A buzzword in architectural circles, space efficiency aims to make buildings simultaneously more productive as well as healthier and more sustainable workplaces. Numerous reports and studies of the highest standards such as The Lessman Index and Steelcase have in the past couple of years engaged with the important relationship of physical space and business performance. Detecting flaws in how space has commonly been approached in the past, and finding how new technologies and psychology insights may contribute to enhancing functionality and ultimately productivity, are the primary concerns when undertaking spatial planning.
Traditionally, developers and owners perceive spatial planning as being little more than the use of as much floor space as possible for productive purposes in order to increase the return on their investment. It is thought that an effective spatial planning strategy should aim at achieving a 75-85% return (depending on the building style and its height). When assessing the space efficiency of a plan however, other factors beyond real estate optimisation ought to be taken into consideration otherwise there’s the risk of compromising workers’ wellbeing at work. It is crucial that further efforts are made to ensure offices foster employee engagement, are flexible to future purposes and capable of saving energy, construction materials and embodied carbon while also remaining cost-effective.
Offices that increase wellbeing at work
While the features of an office will vary depending on the type of organization, it’s size, culture or activity (amongst many other factors); successful office spaces often have common characteristics. Many of these are cultivated through the application of a considered space efficiency plan.
A study by the ‘UK Higher Education Space Management Group’ titled “Promoting space efficiency in building design” (2006) established there is much more to consider in achieving space efficiency besides the ratio of rentable space over total available space. Some of the key actions highlighted include: matching new uses to the existing form in refurbishment projects; specifying design features that allows flexibility in activities within the same space; and optimising furniture sizes for effective work.
As a result of the sweeping Silicon Valley movement, open-plan office layouts, mobile and collaborative workspaces have all become popular pathways for nurturing desirable workplaces. While enthusiastic debate remains regarding whether an open-plan office layout is the best approach for cultivating sustainable workplaces, current studies suggest that those companies who adopt open spaces, minimizing the cost of office fixtures and fittings in the process, are more often topping the rankings on employee satisfaction surveys. Not only that, but companies with a collaborative culture and a spacial design that reflects this can be around 40% more productive than the average company according to consulting firm Bain & Company. There is nevertheless contradictory data suggesting the highest performing office layouts are those in which individuals in leadership positions have the use of private workspaces at their disposal. This therefore leads us to the importance of considering multiple factors when addressing the complexity of spatial planning and defining what makes a great sustainable workplace.
An holistic approach to sustainable workplaces
If friendlier workplaces are the key to increasing happiness and reducing stress among workers, it is reasonable then to believe that the maximization of space efficiency should not be limited to the spaces traditionally viewed as having a direct impact on workers’ productivity. Communal spaces such as kitchens and bathrooms, and functional spaces such as maintenance and server rooms are as much in need of targeted space efficiency. Increases in productivity will also not come as a result of maximizing the number of workspaces and stacking workers in small desks, but rather as a result of improving employee wellbeing and workplace satisfaction. This can only be put into practice appropriately if what we know about efficient design is complemented by insights from other fields of knowledge. Psychologist Dr. Christian Jarrett discusses the emotional, behavioural and cognitive impact of each individual worker having the power and flexibility to contribute to the organisation of his workspace. The greatest flaws of open-spaces are after all, the noise, lack of privacy and other distractions that come with the lack of control intrinsic to this type of office layout.
Other considerations that are as important as design when undertaking a comprehensive understanding of space efficiency include exposure to natural light, ergonomy and up-to-date technology. Even though an investment in these things may come at a cost to spatial efficiency and appear frivolous at first glance, they are very much necessary if we are aiming to create productive human spaces. If the stress and sleep-deprivation epidemia is to be appropriately tackled in the office for instance, windowless spaces are a no-go. If basic considerations related to the comfort of chairs, the height of computer screens and the quality of air conditioners and thermostats are not taken into account either, it has to be asked whether the space truly is conductive to improving work performance and wellbeing at work. Likewise, it is hard to believe that spatial planning can be anything but inefficient if the technology is out of date, Wi-Fi is slow, IT safety is mediocre and appropriate backup systems are non-existent. A designer that acknowledges the importance of these factors and knows how to adjust to contextual factors, and the surrounding natural world in particular, is much more likely to design sustainable workplaces.
The harmful risks of poor spatial planning
An obsessive pursuit for space efficiency can be counterproductive and risks alienating users. Not all measures taken in the name of space efficiency after all necessarily contribute to the creation of a pleasant and more productive workplace. Indeed they may even prove detrimental. Even though the established open-plan culture remains popular in workplaces throughout the UK, it has proven that this is not a one size fits all office layout. There are numerous accounts of decreasing employee performance, job satisfaction and, ultimately, productivity, as the result of its adoption. According to the latest data, badly designed open-plan environments could be negatively affecting up to 8 million workers wellbeing at work in the UK alone.
It is essential then that a balance between space efficiency, wellness and aesthetics is reached. The pursuit of such equilibrium leads to what the influential American magazine ‘Entrepreneur’ labelled as “Balanced Workplaces”. The creation of a range of spaces that allow employees to work more effectively and flexibly use the available workspace seems like the logical approach to minimise the challenges raised by privacy and noise. In other words, the answer to how space efficiency may better enhance the physical, emotional and cognitive wellbeing of the users through design might be in finding a balance between the established open-plan layout (usually dedicated to the lower levels of the organisation), private offices (traditionally only at the disposal of the leadership positions), dedicated common areas such as meeting rooms, and non-related zones like resting areas. The explanation behind this idea is simple: happier and less stressed employees work better, contribute to the materialisation of sustainable workplaces and therefore lead to enhanced productivity.
Many architectural features such as atriums, round layouts and furniture, as well as green spaces may reduce overall space efficiency, yet still add value. This doesn’t make them by any means worthless additions to projects. The challenge is in keeping a dynamic spatial planning approach that recognises the implications of each decision; one that measures its benefits and drawbacks so to reach a balance that may satisfy all stakeholders. By integrating space efficiency in offices without being guided by any kind of orthodoxy, workplaces are sure to become more conducive to the improvement of wellbeing at work, and business productivity, in turn facilitating more quality design and higher client satisfaction.
Article courtesy of RMJM Architects