Better office design can reap economic rewards

Copyright: David Lawson - published in Property Week April 2007

If the future had gone according to plan, we should all be working from home. A blitz of predictions for the 21st century tolled a death knell for the traditional workplace as computers freed office slaves from tedious commuting to soulless buildings. Sure enough, the number of teleworkers has tripled since the turn of the century to around 2.5m, and that doesn’t count working the odd day at home. But while there are still 93 years to fulfil predictions, signs are emerging that forecasters have overdone this warning to the property industry.

  They didn’t allow for the fact that as homes transform into offices, so commercial space becomes more user friendly. The modern workplace is replete with soft furnishing, mood lighting, flat screens and coffee tables. This revolution is a testing time for interiors consultants because it coincides, and sometimes conflicts, with demand for more efficient, flexible space to cut costs and match dynamic new ways of working. And it all has to be sustainable, of course.

  Emphasis has shifted from appearance to performance, says Ken Raisbeck, a director at workplace consultant Johnson Controls. This requires a constant balancing act, however. Occupiers are keen to attract and retain staff through better conditions but this can cost more.

   Evidence that better design can reap economic rewards is helping to bridge the gap.  A study by the British Council for Offices and CABE showed that air quality, temperature, noise and lighting have a big impact on productivity. Seemingly conflicting demands can also overlap.  Hot-desking crams in more people per square metre but two thirds of staff are less likely to accept a new job in this kind of environment, according to a survey by Project Office Furniture - presumably because they prefer their own space. Yet almost 85% would be in favour if this raised the option of working from home.

 Consultants like Raisbeck find themselves increasingly acting as intermediaries between landlords and users, crystallising often vague occupier aspirations into a workplace strategy as the basis for a contractor to create practical solutions. Meanwhile, staff are reassured through consultation and the right balance of fitout.  Success depends on ‘giving something back’, says Rob Wright, who has managed changes for more than 100,000 staff at ABN Amro.  This can include ‘places of escape’ for relaxation, informal meetings or quiet work, he told a seminar at the annual BCO conference in Dublin. Merely making offices more attractive can be a benefit where staff had been previously ashamed to bring in clients. One reorganisation which involved cutting more than 20% of desks from an office of 180 staff raised staff satisfaction 14% and productivity by 5%, he said.

  Difficulties are not generated just by potential conflicts between staff, employers and landlords, however. Consultants have to overcome some surprising barriers to create a modern working environment. Perversely, better buildings can work against change. They are built to more precise tolerances nowadays, so internal fittings have to be much more accurate – which makes them more expensive,  according to fitout contractor Overbury, again raising doubts among occupiers about cost saving.

   Bigger buildings present similar challenges. Massive floors are becoming increasingly common, with developers reasoning they can serve demand for big dealing spaces, open-plan or the flexibility to cut and shape. But even solid concrete slabs dip under their own weight when stretched across 25,000 sq ft-plus, says Glan Blake Thomas, managing director of Advanced Ergonomic Technologies.  This makes swapping around partitions and other components less straightforward.

  He sees need for more innovation to overcome extra cost and complication in what should be easily changed modern space. But this also applies right back at first fitout stage, where developers install basic Cat A services.   Construction is becoming better organised and faster as craftsmen are moved in and out with computerised efficiency. But any glitches can leave people kicking their heels, and this is expensive because labour costs have tripled in recent years.There is crying need for modular fittings that reduce on-site delay and increase accuracy, he says. Drop-in services are becoming more available but are a larger variety is needed to match different demands.

   Fee structures don’t encourage such imagination, however, as they are based on overall costs. It would help if architects and engineers were paid to look beyond obvious methods of construction and initial fitout, says Blake Thomas.  Even more relevant to occupiers and interiors consultants, there is no incentive to take into account ease of use during the life of a building.


Workplace Intelligence created a testbed of new kinds of interior layouts for the property arm of ABN Amro at its 199 Bishopsgate offices in the City of London. The redevelopment showed staff satisfaction with the workplace improved an average of 14% while productivity improved by 5%.