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Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it's off to work we go: The architecture of productivity

The layout of the office has long been a subject of fascination for businesses and their employees, and for good reason. By most estimates, we spend one third of our lives there. But can a correlation be made between good design and profits? And what constitutes good design in 2017, anyway? Elly Strang pulls up a chair. 

According to Psychology Today, the average person spends 90,000 hours at work over their lifetime, which rivals the time spent at home.

In other words, if you’re one of those people who doesn’t wipe your desk down very often, you should rethink your priorities.

With such a large chunk of our daily lives spent holed up in the office, a company pouring some time and money into a well-designed workplace makes good business sense.

As Christopher Alexander said in A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction: “If you spend eight hours of your day at work, and eight hours at home, there is no reason why your workplace should be any less of a community than your home.”

But in the century or so humans have been designing offices, it seems we’ve been unable to nail down the perfect cocktail of components for a productive and well-functioning workplace.

Open plan or cubicle? Hot desking or designated seats? Out there and quirky or uniform and unadorned? History has repeated itself throughout the decades, with workplace design veering back and forth from one extreme to the other. 

The evolution of the office

Casting an eye back on the history of workplace design, there have been radical – and not so radical – changes.

The first ever office layouts in the early 1900s weren’t the most creatively inspired, resembling the factory floor production lines that dominated that period.

Dubbed ‘Taylorism’ after American engineer Frederick Taylor, workers existed side-by-side in a linear environment while management presided over them in private offices.

However, instead of making workers more productive, the crowded layout bred discontent. In the 1960s, workplace design got political. Top-down, hierarchal layouts were pushed aside in favour of more socially democratic layouts that encouraged collaboration.

The concept was called Bürolandschaft, or ‘office landscape’, as desks were grouped in patterns designed to encourage conversation between co-workers.

But this social environment came with a new set of problems, such as lack of privacy and trouble concentrating.

Enter the cubicle. Robert Propst, a designer working for furniture giant Herman Miller, thought that office workers needed more autonomy and independence.

He put forward a flexible, three-walled design that could be moulded to fit these needs called the ‘action office’.

The cubicle stuck and was ushered in as the way forward in workplace design to enhance workers’ productivity. But, once again, problems arose.

Companies started taking advantage of cubicles’ compactness by cramming people into smaller spaces.

After decades of being boxed in, the new millennium sparked a renewed desire for a more social working environment.

Workers moved away from their cubicles as wireless technology handed them more freedom, while hot desking became popular.

The open-plan layout was revived once again for modern times, making office design come full circle. But with open-plan offices booming came the same problems that had cropped up in the past.

A three-year study by the University of Bedfordshire Business School’s Allison Hirst into a workplace that used hotdesks found many employees were made to feel under-appreciated at best and unwanted and “homeless” at worst.

As well as this, the time spent traipsing around trying to find a space and setting up camp with their belongings meant it was eating into valuable time that could have been spent being productive.

Clearly, a fully open-plan office isn’t the answer, but neither are the closed-off cubicles of the past. 

Above: One of three slides in Trade Me's Wellington office. Below: Dutch Studio RAAAF's chairless workplace of the future.

Flexible working

So, what actually constitutes a well-designed workplace?

What it looks like in 2017 differs depending on who you talk to, but most experts are in agreement that office design is on the precipice of a new era.

This is because what work looks like, where it’s done and what it’s defined as is being disrupted due to an increased desire for mobility and flexibility from employees.

A 2016 study by the National Trade Union Centre in the UK found the number of people working from home grew by 241,000 in the last ten years to hit a record 1.5 million.

In New Zealand, the 2012 Survey of Working Life found almost a third of all employed people had spent time working at home over the four weeks prior to being surveyed.

As well as remote working, employees want variety in the options at hand for them to work in, from more social collaborative spaces to independent, silent areas.

But a recent United Nations study just out called ‘Working anytime, anywhere: The effects on the world of work' found a contrarian view on mobile working.

It found 41 percent of "highly mobile" employees reported high levels of stress, compared to the 25 percent of people who always worked at their employer's offices.

Herman Miller has closely studied office design since the early 1900s.

It says at present, offices are moving away from the conforms of the financially-driven industrial era into a more holistic approach that suits people’s needs and helps them work to the best of their abilities.

Context Architects managing director Stephen Voyle echoes this, saying offices have progressed from compartmentalised working, to open-plan, to activity-based working, and now they’ve arrived at flexible working.

He says it isn’t so much about the physical design of a workplace anymore, it’s about understanding the way people work and how those work streams are managed.

“The best design solutions look carefully first at the organisation’s culture, goals, challenges and working styles.” 

Getting the basics right

When designing an office to bolster employees’ productivity, several factors are key.

Experts say good acoustics, natural light, plants, colour, art, water stations and good quality artificial light are all base needs that need to be met.

Context Architects’ Voyle says productivity is about an employee having the tools they need in a comfortable environment, with easy access to the people they need to collaborate with.

“It also means having access to quiet, uninterrupted work areas and spaces where you can discreetly have private conversations when you need them,” he says.

“Reducing clutter, maximising natural air and light and managing acoustics all encourage better productivity.”

A recent study from Oxford Economics and Plantronics of 1,200 global employees and executives found employees’ number one priority in the office was the ability to focus on work without interruptions. More than half of employees said ambient noise reduced their satisfaction at work.

Voyle says despite a move towards more open-plan offices, the acoustics of an office are often overlooked.

“Acoustic engineering should be considered at an early stage of any design process, especially as pressure on space increases.”

Some ways to design around this acoustic problem are minimising hard surfaces, discarding open ceilings and using absorbent materials instead, and decreasing the barriers between desks so co-workers can have a conversation quietly instead of shouting across the desks. 

Profitability vs. functionality 

The connection between office design and its effects on profitability is a somewhat murky area. It’s difficult to connect a fit-out to an increase in profits, but most research suggests that the chain of events – a well-designed office that uses space efficiently and makes workers feel happier and more productive – will lead to a more successful company.

Spaceworks Design Group and Perceptive Research recently conducted a study of over 200 business leaders across a variety of industries in New Zealand, including IT, the accounting, architecture, HR, banking, Government and transport industries.

Its results found re-fitting an office to be better designed can have many benefits, though only one fifth of those surveyed measured ROI (Return On Investment) when they carried out a fit-out.

Companies surveyed that had invested in a full workplace re-design and tracked ROI saw an average profit increase of 24 percent in the last year.

Spaceworks’ Whaley says though it’s hard to gauge the specific dollar value, the survey found an office re-design can have an impact on a company’s bottom line. 


Most business leaders surveyed (80 percent) agreed that the physical working environment had an impact on employee happiness and job satisfaction.

“One of the things that’s so significant about a great looking fit-out is that it reduces staff churn and staff retention is a lot better,” Whaley says.

If fewer staff are leaving, that eliminates the need to spend lots of money on recruitment, she says. For staff that do stick around, she says a re-fitted workplace can make them happier and in turn, more productive.

“There is a direct correlation between staff productivity and happiness. If you’re happy and able to do your job
to the best of your ability, then you’re generally more productive.”

Context Architects’ Voyle says good office design looks at encouraging efficiency and increasing collaboration, as they influence productivity, performance and staff retention.

“Happy, comfortable staff who can work together when they need to, as well as having the opportunity for uninterrupted, quiet work and time out perform better and stay longer,” he says.

But ultimately, productivity comes down to whether the workplace culture is healthy and thriving, he says.

“An amazing design plus a good culture will result in a higher performance, but a fantastic new fit- out won’t cure a bad culture.”

Ensuring an office has the right sized footprint can also contribute to increased efficiency and profitability.

Research compiled by Herman Miller found that many companies still haven’t mastered productive use of space. It found that workstations aren’t occupied 60 percent of the time, conference room seating is hardly ever used to full capacity and private offices are unoccupied 77 percent of the time, which means costs could be saved by using space more wisely.

“One of the biggest mistakes is not being creative about the desk use,” Whaley says. “Sharing desks can be useful if people aren’t there all the time, rather than being fixated on having one desk per person.” 

Crystal ball gazing

When it comes to predicting what an office of the future will look like, businesses have a difficult task on their hands.

As technology advances further than ever before, the modes in which people work are going to change again, transforming the look and functionality of a workplace.

There are clues of what a workplace of the future might look like: artificial intelligence, virtual reality (VR) and augmented
reality (AR) technology are already being incorporated into business practices across the board, from doctors to architects to lawyers.

Tools on the market such as the Meta 2, an augmented reality device that allows users to design objects virtually in front of them, could reduce the need for a fixed desk or table with a computer screen.

Both Spaceworks’ Whaley and Context Architects’ Voyle agree that office footprints will get smaller as our work habits change.

Whaley says people will work even more from home or a café, eliminating the need for a large space.

She says the true effect of Millennials entering the workforce and the flexibility they require may not have been felt yet either.

“They’ll be quite likely to work 4:00pm until 1am in the morning,” she says. “It requires a huge element of trust for those that aren’t Millennials.”

Voyle says one way workplaces could change in the future is a transition from traditional employment of full time employees to on-demand workers, a la Uber.

There will be a rise in flexibility and freedom where workers are not restricted by location or time, he says.

But a ‘workplace of the future’ may not be on the horizon for everyone, either.

Craig Knight, a UK-based psychologist who specialises in working environments, says a common myth that persists is that the office is becoming more flexible for any company in a variety of industries.

Instead, he says employees whose job it is to think for a living, such as engineers, architects and lawyers, have this privilege, while other workers may face more rigid structures.

“There is a disconnect between knowledge workers, or the top 30 percent of the white- collar population, and the rest,” he says.

“Knowledge workers have increasing flexibility in their working lives. The rest work in conditions that have hardly changed in over a century; these people face low autonomy, high surveillance and even smaller workplaces.” 

To ball pit, or not to ball pit?

Fun, over the top features have become a prominent part of many offices over the past few years.

TradeMe’s Wellington office boasts three slides, while Auckland based advertising agency True has what it says may be New Zealand’s only ball pit.

Whether or not these features actually benefit staff’s productivity is a matter up for debate.

Spaceworks CEO Lizzi Whaley says having a playful, somewhat superficial feature like a slide can make the workplace more enjoyable for staff.

“It reflects a more fun approach to the company or brand. I don’t think people want to go back to stuffy, corporate offices.”

Context Architects’ Stephen Voyle agrees, saying it can show a corporate culture of innovation and creativity.

“However, we think there are better ways to model innovation than a slide in your office,” he says.

“Gimmicks like slides take up a lot of real estate and budget. They also make a space inflexible – the exact opposite of what the modern workplace should be.”

He says unless you have a Google-sized budget for your fit-out, it’s best to stick to less expensive ways to promote staff wellbeing, such as boardrooms that can be converted into yoga studios, or a table tennis table.

Case study: Woods Engineering

Woods Engineering embarked on a major office restructuring with Spaceworks a couple of years ago and has since seen great results.

The company was the epitome of a traditional engineering firm and was originally split into two offices across Auckland, but it decided to combine the two into a more open plan, collaborative space in a central location in an effort to transform the culture and create a cutting-edge work environment.

The new office brought previously segregated teams together on one floor plate, creating a flexible environment where staff and teams could be moved around based on work flows.

While there was initially pushback from staff at the changes, director Daniel Williams says the transition was well received by most employees and they only lost one staff member in the process.

As well as this, he said staff morale and productivity improved drastically.

“Staff productivity went up because there was less wasted time, workflows were better undertaken and just being in a more open environment enables staff to get to know each other better and have better conversations,” he says.

The previous office re-design saw such great results and growth in the company that Woods has since recently completed a second round of a fit-out, taking over a tenancy next door to it.

Williams says in his experience, there has definitely been a link forged between a well- designed workplace and increased revenue.

“We’re firm believers that good officer design does increase and improve profitability, and also staff morale and staff retention,” he says.

Power to the people

With all this conflicting information, getting caught up in the look and feel of an office might not actually be the best way to increase worker productivity.

In fact, the easiest way to increase productivity may be allowing workers to take full control of their own space.

A 2010 study by Knight involving 47 office workers in London found when workers were given the opportunity to personalise their office with as many plants and pictures they wanted, they were up to 32 percent more productive than others not given this opportunity.

As a result, Knight says the best office design is – shock, horror! – one developed by the people who work within that space.

Changes to office design coming from the top down or outside ‘experts’ often don’t work out well, he says. And, as with many other sectors, those who claim to know best are often beaten by the amateurs.

“Research consistently shows that change management consultants and design experts produce inferior results to the ideas of the workers.”

Tim Harford, the author of Messy: How to Be Creative and Resilient in a Tidy-Minded World, says it’s not that the look of a workplace doesn’t actually matter, it’s that it matters in a way people don’t actually think about.

He says beautiful, clean spaces can be sterile and end up stifling productivity.

“I interviewed the great Stewart Brand for my book - one of the great Silicon Valley pioneers, creator of the Whole Earth Catalog, and author of How Buildings Learn,” he says.

“Brand argues that ‘low road’ buildings – cheap, disposable, ugly – are tremendously productive because they're cheap, disposable and ugly. People can hack them around, modify them, trash them – they're sandpits for freedom and creative behaviour.

“I like a beautiful space as much as anyone but I think when we're designing these spaces, we rarely appreciate how oppressive they can become because we're terrified of spoiling the beauty.”

He says one commonly used example of this is Google, which is often held up as the model for innovation.

Its offices all over the world frequently make ‘coolest offices’ lists because of features like slides, stages and basketball courts, but Harford says it’s a mistake to think Google flourishes in productivity because of its workplaces.



“Remember that for the first two years of Google’s history, there were no headquarters at all. The company’s founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, made the breakthroughs at Stanford University,” he says.

“Then came the cliché of a garage in Menlo Park, with desks made from doors set horizontally across sawhorses. The company grew and grew, into one crude space after another – and with engineers always free to hack things about. One knocked down the wall of his office, decided he didn’t like the results, and rebuilt the wall. That made for an ugly space – but a space that worked for the people who worked in it. The spirit of Building 20 lived on at Google.”

Once Google had built its empire, the trendy offices were built, he says, not the other way around.

Harford says when it comes to companies treading the balance between uniformity and personalisation, employees should take charge of what they want in their space and employers should be accommodating about it.

“The most striking idiocies I've found in Messy are employers who go to enormous lengths to force employees to maintain arbitrary and pointless clean-desk standards at the cost of tremendous resentment,” he says.

If employees want a bean bag in their office because they think it will help their productivity, he says they should be free – and encouraged – to bring one in.

Take, Pixar, the most celebrated animation studio in the world, which has an average worldwide gross of over US$600 million per film.

Founder Ed Catmull said in his book Creativity, Inc, that animators are encouraged to decorate their office in whatever style they like, and they thrive because of it.

“They spend their days inside pink dollhouses whose ceilings are hung with miniature chandeliers, tiki huts made of real bamboo, and castles whose meticulously painted, fifteen-foot- high Styrofoam turrets appear to be carved from stone,” Catmull said.

Or take the editor of Psychology Today in 1977, George Harris, who summed it up so succinctly.

“People suddenly put into ‘good design’ did not seem to wake up and love it,” he said.

“What people love, instead, is the ability to control the space in which they work – even if they end up filling the space with kitsch, or dog photos, or even – shudder – garden gnomes.”

Could garden gnomes be the key to workplace productivity? Quite possibly.