Roundtable Is office design killing productivity? The media is full of stories about the detrimental impact of open-plan offices. Last month, a panel of office design experts, Studies cite stress, disruption and lack of privacy and research indicates that chaired by AJ technical editor Felix Mara and excessive noise in the office severely reduces productivity, while 54% of office workers invited by Saint-Gobain Ecophon, discussed think the acoustic environment in their office makes it difficult to work. But are the situation facing office workers today open-plan offices killing productivity or improving collaboration? Felix Mara Today we’re going to talk about the impact of office design on productivity, focussing mainly on acoustics, but also taking a holistic view. We’ll discuss the current state of play, then compare the acoustic design of other building types and conclude with possible solutions. Let’s start by introducing ourselves, saying how office acoustics relates to our work. Russell Richardson More and more, we’re getting involved in sorting out offices that don’t work, rather than getting in at the early stages to provide offices that do: in the past year the ratio has been at least three to one. To improve the office environment, this might involve sound insulation and layout or helping people improve building services. Office design is killing productivity, but there’s no paradigm for good or bad offices. Benjamin Lesser Derwent is an investment company with about five million square metres of commercial buildings, with a pipeline for developing existing stock or acquiring new. We started by converting industrial buildings into workplaces. We’ve taken early all photography by thEoDorE WooD 20th century buildings and made use of attributes such as large volumes, robust materials and exposed services. Acoustics are part of this mix, but we find they are low in people’s priorities. We’ve gone a long way from traditional cellular office environments; people enjoy socialising while they work and open-plan environments suit today’s focus on collaboration. 46 theaj.co.uk 15.11.12 Nic Crawley We work across all ‘Yes, it destroys productivity’, or ‘No, roundtable sectors, doing a lot of education, it doesn’t’. That’s mainly because most The way people react healthcare, offices and housing and clients don’t specify many buildings we’ve enjoyed working with Derwent in their life. They don’t know how Present Benjamin Lesser, is very much affected over the years. It’s important that to and they don’t admit to it. development manager, by acoustics people can create space without I spent many years in M&E, where Derwent London taking out piles of fittings and clients don’t value it until they haven’t David Frise, CEO, Association partitions; I’m not sure if we’ve got it. The same is true of acoustics. of Interiors great for ‘collaboration’, but these ever put a suspended ceiling in an If you ask clients to invest in proper Specialists (AIS) don’t support focus, concentration, Felix Mara, office. So for the warehouse, media- acoustics in their offices most would technical editor, The training and video conferencing. type office, the funky, edgy space, say, ‘I’d rather have this funky bit of Architects’ Journal that’s what we do. And rather than furniture so you spend all your time Jane Stead, head of Sharon Baker Along with workplace, ORMS killing productivity, I agree with rectifying the aftermath. Another big Nic Crawley, acoustic suspended ceilings, we Benjamin, people are keen to work in issue in big cities is air quality. In the associate and head also manufacture a lot of funkier, environments completely different future you’ll have to seal buildings of sustainability, high-end acoustic solutions. We’re AHMM to those of the past. Office design has and filter air more, which will affect Ricardo Canto- aiming for a more holistic view, increased productivity massively. But acoustics and productivity. Leyton, central looking beyond office acoustics. We concept developer, internal environments have significant Saint-Gobain often get called in with architects, acoustic issues. Ecophon’s survey of Tom Lloyd We started primarily as Ecophon clients and developers, as consultants. staff revealed 17 per cent of people say furniture designers and now work Russell Richardson, So we try and look at what’s going director, RBA the environment is poor. Not good, in research and strategy, looking Acoustics on in individual spaces; the people, but not a huge number. 51 per cent at different types of shared space, Sharon Baker, the activities and the places. say things are OK and 27 per cent say including offices. We’re interested in regional sales We have a conceptual team looking manager, it’s good. It’s something we look at on how people interact with strangers or Saint-Gobain at what’s up-and-coming in offices. each project. We’re finding that as we colleagues. Efficiency and technology Ecophon For example, we’ve been involved Tom Lloyd, director, move away from conventional ways have led to more open-plan working. Pearson Lloyd with Google in Ireland. These are of servicing buildings, background Flat screens mean smaller desks, so you Design big investors who take a lot of noise becomes an issue and has a don’t need corners and you can now notice of what’s happening in their masking effect, so we’re thinking get eight people on to a bench rather buildings. The message we’re trying about displacement, fan coils and than having an 1,800 x 1,800 ‘L-shape’ to push is at the next step down, natural ventilation. from the 80s. We’ve got to the point where there’s less investment. Bad now where the bench is a common acoustic environments can hinder David Frise The AIS represents the part of development, specification productivity, although I don’t disagree fit-out end of the industry. In office and design. There’s something to be with open-plan environments, as acoustics, there isn’t a simple yes or no. said for the fact that people need long as they’re good acoustically It’s more subtle, we don’t just conclude, big, open-plan, noisy spaces, that are or there are breakout spaces. Far left David Frise, AIS Left The panel Top right Jane Stead, ORMS Bottom right Ricardo Canto- Leyton, Saint- Gobain Ecophon 15.11.12 47 Roundtable Office design Ricardo Canto-Leyton My job is done that, you stand a chance of we go against guidance. If that’s a to explain the complex matter of making it work and it can be made success, then in the next building acoustics in a simple way. I work with to work very well, but it also has the we push the boundaries a little bit research communities to find ways to potential to murder productivity. further, but we always research our measure what people feel in offices. target occupier market thoroughly. The way people react is very much FM Do you think following affected by acoustics. The only sense standards and codes might help RC-L It’s important that we compare we have while we’re asleep is hearing. with that briefing process? the same things and speak the same If you hear a sound or stop hearing language so that it doesn’t depend it, you wake up. Acoustic design is BL There’s definitely a problem where on which consultants you speak to. often misinterpreted as being solely codes of best practice don’t reflect the Then everyone can go for the same aimed at producing quiet zones. way we work. And therefore there’s acoustic quality, the same definition. Productivity in buildings is complex always a lag time, so on an institutional and hard to assess. What we do know level where you’ve got to tick every RR And there are various routes is that if you do tasks that require box, you produce buildings that are to that point. What isn’t changing concentration, silence will always over-specified and create environments is the human brain, or at least very be better than any noise. That’s the that are too quiet. On one building slowly, and also the movement of way it is. But are we really doing that I worked on, in order to get another sound in air and the way it reacts to much focussed work anymore? BREEAM point we needed to materials. It may not be convenient introduce white noise. Absolutely crazy: for people who want to push things Jane Stead There’s a particularly a system above the ceiling to create in a different direction, but there interesting relationship between the noise because the office floor was too are times when you can’t do certain workplace and education sectors at quiet, using power to get a BREEAM things, because they will never work. ORMS. My focus on the workplace point. Those who don’t understand Open-plan classrooms don’t work. is in understanding demand and the science will always over-specify. Even the best examples are terrible. relating that to building supply. I have For a margin of safety they’ll say, ‘Yes, a particular interest in research and in I need 45dB, I need all the bells and TL But there are the choices you make developing workplace strategies. Before whistles’ in case they’re shot down later. about what type of space you need. ORMS I was at DEGW, where the For the past 20 years Derwent Historically, in office planning, there’s focus is on measuring the performance has been able to fund its own a big polarisation between open-plan of spaces and organisations. developments and take risks. In each and acoustically secure spaces. But Open-plan working environments building, we’ve tried to push the there is a place for something in the aren’t killing productivity. They actually boundaries because we think that’s middle which is an opportunity for support and increase it and research what our occupier market wants. No design, productivity, specification, undertaken with GSK about four one’s telling us for sure and sometimes architecture and everything else. years ago supports this. When they reshuffled their R&D department, they opened up the office for senior members to sit with their teams. There was a 41 per cent increase in their products’ speed to market. Just putting people into an open-plan environment, Clockwise from giving everybody a desk and some top left Tom Lloyd, breakout space, isn’t the answer. Pearson Lloyd There has to be engagement with Design and Sharon the client to define their objectives Baker, Saint-Gobain and match them with the space. Ecophon; Russell Richardson, RBA RR The issue with open-plan is Acoustics and always that there’s a compromise. The Benjamin Lesser, skill is asking the correct questions Derwent London; and getting clients to write to you Lesser and Nic to confirm, so you have a piece Crawley, AHMM; of paper at the end. Once you’ve Felix Mara, The AJ 48 theaj.co.uk 15.11.12 BL Some lawyers are making the An acoustic engineer I once worked transition towards open-plan, but An oﬃce where you feel with was talking about having a ‘lively with breakout and meeting rooms. sound’ and the ‘correct mix of hard And these are lawyers, who have you have to put earphones and soft’, and all that. at kind of private clients and sometimes conﬂicts on is a failure conversation needs to be more a part of interest, but they are dealing of the everyday language of design. with it on an open-plan ﬂoor plate because they’re ﬁnding their day is RC-L e mix of people you RR It’s diﬃcult to translate between more enjoyable. is is a sector that ask is also critical, because they technical and creative disciplines, but is incredibly traditional, but times perform diﬀerent activities. there are tools available to us. We can have moved on and even the older do auralisation, so that you can listen to generation are seeing the beneﬁts. TL Two or three years ago the what sound might be like in a building, conversation was all about the fact that giving basic audio demos to architects RC-L You can make sure early on you were at your desk and then you to assess absorption in spaces where that sound does not propagate or go could go somewhere to collaborate. there’s a particular degree of absorption. from work group to work group and Breakout isn’t collaboration space. It’s It’s a language that others understand keep a low radius of sound spreading. an old fashioned idea about putting and I accept that when presenting coloured fabric in spaces. It doesn’t numbers and graphs and talking about SB We’ve also started talking really function as relaxation or a work reverberation times and speech index, about acoustic etiquette in oﬃces. space. But now it’s ﬂipping towards the best you can say is, ‘We’ve complied Do people understand where an arrangement where collaboration with the Building Regs and resolved personal calls are appropriate? space is your work space and you go the guidance.’ But at no point are you somewhere else to concentrate. actually imparting an understanding. BL I’ve noticed over the past three or four years that if you go out at DF Is there an age dimension here? FM One thing that’s come across very lunch break, everybody’s on their When I was younger I listened to strongly is the value of experience and phone having private conversations. music while I was working, but now I an empirical approach to design. Are e public realm has become private like silence. Am I alone, or should you there any other conclusions to discuss? space because you can just chat consider that not everyone is young? away. No one’s really listening so NC An important consideration is behaviour does change. e way we RR An oﬃce where you feel you have building services and whether we’re work nowadays is predominantly to put earphones on is a failure. If naturally ventilating spaces. How that through a screen. So we need a bit it’s an occasional thing where I need eﬀects the internal environment is a more life in our oﬃces. It’s too quiet, to concentrate, that’s ﬁne, but if I big issue. What modiﬁcations will we so you try and lighten things with need to remove myself from the rest make in 30 years’ time when the street stuﬀ that goes on and you make of my team and put headphones on, outside doesn’t have noisy cars on it? spaces where you can have informal there’s something wrong. One of the meetings because it adds a buzz. great strengths of open-plan oﬃces BL If you design intelligently, you is the ability to collaborate, but if can have the best of both worlds: a FM If we could go back to these you’re removing yourself from that densely occupied building that can be survey ﬁndings provided by Ecophon, environment, you’re not doing that. naturally ventilated for most of the which indicated that 54 per cent of year. e design end of the industry is oﬃce workers think their acoustic NC e only thing a company exists to trying to create working environments environment makes it diﬃcult to do is make money, retain staﬀ, reduce that are about people, not pounds carry out their work, is it possible illness and stress levels and increase and pence. Occupiers have come that the problem is with people’s productivity – anything to help the to realise that productivity drives a perceptions of their environment, person at the desk. Good oﬃce design knowledge business, which is what or are they being bullied into can massively improve productivity the majority of businesses are. I’d say something they don’t want? and that’s too infrequently recognised. oﬃce design isn’t killing productivity. Many thanks to It’s very much the reverse. I RR Maybe half the problem TL It feels that the conversation for Saint-Gobain Ecophon with these surveys is that people the industry is a technical one that for organising and have never considered it and then needs to be demystiﬁed. ere is a role taking part in the somebody asks them a question. to educate or to have a conversation. debate. ecophon.com . .
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