Wellness, Wellbeing and Productivity in the Office

April 22, 2015

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

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.


Interaction vs. Interruption
But creating the right mix of spaces for privacy and collaboration is tricky. Surveying employees on their preferences may result in a welter of opinions instead of a clear path forward.

For example, many employees say that time spent in interactions with colleagues is one of the most productive parts of their day; many also say that various interruptions by colleagues are one of the greatest obstacles. “And they’re both true,” says Fran Ferrone, director of the Center for Workplace Innovation at Mancini Duffy, a New York City-based architecture and interiors practice.

Measuring productivity can also be tricky, but Ferrone believes that it can be done with metrics that have adequate emphasis on people – a firm’s most valuable and expensive resource – and not on real estate alone. Data from different departments, including human resources, finance, and product development, may be needed. While each organization needs to develop its own benchmarks, metrics may include the average number of applicants for positions, top applicants successfully recruited, absentee days, staff turnover, and average time required to complete new projects or products.

Transitioning to Alternative Spaces
Change always creates unknowns and obstacles. To gauge the impact of new layouts, Ferrone recommends that firms develop a pilot and be sure to communicate its goals and benefits to all.

The potential benefits of greater productivity are so great that firms should continually evaluate their space. Business models stayed much the same over the previous century, but now they evolve rapidly and the workspace should evolve with them. “People need to experiment a little and not wait until events like a lease expiration or new requirements force a review,” says Ferrone.

The following articles in this issue’s Blurring Office Boundaries Report provide ideas for alternative spaces, including kitchens and cafés designed for collaboration, reception areas that double as lounges or town hall spaces, quiet rooms that supersede private offices, and wellness and recreation features.

Chris Olson [email protected] is content director of BUILDINGS.

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