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The Power of Office Design

Is design really a determining factor when it comes to joining a firm, or deciding whether to stay or go? Larissa Murphy has her say.

The Power of Office Design


June 20th, 2012

In the world of workplace design, designers often cite staff attraction and retention as one of the key benefits of the well designed modern office. Is this really a valid point to make? Does the design of an office really impact people’s decision on whether or not they are going to join a particular company? Or whether or not they stay with a particular company?


SAP’s breakout area is widely used by staff and their families

Countless workplace surveys on the best places to work cite things like ‘fun’ as the word most commonly used by employees and their bosses to describe the top 10 or 20 workplaces. ‘Fun’ has always apparently been a key ‘driver’ in what constitutes a better workplace.

Many will use Google as a perfect example of a company that provides a great workplace for their employees. Google were one of the pioneers of the fun office, with many companies taking their lead and trying to make the workplace a more fun and engaging environment. The philosophy behind this is that if the working environment is a comfortable and enjoyable place to be it will make it difficult for people to want to leave. In surveys carried out in the US in 2009 Google ranked 4th in terms of the top 100 companies people wanted to work for, so clearly they are doing well at attracting staff but they were not even in the top 25 for retaining staff. On further investigation of the reasons why Google is considered an attractive employer, none relate to the working environment, all relate to the salaries, bonuses, rewards, and perks including free food and laundry.


SAP’s cafeteria is often used by staff on the weekends as they frequently bring their families to work

When it comes to staff retention the organisations with the lowest staff turnover tend to be in the public sector. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the US indicates that the volume of staff who quit in the public sector is far less than that in the private sector. Between 2001 and 2009 staff turnover in the public sector was about one third of the rate of that in the private sector yet how many public sector workplaces offer fun, non-hierarchical workplaces with slides, bean bags, table football and flexible working? Indeed, recent research by property company Goodman into what workers want found only 3% thought that slides between floors were the future, one in eight (12%) preferred sleep pods and nearly four in ten (38%) just wanted a better coffee machine.



At Accenture, staff are mobile and frequently work from home, so the aim was to create an ambiance that feels like an extension of home where people feel comfortable

It would seem that a fun and quirky workplace design has very little impact on staff attraction or retention. As designers we need to be more understanding and listen to what employees actually want. It has been found in research undertaken by PRISM and the University of Exeter that ‘enriched’ work environments improve productivity by around 17%. Not just that, but giving office workers a say in the design of their workspace increased productivity by 32%.


Accenture: A space to unwind

So while the design of a workplace cannot attract new staff or help keep existing staff, what it can offer is an increase in productivity. In a survey carried out by Ambius in 2009, 62% of US workers said they would be more motivated if their employers made an effort to improve workplace surroundings. In the private sector in the US staff work on average 12% longer hours than their public sector counterparts and on an hour-for-hour basis they are more productive. What most companies are discovering is that as people spend more and more time at work what they really want is a functional place, that is comfortable, where they can be themselves… People want to live at work. A result that is not surprising if they are spending over half their time or lives at work. Results consistently showed that the more people (a) identified with and (b) reflected their own identities within their office spaces, the happier and more motivated they were in their jobs. They felt physically more comfortable at work, identified more with their employers, and felt more positive about their jobs in general.


At Citrix, staff notice boards are distributed throughout the space for the teams to create personalisd displays 

Many businesses are driven by financial pressure to get more into their offices and cut expenditure on office space. Policies such as mobile working, and activity based working involving high desk sharing (where personal / work effects are stored in ‘lockers’) ratios are becoming more popular. While this approach can work for companies whose workforce is more mobile and empowered, it doesn’t always work for everyone. Craig Knight of PRISM states that “if employees can realise something of their own identity in their own space that all changes and people report being happier at work, more engaged with their employer, and are visibly more effective in doing their jobs”. If people are happy and feel effective at their job are they as likely to quit? This can be the only direct relationship between office design and retention and the important aspect of this is employee engagement in the workplace design.


At Exact Target, all walls are lined with orange writable walls, allowing staff to personalise the space

Top image: SAP’s garden provides a reflexology walk and a relaxing environment that promotes staff wellbeing

Larissa Murphy is the Director of HBO+EMTB.

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