Invest in a Productive, Modern Office

An organization’s office is among its biggest talent management investments. After all, the office is one of the biggest drivers of employee productivity and engagement. It’s the place where employees come every day to work, collaborate and connect with colleagues — all of which play a heavy hand in the organization’s output.

But what makes for an ideal office space? It’s a question on the minds of many talent managers as companies seek to bolster offices to drive higher employee engagement and to appeal to a new generation of workers keen on nontraditional office elements.

The nuances of office design differ from person to person, said William Hanley, vice president of strategic partnerships and editorial director at Kontor, a social media platform for designers and product manufacturers. Still, there are common office design trends that run parallel to the nature of corporate life.

“The ‘Mad Men’ office with secretary pools and private offices gave way to the efficiency-obsessed cubicle farm,” said Hanley, who spent nearly seven years visiting corporate offices as a senior editor of digital media at Architectural Record.

“What we’ve seen with the advent of mobile technology, when people can work anywhere at any time, the office plays a much different role in the functioning of a company than it did before,” Hanley said. “It’s no longer this kind of utilitarian place where you have your phone at your desk and you go there because it’s the only place you can work. The office is much more of a social space now.”

To be sure, such a social space is different for each company, Hanley said. No two businesses will operate in the same way, so different types of spaces are needed for different types of work.  Ultimately, Hanley and other design experts say leaders should focus on providing employees with a space that satisfies three criteria: functionality, flexibility and beauty.

“A well-designed office is much more enlivening, much more fun to be in than a drab space that’s designed for efficiency,” Hanley said. “A gorgeous space will go a long way to making it much more pleasant to get your job done there.”

‘It’s no longer this kind of utilitarian place where you have your phone at your desk, and you go there because it’s the only place you can work. The office is much more of a social space now.’ —William Hanley, vice president of strategic partnerships and editorial director, Kontor

The Office of My Eye

In most cases, the beauty of an office space also contributes to its functionality.

Consider Target Corp.’s bright, loft-style office in Manhattan that houses the retailer’s marketing and public relations team. Lauren Rottet, president and founding principal of the office’s design firm, Rottet Studio, said the space’s vibe was driven by the nature of its employees’ work.

“The whole idea is that the space is a very neutral, white, beautiful, clean canvas for Target because this is where they look at their products,” Rottet said.

It is also to this end that the space is designed more like a loft than a formal office. “That alone is something that a lot of people are starting to realize is helpful to today’s worker because we’re working 24/7,” Rottet said, adding that “stiff and uncomfortable” offices don’t lend well to environments where workers are spending more of their discretionary time.

Flexible workstations also help reduce such stiffness. Working locations at the Target office include desks, a lounge area and a high-top table outside of the kitchen. This provides a variety of settings to work, ranging from casual to formal.

Variety in the types of spaces an office features has become increasingly necessary as companies sometimes aim to reduce square footage per person to mitigate costs. Additionally, advances in mobile technology, which has enabled workers to work more remotely, have reduced the need for in-office storage space.

Aside from saving on real estate costs, engagement is a major benefit of centralized offices, said Dean Strombom, a principal at architecture and design firm Gensler. Research shows that “employee engagement increases exponentially when people feel they are valued and that the work that they’re doing has purpose and they’re part of something that’s bigger than themselves,” Strombom said.

Gensler is working on a campus for a global energy services company with this thinking in mind (Editor’s note: Strombom declined to name the firm). The firm is consolidating the company’s five Houston-area offices into one, with the aim of “trying to get their employees to think more about working for the entire organization, not just their particular group or them as individuals,” Strombom said.

Moreover, when employees see branding on a daily basis along with seeing that their work is relevant and benefits the greater good, there’s a better understanding of the organization’s mission. Strombom calls this a motivator, which is a design principal Gensler has identified through its own research. The other nine factors, according to Strombom, are activity, ergonomics, air quality, lighting, restorative environments, acoustics, nature, nutrition and user control.

Having a choice as to where, when and how employees work leads to health benefits that affect engagement and profit, according to researchers Robert Karasek and Tores Theorell in their book “Healthy Work: Stress, Productivity and the Reconstruction of Working Life.” They found that employees who have control over their work have better health outcomes than those who have little choice.

According to 2014 research by design firm HOK, flexible work policies help 68 percent of respondents “work more effectively on individual tasks,” wrote Leigh Stringer, workplace specialist at architecture and engineering firm EYP, in a blog post. Flexibility also increased employees’ productivity by 66 percent.

Let There Be Light

Sunlight should have a strong presence in office environments. “If there are people in the space, there should be access to sunlight,” Stringer said.

Circadian lighting, which stimulates the body’s sleep cycles, is important to psychological wellness, especially in dark, northern climates, Stringer said. In the morning, natural blue light triggers the body to wake up. Throughout the day, light transitions to yellow, then red, telling the body to go to sleep. This rhythm influences production of melatonin and cortisol, which influence sleep and stress, respectively.

Circadian adaptive lighting can be installed with special light bulbs. However, if wanting to harness natural daylight, Stringer suggests moving desks and communal spaces near windows. Disruptive glares on computers can be an issue as well, so Stringer suggests putting special films over screens. “Before you close a window, consider technology,” she said.

Lexington, Kentucky-based Valvoline’s future office space is designed to provide a lot of natural light, said Chris Liu, associate principal and design director for SCB Chicago Interiors, the architecture firm leading the office’s design.

Less than 10 percent of the new building’s population will be in enclosed offices, Liu said, leaving many walls open for natural light to pour in. The designers also opted to include lower cubicle panels in an effort to filter light throughout the space and better connect employees with colleagues.

The new Valvoline office also has two angled wings, with a core area and main lobby that features the company’s colors of blue and red, along with industrial metal or polished concrete. Valvoline’s 150-year history will be depicted by a historical chart that runs throughout the building, along with company artifacts and products on display.

And while current Valvoline offices don’t have collaboration spaces, the new office will feature designated meeting areas that are nearly enclosed and are close to individual workstations, which “helps move the noise away from the workstations,” Liu said. These spaces will be far enough from workstations to reduce noise but close enough that people can have an instantaneous meeting. If meeting areas were too far, the spaces would be less than ideal, Liu said.

To determine the workspace needs of these different Valvoline workers, Liu’s team went as far as to conduct anthropology studies, which involve documenting space use for a given period of time, typically between two days and two weeks. A common finding was that large conference rooms are often booked by a small number of people, largely because employees have few other spaces to meet. As a result, Valvoline will have more conference rooms that seat fewer people compared with previous designs.

Gensler’s Strombom said collaboration between company and designer is important in creating the best possible environment, as is making employees feel engaged. He suggested an inclusionary design process that gains input from top leadership and employees.

“If employees are not engaged in the process and they feel like a solution is being forced upon them, then the natural human reaction is to push back or challenge that direction,” Strombom said.

Lauren Dixon is a Talent Management associate editor. Comment below or email


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