By Vanessa De Groot and Dana Worth 07 November 2017

Workplace design is finally adapting to human needs, rather than the other way round. So, how do you make a great office environment?

One of the most striking developments in the corporate world over the past few decades is the extent to which human resources departments have emerged from their back office status, becoming more akin to drivers of value than simple cost centres. 

The change is partly a response to shifting perceptions of productivity. Traditionally defined as the cost of producing revenue, productivity is increasingly seen as the cost to a company to produce long term value that differentiates it from direct competitors.

In this view, higher employee costs can be accommodated as long as whatever is causing that expense (investment in management excellence, better quality output) enables the company to consistently outflank the opposition.

Employee wellbeing becomes a top priority in the new paradigm. Not just because wellbeing ensures workers stay with a company, but because it actually helps them become better, more professional and more innovative workers.

But how to achieve it? There are the gyms and the bike racks, there are the canteens stocked with fresh food, and there are the well-trained managers.

But there is also, and possibly most crucially, the well-designed office space.

Image supplied by Girvan Waugh.

Even companies that are completely committed to providing flexible working solutions generally prefer staff to work in the office rather than at home.

Warwick Waugh, director of Design and Construction company Girvan Waugh, says there’s no one approach to creating physical spaces. His firm is increasingly incorporating a multitude of them all in the one office, to cater for the different wants of staff and clients.

“From having breakout rooms for small group discussions, a corner office, collaborative spaces and quiet rooms, there is a real ensemble of all these different environments,” he explains.

“You can cut and paste all the different options. We’re creating specific micro environments within a corporation and stitching them in to make better built environments for clients.”

HR strategist Rhonda Brighton-Hall is CEO and founder of consultancy mwah (Making Work Absolutely Human).

In early 2017, her organisation and Curtin University produced a research report that distilled what makes us feel good about going to work.

We want to be part of a tribe. Every tribe needs a home, and in the offices we’re creating, you walk in and you’re home. Warwick Waugh, director, Girvan Waugh

Top work motivators

Top of the list, says Brighton-Hall, is purpose. That’s purpose in the sense that you have a clear idea of how your work contributes something of value. After that comes relationships, and the third factor is what Brighton-Hall calls agency. In this context she defines agency as the freedom to decide your own style of work.

When it comes to discussing what makes a good office space, Brighton-Hall zeroes in on the second of the three top factors: relationships.

“Having good relationships, even if it’s only with a few people, is strongly positively correlated with confidence,” Brighton-Hall says. 

“This is where the collective elements come in. Sociologists define the size of the tribe as 150, and within that a family of roughly eight people. That’s your home base. So you’ll see that in cleverly designed offices. There will be a family group of about eight, often with a round table or central meeting spot.”

It’s also important which family types you put next to each other, she says. So even if the company is quite small – the size of one tribe, for example – the finance family shouldn’t be situated next to the sales family. Sales will just make too much noise!

In addition, Brighton-Hall says that designers know unambiguously that certain things about the physical environment make people feel good: plants, timber, and other natural materials.

“What you’re aiming for is an environment that makes people feel calm, confident and connected. Let me be clear, you can’t create a culture through good office design. Culture comes first. But you can tweak it with the design.”

Image supplied by Girvan Waugh.

Activity based work: getting it right

While activity based work, in which you may have a different desk every day, is rapidly becoming the corporate norm, Brighton-Hall issues a warning about how to phase it in. It’s best to reduce the seating capacity only very gradually, she observes. No matter how accurate your calculations are of net use, it will disrupt the smooth implementation of the changed design if, in the early stages, people can’t find desks in the appropriate configuration for their needs. 

Another tip is for the company to run workshops for employees to help them figure out both their own work style and the work styles of people who are likely to be in their family. 

If you know you are an extrovert – which in this context simply means you like to work with other people, says Brighton-Hall – you should know that the introvert style, which prefers solitary endeavour in a quiet environment most of the time, is an equally valid way of working.

To facilitate flexible configurations, Waugh says that incorporating technological enablers into office design is high on the list of priorities. Integrating quality Wi-Fi into fitouts is particularly important: it means workstations don’t have to be hardwired, which improves the ability to move desks around.

Waugh is also very interested in the concept of building wellness.  This is a new set of standards developed by the US-based International WELL Building Institute which aim to create buildings that are good for your health. 

The standards have received considerable interest in Australia, with Dexus - one of Waugh’s clients – registering its head office for WELL certification. A building that has received a WELL certificate has high standards of air, light, and water; and it enables thinking, fitness, innovation, nourishment and comfort.

All these moves towards a better built environment will aid companies to persuade workers to spend more time in the office, says Waugh.

“We want to be part of a tribe. Every tribe needs a home, and in the offices we’re creating, you walk in and you’re home.”

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