The workplace as a benefit

Creating an appealing workspace could be a boost to productivity, but you might need to set aside serious planning time and resources, says Nick Golding

Case studies: Eresearch Technology, Thomas Cook

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If you are looking for new ways to motivate your staff, you may not need to look any further than the four walls of your office. More and more organisations are calling upon the services of office designers to help create inspirational workspaces.

Office designers are enjoying ever more creative commissions from adventurous patrons, and extra space for photocopiers is being supplanted by break-out rooms and chill-out lounges to help improve working environments.

David Henderson, managing director at office design company Morgan Lovell, explains: “More organisations are beginning to understand that the office space is not just a blot on the profit and loss account, but an opportunity to motivate and inspire people. And comfortable, motivated employees means improved productivity.”

But before employees start coming into work in their slippers, they should be aware that while employers are taking strides to create better environments for staff to work in, there may be an ulterior motive. Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at Lancaster University, explains: “Creating a suitable working environment has become necessary in the long hours culture that employers want us all to live in, and, at some companies, the workplace is fast becoming a substitute home.”

So while employees are working in more relaxed surroundings, they are doing so because the boundaries between work and home life are becoming increasingly blurred.

For electronics company Philips, relocation gave it the opportunity to redesign its office floor plan and resolve issues which were adversely affecting the way in which employees operated.

Mike Wenden, project manager at Philips at the time, says its old Croydon offices were drab and isolated and the separation of departments by floors put up barriers between employees. “We wanted to create an office that shifted away from the traditional high rise and towards the modern, and more importantly, [to help] break down some of the barriers that existed at Philips.”

The new offices, which the electronics firm moved into in June 2004, are a flat open plan design on three storeys. This enables departments to work on single floors as opposed to being on split-levels.

David Charlesworth, communications director at Philips, works at the new site and approves of the increased amount of employee contact the office helps provide. “Just walking across to the coffee machine, employees make contact with many of their colleagues. This helps them feel a part of the company, something that was very limited in the Croydon office.”

Yet for other organisations, an open plan office is simply not enough. The key to motivating a workforce is often to make the office as relaxing and comfortable as possible, because it is only when staff are truly relaxed that their performance can be optimised.

Innocent, the soft drinks company, has transformed its west London offices into a back garden, with grass, trees and picnic tables in between desks and computers.

These slightly off-the-wall office designs are more common among younger and relatively small firms such as Innocent, which are granted versatility by their size. Such ideas would be difficult to implement in large organisations because there are simply more people to please. Bronte Blomhoj, people person at Innocent, explains: “We are lucky because small numbers are more manageable. 10,000 employees would struggle to agree on how an office should look, as we do here.

“Larger companies could look to the smaller ideas to help improve the look and feel of the office, like allowing staff to personalise their space and supplying comfy chairs. It will make all the difference.”

The three founders of Innocent wanted to produce an environment the opposite of traditional offices, and so, there is no need for suits, staff walk around bare foot on a grass office floor and lounge around on beanbags.

Blomhoj believes that coming to work should not be a stressful experience but an enjoyable one. By eliminating the traditional constraints, the Innocent office allows creativity and freedom of expression, which is important for a company competing in a tough market.

“We have very tall ceilings which gives a sense of space and freedom, we have lounge areas and bean bags scattered around the office to encourage a laid-back attitude, and it’s simply a brilliant way to motivate people.”

The offices have been designed on the understanding that “work should be just like home, except with computers” says Blomhoj.

While Innocent is occupied with ensuring total tranquility, other organisations are utilising colour and light to help design a more productive office. Although the concept of light affecting productivity has met much criticism, Philips is investing in an office lighting system that it believes will improve concentration levels and subsequently productivity.

However, employers should not read too much into this form of motivation, says Cooper, who believes that improvements in productivity are not merely down to the brightness or dimness of the lights, but the fact that employers are showing their employees attention.

“Playing around with the lights, increasing and decreasing, may have an effect very short-term, but the employees are reacting to the fact that they are being experimented on and are being shown attention, not the changing lights,” says Cooper.

Not so, claim Philips which has installed the Carpe Diem lighting system in its new offices. This automatically adjusts the light and colour intensity to help employees concentrate during the day.

On a dull day, the system increases the intensity of office lights, and on bright days tones the lights down. The hi-tech lighting system also changes the colour of the lighting between pink and blue, creating a relaxing and comfortable light, and avoiding the constant white glare that is created by some lighting systems.

“The colours of light from the Carpe Diem [system] reflect our internal body cycle. Sometimes we need a bluer light and sometimes pink. People react to the change, stopping the body from becoming bored and unproductive,” explains Charlesworth.

And it is not just the lights that are changing colour. Walls and floors in the office can also affect the way we work. In particular, companies which rely on creative thinking are changing the colour schemes in their offices to help massage the creative minds of those inside.

According to office designers, space and colour are features that can help ease and inspire the creative mind, improving the productivity of the company. Intelligent Marketing, a creative communications agency, which did away with red brick walls and tight spaces, in favour of a large converted furniture factory with red walls, is enjoying the change in working atmosphere.

Amy Grundy, senior account manager at Intelligent Marketing, says: “The colours we have in the offices are pink, rubine red and orange. They spark creativity, and give employees a sense of who they work for, which is an ideas company. The quality of work has improved no end, simply because of the changed atmosphere.”

Intelligent Marketing designed an office around the most important aim of the company, which was the need to foster creativity. Henderson believes this is the most important factor when designing an office.

“To use the workplace as a benefit, employers must have a clear idea of what they are trying to achieve. The ideal working environment reflects the brand’s aspirations,” he explains.

Case Study: Eresearch technology

Design under microscope EresearchTechnology’s relocation in 2005 enabled the company, which supplies services to the pharmaceutical, biotechnology and medical device industries, to design an office that provides employees with communal areas and improved communications.

Previously, the offices had one kitchen, and departments were split over different floors, which according to Joyce Vella-Dean, finance and administration director, severely diminished employee interaction. “There is no longer the need to run around the office looking for a member of your team, as they are all well-positioned, close to each other.”

Whereas the old kitchen was located close to desks and working areas, the new break-out spaces are not in view of desks giving employees the chance to totally separate themselves from the working environment during the day.

The break out rooms are not the only new additions to the offices either. Hot rooms were also built to allow brief and informal chats as opposed to formal meetings. “These rooms are available to help ease the cluttering of the office so that people are not kneeling at other desks trying to have a quick meeting,” adds Vella-Dean.

The colours of the offices have also been changed from brown and grey to a vibrant red and yellow to help create a brighter atmosphere.

Case Study: Thomas Cook

Thomas Cook’s call centre, which houses 500 staff, is designed to reflect the industry in which employees are working, and to help create a sales buzz around the office.

Sean Ablett, head of sales at Thomas Cook, says: “We have effectively a travel-themed office. Employees walk across a bridge to get into work, with ocean music playing, tropical palm trees, and plants and sand on the ground to add to the holiday atmosphere.”

The open plan design is a key feature, and not just to improve communication between employees. Ablett likes to encourage internal competition and wants employees to be able to hear the progress of colleagues, and thus be motivated to improve their own performance.

“No-one has an office, it is completely open plan. This creates the noise of a sales environment which is key to motivating our staff. The fierce sales environment would not be possible if everyone was tucked away in an office.”

In order that staff can stay close to the the sales floor environment dug-outs, which are circular pods that employees can step down into, were created as meeting areas with sufficient privacy.

The small rooms are dotted around the office floor and are used for informal meetings and stress-busting sessions. “The dug-outs encourage briefings without leaving the floor, so the sales vibe is not lost and employees still feel motivated when they return to their desks,” says Ablett.