Wellness, Wellbeing and Productivity in the Office

05/01/2015 | By Chris Olson

How the design of office space impacts output and the bottom line

Open office design

The cost of office space has a simple metric – dollars per square foot. But metrics for employee productivity in a given layout seem inexact and problematic. Nevertheless, for most firms, the expense of employees far outweighs that of facilities and real estate, making productivity’s potential leverage on the bottom line much greater.

According to Health, Wellbeing & Productivity in Offices, a study by the World Green Building Council, employee salaries and benefits account for 90% of typical business operating expenses. Far behind employee costs are space rental (9%) and energy costs (1%). Clearly, an office workplace that enhances productivity can leverage a huge return on the investment.

But what makes an office productive? And how can that be measured?

Wellbeing Is Replacing Wellness
Since the identification of sick building syndrome (SBS) in the 1980s, it has been well recognized that buildings should not induce health problems. Buildings with poor indoor air quality (too little fresh air, off-gassing of contaminants, VOCs, mold, etc.) are clear health hazards to occupants – and potentially huge liabilities for their owners. But the bar is being raised much higher than this minimum for buildings.

Walking boosts creativity by 60% over sitting, according to a Stanford University study. But the research discovered no measurable effect on focused thinking.
A survey of financial services firms by architect/engineer HOK found that meeting rooms are oversized. Some 73% of meetings involve two to four people but most meeting room space is designed for much larger groups.
The HOK survey also found that more space in financial firms is being allotted to conference space. For each workspace seat, three-fourths of a collaborative seat is allocated.
Workers with access to sunlight are 18% more productive, says the World Green Building Council (WGBC).
The average American spends 7.7 hours each day sitting, which has been linked to muscular degeneration, disorders of the back, neck and leg, and some types of cancer.
The Harvard Business Review reported data showing that when salespeople interact 10% more with coworkers from other teams, their sales grow by 10%.
According to a study cited by WGBC, a CO2 level of 1,000 ppm has a detrimental impact (11–22%) on decision- making tasks compared to CO2 at 600 ppm. WGBC also quotes research showing that occupant performance is reduced by 4% at overly cool temperatures and 6% at warm temperatures.

A building must not only avoid threats to wellness but also promote productive wellbeing. Healthy employees are more productive than unhealthy ones. For decades, research has suggested that indoor spaces with natural features are good for wellness and wellbeing. Plants and gardens, water, daylighting, and views to the outdoors are restorative. Biophilic design that utilizes these elements is seen as a way to reduce stress and absenteeism, improve wellbeing, and make occupants more productive.

Biophilia is already well accepted in healthcare and hospitals as a way to promote healing and reduce medical stays. In the office, a factor like daylighting has been linked to improved mood, perception, sleep, mental concentration and thus productivity.

The recently launched WELL Building Standard, which was designed to fulfill a Clinton Global Initiative commitment, is a performance-based system for measuring, certifying and monitoring features of the built environment that affect human health and wellbeing. The standard encompasses air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort and mind.

Increasing Productivity with Alternative Spaces
Traditional office space typically consists of two major chunks: dedicated workstations (including a comparatively high number of private offices) and a limited number of conference rooms. The latter are often oversized; a study by design firm HOK found that 73% of meetings involve only two to four people in spaces designed to accommodate many more. A sore point with many employees is that the average square footage per occupant in traditional offices has been dwindling for years.

Silicon Valley tech firms are leading the way with nontraditional office layouts that have fewer dedicated workspaces and more alternative spaces. Some are designed to maximize collaboration and creativity, even play and games (see “Encouraging Activity to Aid Productivity” on page 45). Other spaces suit routine activities like email, which some employees prefer to do in areas that hum with background activity. “Team rooms” are a meeting option that is smaller than traditional conference rooms. Quiet spaces are designed for multiple employees engaged in heads-down concentration.

Offering employees more choices can create a more dynamic and inspiring environment. It can also help to offset the strain of fewer square feet per employee. In order to accommodate varying activities, designers are taking a close look at the specific tasks that take place through the typical workday and week.

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