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Productivity and Office Design: Beyond Feng Shui

Imagine the typical office: drab dècor, boring color scheme, sterile lighting. It’s not a pretty picture. Nor is it a productive one, at least according to a recent survey conducted by Gensler, an architecture and design firm. The study found that the average U.S. employee felt that he or she would be 21 percent more productive given a better working environment. All told, the study estimates that poor workplace design costs U.S. businesses $330 billion in lost productivity per year.

The link between the working environment and productivity, of course, isn’t a new development. Feng shui, an ancient Chinese philosophy that practices harmonious design, briefly became popular in the 90s, with some companies hiring high-priced consultants to ensure that their office possessed “good energy flow.” On a less dubious note, companies have long sought to dress up their bland interiors with art, greenery or other cheery accessories. With good reason: according to a recent Texas A&M University study, workers generated as much as 15 percent more ideas when the work environment included flowers and other plants.

The Gensler survey, however, suggests that instead of merely decorating, companies should consider fundamentally rethinking the design of their workplace. The survey found that 90 percent of workers believe that better office design leads to better overall performance and gives the company a competitive advantage, and 90 percent of senior executives believed that a better physical working environment would have a positive impact on the bottom line.

“Instead of imposing this universal template of an eight-by-eight cube, we should be observing what people are doing in the office and why,” says Heidi Hendy, managing principal at commercial interior design and architecture firm H. Hendy Associates, which specializes in working with companies that are trying to integrate workplace design into their overall business model. “What do they do most? How could things be reconfigured so it would truly enhance the organization?”

Using a process based on the Cameron and Quinn model that defines four types of organizations—clan, market-focused, adhocracy or hierarchical—H. Hendy Associates develops a design solution that supports the organization’s strategy. The design firm has worked with such clients as Toyota, AT&T and Apple Computers.

A lack of understanding about the effects of workplace design is a common failing among organizations, says Hendy. For example, just as in retail, where a location next to a major highway is highly sought after, the routes through which traffic flows inside the office can be a strategic asset. “A lot of times, productivity has to do with understanding the migration patterns and how people walk through a space,” says Hendy. “Yet organizations often have the open conference area and team rooms shoved into the back corner, where they’re inaccessible and ineffective. Taking these team areas and putting them in the migration pattern enhances communication.”

The importance of office design in supporting teamwork is borne out in the Gensler survey, which found a link between the physical office and work processes such as innovation, collaboration and creativity. The survey found that two thirds of workers believe they are more efficient when they work closely with co-workers, but 30 percent of workers don’t think their current workspace promotes spontaneous interaction, collaboration, or cooperation and teamwork among colleagues and direct reports. Only 50 percent believe that their current workplace design encourages innovation and creativity.

Just as important as utilizing team areas, however, is creating a space where individual work can be conducted in peace and quiet. “People need to have areas both for open collaboration and individual work,” says Hendy. “We have a lot of clients that want to just put everybody in the open, but that’s not the way everybody works. Some people need small quiet rooms that can be scheduled for work requiring high levels of concentration, or quiet areas where conversations of any kind are discouraged so people won’t be distracted by chatter.” Toyota is one company that makes quiet rooms available for employees who need to escape the hubbub of the office.

One organization at the forefront of innovative workplace design is the U.S. General Services Administration, which oversees the day-to-day operations of government offices and facilities across the nation. The GSA’s Workplace 20/20 initiative is a far-reaching program that elevates design to a critical component of the workplace as a means of increasing productivity, enhancing collaboration and retaining skilled workers.

Hendy says that design will become increasingly important over the next five years as current trends affecting the workplace continue to evolve. Citing studies that show 8 percent of the workforce is expected to become virtual by 2011, for example, Hendy says that the office will look radically different as a result. “Meeting rooms which are more project-based are becoming more important,” Hendy says. “The old granite conference table that can’t be moved isn’t seen anymore.”