Since people first started working together in large numbers in offices in the early Twentieth Century, we’ve been looking for the secrets of what makes them happier and more productive.

Some of the most important questions about this were answered fairly quickly, especially when organisations began to question the principles of scientific management and its roots in the processes of factories, division of labour and time and motion studies. We could never say that command and control has been entirely discarded, but at least we learned what was wrong with it a long time ago.

Some of the most well-known research from the past hundred years or so is still relevant today. Our modern quest to determine the nature of the link between office design and performance dates back to the 1920s and the famous Hawthorne experiments.

These showed not only how workers become more productive when their working environment and conditions are improved, but also how they respond when they know that their employers are interested in their wellbeing and in learning about their needs. Inadvertently it was an early proof of the phenomenon we now know as engagement.  

Since that time, a great deal of research has been carried out which paints a very sophisticated picture of the complex relationship we have with our surroundings and working cultures. The context of work has changed over the past decades, largely as a result of the adoption of new technology, but the human at the centre of it all remains the defining factor, and we learn more about ourselves all the time.  

The killer variables of office design

Some things remain consistent however and they include the most important characteristics of an office design that helps people be more productive and addresses a range of wellbeing issue. What is interesting about the body of research that has grown up over the course of the Information Age is how consistent and replicable it is.

In the 1990s the researchers Adrian Leaman and Bill Bordass first set out what they termed the ‘killer variables’ linking office design to productivity. Their findings have been confirmed in numerous studies ever since from renowned experts such as Nigel Oseland, Adrian Burton and Kerstin Sailer as well as organisations including Leesman, AWA, BCO, Gensler, the Fraunhofer Institute, the Green Building Council and the World Health Organisation to name but a few.

They are also evident in the book The Elemental Workplace, perhaps the most widely read guide to the role of office design and management in the world right now, written by Neil Usher. 

So, what are they, how do they relate to each other and what do they encompass?

1. Comfort

Thermal – acoustic - ergonomic

Comfort shouldn’t be synonymous with ergonomics although that is a factor. When people are asked about which comfort factors affect them most, two tend to stand out. Both thermal and acoustic comfort can be mitigated by features of the building and office design, but they are also affected by personal, psychological and cultural factors and also change from day to day.

The complexities of managing both are beyond this blog, but we would say that choosing the lowest common denominator does not necessarily lead to the best outcomes. This is the catalyst for a new range of apps that allow people to gauge the thermal comfort and air quality of a space before they decide where to work or how they might fine tune their surroundings.

Similarly, the issue of ergonomics may be addressed in principle by sticking to the Display Screen Equipment Regulations and their prescribed postures, but what we have learned in recent years is that people should be empowered to stand, shift posture and generally move around more. Office design has a role to play in signalling this to them as part of an agile working culture in every sense of the term. 

2. Adaptability

Autonomy – flexibility

Empowering people to move around is just one element of autonomy. Ideally in a modern context, they should be free to work from anywhere both within the office and elsewhere. The challenge for the designers of the office is then to make it the best possible choice. At an individual level, autonomy should mean the work space is adaptable to the specific needs of the user.

Flexibility should be evident in every facet of the building to offer people a tailored solution to their ever-changing needs, both in terms of the office layout and the kinds of spaces available and in the adaptability of interior elements when people are within each space.

3. Scale and complexity

The depth of a building tends to make it more difficult to address the comfort of individuals and also offer them the sense of community they may need.

The solution yet again appears to be to offer space that is broken into manageable zones over which people feel a sense of control.  As Adrian Leaman points out, “when buildings get deeper, they require more services. Airconditioned are usually the most complex, domestic naturally ventilated the least. Mixed-mode has the potential to offer the best of both worlds.”

4. Community

Information exchange – serendipity - inclusivity

One of the most important roles of an office in the Information Age is to make it easy for people to share knowledge and generate ideas. Office design should act as a conduit for the formal flow of information while also engineering serendipitous encounters into people’s lives. As we’ve pointed out in other blogs, some flows of information are reliant on physical proximity. A good office design will not only bring people together but also create the groups and sightlines that make them a community.

This flow inherently helps people be more productive, but it also means that they feel as if they are included in the day to day life of the organisation. One of the most common complaints from remote workers is that they miss the sharing of knowledge and so it is incumbent on the organisation to find ways to make them feel included.

Inclusive office design is often assumed to be about the way the building addresses the needs of disabled workers, but it should also be about personal preferences and the needs of a diverse workforce. This can be about gender, culture and also the fact that the typical workplace now has five generations of people working together.

5. Insight

Coherence – identity – navigation

Modern office design often applies an activity based working model of the sort described above, in which people are free to work in the ways and spaces they choose. But this must be coherent so that the design intent matches the perceptions of workers and people understand not only where they fit in but also how to move through the space.

Office design should also reflect the identity of the organisation. This is not merely conveyed by branding, but also in an expression of the values of the organisation.

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