Intelligent office design is the smart thing to do

Space to breathe: Giving employees a chance to get away from their desks encourages engagement. (Photo: Courtesy Tower Bridge)

Space to breathe: Giving employees a chance to get away from their desks encourages engagement. (Photo: Courtesy Tower Bridge)

The term presenteeism describes the group of passively disengaged employees in an environment who aren’t actively looking for employment — the people that are putting in the time, but not the effort. 

Dr Amanda Hamilton-Attwell, founder and executive director of Business DNA, describes it as a condition of disengaged spoilt employees who feel that they have a right to be paid, but not a responsibility to account for delivering on the requirements of their position.

Data specific to South Africa is scarce, but according to Neville de Lucia, a Dale Carnegie franchisee, as many as 42% of employees could be described as disengaged.

There are many reasons employees become seat-warmers, among them factors like interpersonal communication (are their opinions sought and respected?), their potential to learn and perform or lack thereof. Their health may also be short of robust, whether they are aware of this or not. It could be something as simple as seasonal hayfever, or something as long-term and life-changing as living with HIV.

While Dale Carnegie research highlights that employees say that their relationships with their immediate supervisors are key to stimulating and maintaining engagement, there are other factors at play too.

Hamilton-Attwell highlights that if an environment is toxic, new employees will quickly become as disengaged as the people they now work with. 

While many of the root causes of presenteeism can be dealt with through consistent engagement between workers and their managers, or through wellness programmes, much could be done through smart office design.

According to Jonathan Hall of Tower Bridge, a workplace design consultancy, modern work spaces contribute to the influence of the heads, hearts and hands of employees profoundly, impacting the productivity, efficiency and creativity of an organisation’s team and individuals significantly.

“Data reveals that 75% of employees in an average organisation are unhappy with their workspace [not their workplace],” he says. “The high levels of dissatisfaction with workspaces and people disengagement in an average organisation present real barriers to enterprise success.”

Hall asserts that most employees are dissatisfied with their workplace because most workspaces don’t account for how people actually function and behave at work, falling short on offering workspaces that recognise the high levels of flexibility and interaction that modern ways of working require.

Because humans are multidimensional and each have individual approaches to their tasks within the collective organisation, Tower Bridge maintains that workers need access to five different types of workspaces to remain engaged and efficient in the workplace.

They need isolated space to focus on their own tasks, and they need space to collaborate with teams, to receive or share information, to interact and socialise informally, and to disconnect and rejuvenate.

Best practice workplace design encourages engagement in three ways: appealing to their heads by aligning employees to the enterprise’s purpose; appealing to their hearts by creating a culture that evokes an emotional commitment to the organisation’s goals; and making it possible for their hands to do the job by equipping them properly to do their best work.

Practically speaking, what does this mean for companies choosing and designing a new office space, or those wanting to stimulate employee engagement beyond taking the softer measures necessary to adapt their company culture? 

Hall emphasises that effective workspace design puts human work and behaviour principles at the centre of the design process, including elements such as ownership of the workspace, identity, comfort and healthiness, the reliability of infrastructure, and connectivity and information. 

Firstly, while it certainly is very cost efficient, a purely open space is not efficient for employees. Contrary to what many women will try convince you to believe, people cannot multi-task effectively, and Cambridge Sound Management research found that nearly 30% of employees are distracted by the conversations of their co-workers. What’s more, the research found that workplace noise affects one in three men negatively, compared with one in four women. 

Whether background noise is other conversations, music or other forms of office activity, working in an open place space does not encourage productivity – particularly among the creative teams on your workforce. What’s more, on a purely practical level, one person arriving at work on a Monday with flu is likely to see everyone leaving work on Wednesday with flu. 

It’s not always possible or cost effective to give everyone their own office – in fact, offices create disengaged workforces who feel isolated from their colleagues. Rather create sufficient breakaway areas where workers can move to quiet spaces to complete specific tasks. 

If your building is older and not designed with energy efficiency in mind, the temperature of the environment is a key factor – as is the ability to control it. The ideal environment is around 22 degrees Celsius, but understand the placement of vents. One employee sitting directly under a vent is likely to have a less pleasant work experience than his colleague sitting five metres away, who is benefiting from the ambient temperature, rather than being subject to the moving air. 

It might seem like an obvious tactic, but it is one that is often overlooked: give your workers the tools that they need to do their jobs. With so many tasks now oriented around a computer, offering dual monitors to deskbound workers was identified by Microsoft to boost productivity by as much as 50 percent. A study by Intel found that giving employees notebook computers rather than desktop computers improved productivity by an average of 100 hours annually. 

With cloud computing becoming more a business necessity than a buzzword, research by Tata Communications revealed that cloud computing increases productivity by as much as 69%. Cloud computing allows flexibility that lets employees work in a way that they find most efficient.

While historically speaking it was only the top executives that got the corner office with the view, having sight of the outside world from their workstation saw a 6% decrease in the time it took call centre consultants to handle calls, according to a Forbes article. Similarly, workers with better outdoor views were found to perform 10 to 16% better than those who had no view at all. The research found that it wasn’t about sunlight – which only had a 0.4% impact on cognitive testing. 

While Google’s famous offices are often held up as the standard for office design that engages employees to the full, it’s clear that very few organisations can afford that level of intervention, whether it’s about the cost of space or the cost of décor and design. 

Brightly coloured slides, on-site canteens and place to walk your dog during the day are just not practical or affordable for most businesses. However, being smart about the design of your space, and creating an environment where people want to come to work because they feel valued there, because they feel comfortable, secure and equipped, and where they feel that they connect positively with their fellow workers just makes good business sense. 

“What does make sense is balancing business needs with people needs to achieve operating cost efficiencies,” Hall adds. “Your return on investment will come through talent attraction, retention, and workers meeting productivity and efficiency targets, as well as your environment achieving its image and brand goals.” 

With this all in mind, it’s clearly time for commercial property owners, their space designers and their tenants to negotiate around more than just the cost per square metre of office space when they’re negotiating a move. The property owners that can show that they are willing to help their tenants be more productive and efficient, boosting their bottom line through intelligent workplace design, are going to hold the edge over those that just focus on black and white office space costs on the balance sheet.

This feature has been made possible by the Mail & Guardians’s advertisers. Contents and photographs were sourced independently by the M&G’s supplements editorial team