People-perfect workplace design

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Exploring how firms are making offices more employee-centric and what workspaces might look in the future

The launch of trendy, feature-filled offices such as Google’s London headquarters and the World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet Centre in Woking are examples of firms investing in pioneering building design that puts people at its heart.

Academics and workplace leaders have long tried to fathom the effect workspace design can have on productivity, but now organisations and their HR directors are recognising the importance of optimising workspaces by tailoring them to the people that use them. Meanwhile, architects have partnered with psychologists, wellbeing experts and collaboration consultants to also advocate people-centric design.

And it’s important to get this right, with so many companies competing to recruit and retain the same staff. A survey of 1,014 UK workers carried out by retailer showed more than half (53%) of job hunters would turn down a role if they did not like the company’s office or working environment. More than a third would be put off by a lack of natural light (38%), with a similar number deterred by outdated décor (41%).

Christy Lake, vice president of people and culture at software company Medallia, confirms that because of increased recognition of its important role in the war for talent, workplace design is fast rising up HR’s agenda

“People want to come to an environment where they feel comfortable and can have fun and contribute,” she says. “There’s also a retention element where doing work in a crumby space may take its toll. From a productivity perspective, giving people the workspaces they need to be at their best should enhance this.”

Early days

Joanna Yarker, associate professor of occupational and business psychology at Kingston Business School and co-director of Affinity Health at Work, says understanding how workspaces can be optimised is still in its infancy. She adds that for many companies learning different ways of helping employees be healthier, happier and more engaged through workplace design has been challenging.

This involves employers unlearning traditional workplace design techniques and taking on views from a range of stakeholders, including psychologists, architects, wellbeing experts and construction companies. Yarker believes that as academic research into workspace design continues to emerge, an evidence-based blueprint to help executives and HRDs will also come to the fore.

“These different stakeholders want to create excellent workplaces but with different priorities attached. Architects want the building to look beautiful, wellbeing experts want the air quality to be good, and construction companies want the building to be completed efficiently,” she explains. “There’s two main catalysts that brought this workplace design journey about. The first is the wellness agenda, with people from all departments being more engaged with the idea of working well and the components needed for this.”

The second catalyst, says Yarker, is technological developments over the last 40 years – principally the move away from desktop computers. This has driven fundamental changes in how, where and when people work.

Philip Tidd, principal at design and architecture firm Gensler, says workplaces have evolved into hubs that are more about consolidating a company’s organisational, ethical and social culture than completing certain work tasks. The next step for Tidd is future office spaces having less-defined layouts.

“We’re going through a natural adjustment in working lifestyle with executives thinking more deeply about people-centric approaches,” he explains. “People have more of a work/life blend where we don’t separate work and life. As employees work more outside the office they are discovering new environments where they’re most productive and wonder what purpose the office building has.”

Alongside technology, the rise of people-centred workplace design is being led by senior leadership now recognising the power of design too.

Chris Baréz-Brown, founder of creative consultancy Upping Your Elvis, confirms that this change in company leaders’ mentalities has been an important development. The likes of Airbnb and Google are headed by bosses willing to invest highly in workplace design in their quests to boost staff productivity, he says. Key to this has been executives doing their research and being aware that one size does not fit all.

“There can be a leap of faith for leaders with investing in the workplace, as spending money is always a risk,” he says. “Although people tell you that if you get the working environment right your productivity goes up, what productivity means to one person is completely different from another. Leaders investing in workplaces tend to be happier to take risks because they’re in tune with their working environment and can therefore see the benefits.”

Baréz-Brown’s belief in senior managers being at the crux of changing company culture is backed by YouGov research commissioned by Lendlease. This showed that nearly two-thirds (63%) of 1,000 British employees who would change their workplace habits to aid their wellbeing, said workplace measures implemented and followed through by senior management would be the most effective way of affecting long-term change.

People power

However, while increased senior management awareness might have kick-started this design revolution, it’s a shift that must be employee-led to really deliver. Employees are now being given a far greater say not just in how and where they work day to day, but also how this space should look.

“When employees feel looked after by their working environment they feel part ownership of that space,” says Emma Morley, creative director and founder of Trifle Creative, the company that redesigned print giant MOO’s London office. “However, the issue is how employees own a space if they can’t make it their own. So, along with moving away from the traditional method of a fixed desk towards hot-desking, there are other areas employees can have a sense of ownership over such as wonder walls, family walls and idea-sharing walls.”

Morley’s views are backed by academic research from Craig Knight, director of office environment consultancy Identity Realisation. Knight looked into the merits of empowered workspaces and the impact of management strategies on productivity. The research, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology in 2010, found improvements in productivity and wellbeing when workers had input into their office decoration.

However, these effects were limited if their input was overridden by management. It concluded employees should be empowered to design their own workspaces. Tidd highlights Gensler research that found eight million people are looking to improve their work environment but aren’t in a leadership position to affect this. He says this can leave some disengaged – a gap that HR can bridge.

Worker empowerment, Morley adds, is a way for the company to demonstrate that it is investing in its staff. She highlights the importance of HR departments engaging with employees before, during and after a redesign project. HR should also regularly obtain feedback to identify adjustments that might be made over time.

“One way HR can make sure they’re meeting employees’ needs is checking with them at least once or twice a year, because the project is ever-evolving,” Morley explains. “People often have some great ideas since they’re working in the space.

“It’s often how you ask the questions. If you’re too open or there’s a hint of negativity you can get a lot of ranting from staff,” she adds. “You could do a two-tiered approach of an open survey that allows people to anonymously feedback, and then explore key responses in more depth, particularly those addressing how the redesign reflects company culture.”

Joe Huddleston, senior project designer at office refurbishment company Overbury, agrees on the importance of starting employee dialogue early in the design process. He advises having change champions from different parts of the business. “We appoint a main point of contact and are seeing more and more this is an HR representative,” Huddleston adds. “We are finding HR departments are increasingly engaged and interested in design, have good strong opinions, and have often undertaken a lot of research.”

Airbnb is one example of a company involving its workers in designing their Portland-based offices right from the off. With the help of architects, volunteers designed their temporary office while the new workspace was being built. A smaller group also helped design shared spaces such as meeting rooms. This, according to Kursty Groves, adjunct professor in IE University’s School of Architecture and Design, gave employees a sense of ownership and pride. This autonomy, she adds, has been replicated by others such as online retailer Zappos, which empowered employees in its Las Vegas offices by letting them choose the furniture and how it was set up.


Groves says employee autonomy is critical because if the workspace doesn’t reflect its employees this can discourage individual creativity. The challenge is getting the balance just right. “Too much curation can leave no room to engage. This can produce a sense of entitlement by the curator and low employee satisfaction. Too much self-creation can descend into chaos and be overwhelming for the people who feel less creatively confident,” she says.

Baréz-Brown highlights the importance of colour, light and acoustic properties in stimulating workers, adding that workspaces should be updated bit-by-bit daily to reflect progress in the company and encourage individuals’ work. “Between 70% to 80% of the ideas an employee has are stimulated by the environment around them, but if you stay in the same place all the time you have the same thinking and ideas,” he says.

An example of this was when ITV alternated the décor of meeting rooms to reflect different programmes. This included TV series Downton Abbey, I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here! and The Durrells in Corfu. In the case of I’m a Celebrity, programme-associated props were installed such as bamboo seats, life-size cutouts of the presenters, toy alligators and spiders. ITV director of creative works and commercial marketing Chris Goldson explains it brought staff ideas to life and provided a visual stimulus for workers.

Kenneth Freeman, head of innovation at Ambius, emphasises the importance of colour. “Adding a splash of colour is an inexpensive way to brighten up a space and can stimulate creativity and productivity. Traditionally, darker colours like matte grey and dark blue were trendy, but now we’re seeing brighter colours such as lairy orange or green, or white to reflect the light around the office better and give light-wellness benefits.”


With employees at all levels increasingly having a say in workplace design, rather than just senior individuals, it’s unsurprising that another growing feature of progressive office design is lack of hierarchy. Tammy Erickson, adjunct professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School, confirms that the days when company executives had the biggest offices are on the wane.

“Contemporary workplace design has been making personal space relatively small and making shared space larger than 30 years ago, to allow for greater employee collaboration and a less status-based office design,” she says.

As Erickson flags, this spells a move towards much more collaboration-focused spaces where different teams can form and disband as needed. Central to enabling flatter ways of working are environments that encourage more chance interactions, says Erickson. Workspaces can be designed to create collision points for employees to meet and exchange information around a popular amenity such as toilets or a cafeteria.

Collaborating informally builds a sense of community within a company, adds Erickson. An example of this in practice is Royal Bank of Scotland’s headquarters in Edinburgh where the first floor is designed like a city street with shops. This acts as a magnet pulling workers into an environment.

“The idea of creating an attractive place for people to congregate is well-recognised as improving collaboration,” Erickson says. “There is a business purpose to these ‘social atmospheres’ where people collaborate better if they know and trust each other.”

AECOM undertook a project in 2016 to create a more integrated, communal workplace culture through a flexible workspace, in each of its three offices at Croydon, St Albans and Aldgate. Key to this was eliminating siloed behaviour in staff. To achieve this the company observed the daily activities of its 2,000 workers. It carried out surveys over a four-month period on staff working patterns and employees’ thoughts on the company culture. In parallel with this, AECOM ran a change management programme with 14 representatives from across the business. This looked at behaviours the company hoped staff would develop in their new working environments.

“Our change programme included representatives from HR, our workplace strategy team, communications and IT,” explains Hilary Jeffery, regional director at AECOM, who was part of the project’s change management team. “Once we’d gathered our data from surveys and studies we then thought about what a workplace strategy might look like in response to this. It was very much about being evidence-based.”

But it’s crucial to recognise that collaboration is not the only goal of the modern workplace, and that ‘collaboration overload’ can be equally unhelpful as siloed spaces. Depending on the sector, collaboration might not be the workplace design holy grail at all.

“Challenging tasks where employees have to innovate to complete them require more collaboration and industries or organisations that want people to collaborate could focus on collision space,” says Erickson. “However, if the work you’re doing is well-understood, along with the methods by which it can be achieved, then there might be no desire to collaborate.”

Even for those sectors where significant collaboration is highly desirable, quiet solo working spaces are also essential. Overbury’s Huddleston, who recently completed a workplace acoustics project for tyre manufacturer Goodyear Dunlop’s Birmingham office, explains that having effective sound properties in the company’s office was good for worker concentration. In the case of Goodyear, one-person booths and two-person cellular booths provided a choice of private spaces. Hard-backed sofas and chairs and lining the walls with acoustic panel treatments ensured the discussion spaces were private.

“Because the company workspace is open there’s a visual element that indirectly encourages people to adjust their voice volume,” he explains. “Also, the acoustic properties help reduce the surrounding noise so others are not affected by the conversation.”

Findings published by British Council for Offices and Savills in 2016 document a desire for better sound quality in open-plan offices. Only 45% of the 1,132 UK employees surveyed felt satisfied with the noise levels in their office, while 71% wanted a quiet place for focused work. The research concluded that it is important to have areas where staff can concentrate in a quieter setting.

Huddleston adds that workplaces are also incorporating more textures with acoustic properties like fabrics, soundproofing artwork, and carpets. These textured materials not only create a softer, more inviting, homely feel to the office but stop noise echoing and disrupting those concentrating on individual projects.

Gensler’s Tidd highlights the power of technology-free, library-esque spaces. “It would seem disconnectivity is the new holy grail of productivity,” he says. “This is a result of the modern workforce struggling to work within an office environment, while not being able to switch off from work mode when outside of it.

“One of the things that has been affected by collaboration is focus and concentration time and this has been missed by office designers,” he adds.


What’s emerging is a workplace of the future much more geared around individual employees wanting to work in multiple ways, in slightly different environments, even within the same working day. ‘Workspace flexibility’ is growing as the phrase du jour.

“One priority has to be creating environments that suit different tasks; allowing knowledge to transfer between different groups of workers,” says Huddleston. “We’ve seen a lot of companies install hot-desking, but it’s moving further to smaller details such as individual booths for private working.”

Airline company Cathay Pacific is one organisation aiming for a multi-functional workspace with its Hammersmith Bridge HQ in London. The company and HR department worked with interior architecture and design agency Align to develop multiple meeting spaces, each with a different look and feel, including large areas for collaboration and small breakout spaces for individual work. Separate spaces were created for finance and the people teams. However, these two departments were separated by glass to ensure they remained somewhat connected.

Groves, who has investigated the impact of physical surroundings on workplace behaviour, adds that one size does not fit all with flexible workplace design. She states that many workplaces are traditionally designed from the outside-in where employers copy other organisations that have a successful strategy. Instead, companies need to understand their workforces’ needs. This involves exploring and researching their workforces’ behaviour – including where they eat and sit, whether they are social or private – and then infusing the design with the company’s culture and values.

“If, for example, a company values being agile its workspace should support this,” Groves says. “This could involve rearranging the furniture and prototyping areas designed for certain working styles.”

Tech companies including Google are renowned for adaptive and agile workspaces. Placing all the furniture on wheels helps create the most flexible, fun, and innovative workspace possible.

Kingston Business School’s Yarker stresses the importance of employers understanding the different personalities within their workforce and HR educating staff on how to adapt to different workspaces and styles of working.

“If you’ve got someone who is quite extroverted they might find a new flexible workspace easier because they can engage with lots of different people,” she explains. “However, those that are introverted or more traditional in their working style might find flexible working or an open-plan arrangement quite anxiety-provoking. Identifying the needs and concerns of the individual can help these employees manage the transition.”

Baréz-Brown agrees on the importance of HR training colleagues to use a new workspace. “Once you’ve built the space you need to teach people how to work in it effectively, just as you might teach someone to use a new piece of technology effectively,” he says. “The first step is to educate employees about why it’s been designed a particular way so they understand the different options and appeals. You’ve got to help staff feel safe and secure but also excited about the freedom and possibility a new space can create.”


Which brings us to one of the key drivers behind this people-centred workplace design revolution: health and wellbeing. A recent notable example of this shift was the establishment of the WELL Building Standard; the first building certification to focus exclusively on the health and wellness of occupants.

Companies must meet a variety of criteria: air quality; clean water; availability of fresh, wholesome foods; natural light quality; physical activity; thermal, acoustic and ergonomic elements; and the cognitive and emotional health of employees.

Paul Scialla, the founder of the International WELL Building Institute, which launched the standard in October 2014, reports a trend of companies using their real estate as a healthcare intervention tool. He believes this drive towards environmental, social and governance criteria will form the bedrock of workspaces in the future.

“We expect to see every office going through this process of workplace improvement to compete with other companies from an attraction and retention point. Whether it’s a building owner looking to differentiate their space so they can lease out to tenants or whether it is companies looking to retain and attract employees, enhance productivity, or potentially reduce health care, healthy buildings have the potential to offer a valuable return on investment.

“By incorporating design features that work in the background to passively enhance occupant health and wellness, you have the potential to positively affect all staff, including those that might not actively choose to engage with other health programmes,” Scallia continues. “Engaging everyone through the inclusion of these passive health features can have a positive effect on the corporation’s employee health costs, which is why this workplace component is so essential.”

Yarker, who has been involved in helping develop a wellbeing proposition for engineering giant AECOM, says employers need to take a more holistic look at workplace wellbeing from a design perspective and investigate how people function and feel in an office with different types of light, sound and colour.

“Light, colour and sound influence the way we feel about our environment and whether we’re satisfied working there,” Yarker explains. “Some companies like AECOM have incorporated features like an internal staircase into the building. These features can benefit our physical health through walking and our mental health through encouraging natural light, but can also allow us to have serendipitous meetings with colleagues. These can improve the social aspect of our work, which can also benefit our psychological health.”

Freeman says the number of organisations bringing natural elements such as plants and green walls into the workspace will continue to grow.

A joint study in 2014 between the Universities of Exeter, Groningen and Queensland found that enriching large commercial offices with plants could increase productivity by 15%. The research also showed plants in the office significantly increased workplace satisfaction, levels of employee concentration and office air quality, which all affect productivity.

“When you’re in an office a lot of things you see are associated with sick building syndrome; a range of symptoms thought to be linked to spending time in a certain building, most often a workplace,” Freeman explains.

Diversity in the sizes, colours, types and location of vegetation have a variety of physical and mental health benefits. These include removing pollutants from the air to re-humidify and re-oxygenise the atmosphere. Plants also have acoustic properties so absorb, diffract and reflect sound, particularly if placed near the edges and corners of a space.

People-centred design

So creating healthy, collaborative, flexible working environments can pay huge dividends in terms of wellbeing, productivity and business effectiveness – a good return on a relatively small investment. But if overhauling traditional office design is to really deliver, the employee must sit at its centre, and must be empowered to take ownership in helping to design their own, as well as communal, spaces.

HR clearly has an important role to play. “HR needs to champion the human side of the environment and be steadfast in making sure that it supports people to be all they can be,” emphasises Baréz-Brown. “HR needs to drive that and hold that focus true.”

HR must also ensure that people passionate about making workspaces work best for the business are spread throughout the organisation, says Morley. “I think that a new breed of workplace experience facilitators is going to emerge over the coming years – people who focus on hosting, curation and building community. These are skills and qualities that HR needs to recruit for and develop in people,” she says.

She adds: “It’s through this attention to the human side of working environments that we can build inspiring places where people flourish and are enabled to do the best work of their lives.”