one factor of smart design. The office must also be practical, in terms of meeting employees’ needs.

Penketh says choice is key. By giving staff more choice and control over their work environment, you can help them to be at their most productive. As such, says Penketh, employers should invest in a range of spaces so staff have the freedom to choose where they want to work in an office.

“Create areas in the office for collaboration,” he adds. “Collaborative environments encourage staff to bounce ideas off each other, work as a team, boost creativity and foster a culture of working together to achieve great things.

“Give your staff privacy when they need it. If they’re working on a tricky project or need to focus, it’s good to provide staff with spaces for uninterrupted work to help them to concentrate and think clearer.

“Take a look at the format of your meetings and consider whether they are as productive as they can be. Innovative products such as Clickshare are revolutionising meetings by allowing teams to work seamlessly from one screen. Set up is quick and it’s really easy to use, with the option to connect up to eight people in one meeting.”

A company can only do as much as its budget will allow though, and it’s not always possible to have such a range of workspaces.

“The most productive office environments are the ones that include many different working zones,” says Sam Dunbar, purchasing and marketing manager at Cheshire-based interior design firm Officeinsight. “This ranges from individual private booths and relaxing breakout areas to large open stair atriums. This is to cater for the wide variety in ways of working and stimulate informal meetings, collaboration and employee engagement.

“However, in reality not every company has a ‘Google budget’, and employers tend to focus on the return from their capital expenditure. The challenge is getting the combination right for your business. We call this workplace balance – we balance the potential of any space against the pragmatic needs, as both are as important as each other when creating a highly productive office space that also delivers the optimum return.”

Getting it wrong

Just as the right design can improve productivity, the wrong one can have an adverse effect. According to a study by the British Council for Offices and Savills called ‘What Workers Want’ (2016), while open-plan offices are still the dominant choice of occupiers, only 45% of respondents were satisfied with the noise levels in their office. Penketh agrees.

“Almost half of all offices in the UK are open-plan designs – more than double the global average,” he says. “Although there are many advantages to open-plan offices, various reports show they can leave office workers struggling to manage their need for privacy and to find areas where they are able to focus.

“The University of California estimates that the average office worker is interrupted or distracted every three minutes and that it takes an average of 23 minutes to return to a task. It makes it increasingly important for companies to offer staff private spaces to work in an open-plan setting.”

Health and wellbeing

But it’s not just employee performance that is affected by office design. The ‘What Workers Want’ survey found 40% of employees believe the office positively impacts on their physical health and 48% believe the office positively impacts on their mental health. Worryingly, 30% of respondents effectively said the office does them harm.

The study states physical health can be improved by providing more alternative desk arrangements such as the standing desk; with 20% of male survey respondents saying they would always or often use one if offered it.

Paul Eatock, director of sales at Spatial Office Environments in Manchester, suggests standing desks are becoming more prevalent.

“Good office design includes providing a solution and listening to the client’s aims, goals, targets and work patterns,” he says. “In our experience recruitment companies and call centres are benefiting from sit stand desks as this promotes good posture, interaction and opens up the airways when in conversation with colleagues and during phone calls.”

> Related: Effective workplace design


Research has found your office environment and facilities are likely to be impacted by your position in the company. A study by architecture and design firm Gensler revealed that hierarchy rather than job needs takes priority within office layout.

“The starkest representation of the difference is in the allocation of private offices — 89% of those in senior leadership have private offices, compared to 23% at lower levels of the organisation — and the impact shows across all performance and experience metrics,” it states.

Gensler says employers should match space to job needs, not role.

“Employees who report that the spaces in their offices are assigned by job requirements, rather than hierarchy, are much more likely to also report an optimal workplace experience,” it says. “Given the current challenges of workplace performance across all levels in the UK workplace, strategies that match space to need rather than seniority are an opportunity to engage and improve at all levels of the company.”

The rewards

The right office environment can have a huge impact on employee productivity but it can also help you to recruit the best people to begin with. The ‘What Workers Want’ survey reveals 25% of employees would be willing to commute an extra 30 minutes in order to work in the perfect office. Clearly, investing in your premises can be a key factor in future growth and success.

“The way people think about their workspace is changing at a fast pace and what was once known simply as ‘the office’ is now the place in our lives that we all see as fundamental to achieving the right work-life balance,” explains Colin Sinclair, CEO of Knowledge Quarter Liverpool.

“The smartest employers have figured out that getting the look and feel of their workspace is crucial in attracting and retaining the right people and increasing productivity.

“Productivity and place are linked more than ever and the environment you work in is now the product of some very clever research and design.