Office design killing productivity by andinovajah



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                                                                                                         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
                                                                                           Benjamin Lesser,        is very much affected
over the years. It’s important that          to and they don’t admit to it.
                                                                                           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
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
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
 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                                                                                                                                  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.

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