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The Secrets of Office Design
David Creelman

If you ever want to spark an interesting conversation with an intelligent person ask them about office design. Many people know from their own experience that the office environment has an impact on their effectiveness. They wonder about how much more they could achieve if conditions were ideal.

The first thing you may ask is "What does this have to do with HR?" And indeed, this is the problem with the whole topic. It doesn't fall neatly into any one department except maybe facilities management. But facilities management is typically more concerned with cost and administration rather than the social and physiological impact of the workspace on knowledge workers. My view is that as soon as you are talking about social and psychological issues you are talking about HR. There is a compensation department and a training department, perhaps there should be an office design department as well. Since it is unlikely that you have the budget for that, it would be a good idea to have a least one person develop expertise in this area.

I'm not suggesting that HR start saying, "Let's change the layout of the IT department." This sort of change must be lead by line management. But when the IT manager is struggling with productivity or creativity or retention, HR should be able to talk knowledgably about how office design might help.

There are many different aspects to office design. One of the most important is how office layout affects social interactions. You can read about this topic in The Social Life of Information by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid. The most important idea is that people need to be physically close together to share ideas. A very simple, but very important, example of this is that in call centres, workers should have long phone cords. Now, I'll bet you have never considered long phone cords to be part of HR but they are. When a call centre worker has a long phone cord they can wheel away from their screen to help a co-worker. For this to work best, inexperienced employees should be sitting near ('near' meaning within the length of a long phone cord) an experienced employee. This facilitates a kind of on the job training that is far more effective than most classroom learning.

The other major social aspect is that knowledge workers need to bump into each other in casual circumstances to share ideas. Many high-tech companies have adopted these ideas and designed coffee lounges with whiteboards to encourage unstructured meetings over coffee. When Ron Dembo, who is now CEO of Zerofootprint, launched his previous company Algorithmics he insisted on building a spiral staircase to join all seven floors. Beside the staircase there were places where people could stand and have coffee. It was a battle to get that kind of investment since obviously in the early days of a company cash flow is tight, but it created an enormous amount of informal collaboration.

On the psychological side the right kind of working environment can facilitate concentration and creativity. In fact, some would argue that it's not so much psychological and physiological. Leif Edvinsson, famed for his work on intellectual capital, is interested in how certain frequencies of sound relax us. He has even looked at the idea of a sound shower—that will bathe knowledge workers in soothing sounds. The architect Christopher Alexander, one of the greatest thinkers alive today, has argued that the impact of beautiful, living spaces is not just psychological but physical, and essential to our well-being.

In the core HR areas like compensation, training or recruitment I can advise you on some specific things to do. In this new area I’m afraid I can't do much more than intrigue you with possibilities. However, the newness of this area should appeal to HR leaders. We are unlikely to get a competitive advantage from a well-known subject compensation. We are more likely to make a big difference for our companies if we pioneer new topics like office design. It's a subject worthy of your attention.

David Creelman is CEO of Creelman Research providing writing, research and commentary on human capital management. He works with a variety of academics, think tanks, consultancies and HR vendors in the US, Japan, Canada and China.


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Number of responses: 4

Send us your results
By:Lisette van Hulst
Date:28-07-2006
Responses:Klaas-Pieter, and anyone else who is doing research on the effects of office design, let me know your results so we may publish them in Pi Project & Interieur. Our magazine reaches architects and interior architects in Begium and the Netherlands. You can send your press information to redactie.pi@interieur.net.

And regarding Call Centres... did you know there is one in Switzerland where the ceiling consists of a lighted glas pane decorated with a blue summer sky with a few white clouds? I bet that affects the people working there in some way...
 
Editor of Pi Project & Interior, Amsterdam
By:Lisette van Hulst
Date:26-07-2006
Responses:Dear Sir,

As an editor of a Dutch magazine on contract interiors, I'm very pleased to note that you advocate the importance of Office Design in terms of HR-management. Many projects we present in our glossy magazine involve interior design for offices, and time and again we speak to facility managers and employees who are so impressed by the improvement of their working environment.
Up to now, however, we did not actually consider that HR-managers might perhaps also be interested to read about the actual positive effects of a well designed office, in terms of employee satisfaction, productivity and creativity. So let me just take this opportunity to mention a few.

You refer to soothing sounds as a means to facilitate concentration and creativity. Also, the reverse is true: elimination of annoying noise by effective acoustic facilities helps people concentrate a lot better. Moreover, research indicates that the way a room is lit affects the energy level of its occupants. Even the colour of the walls and furniture influences not only our moods, but also our intellectual activity. There are already conference rooms that allow the colour of the room to change, depending on the nature of the conference: blue for detached thinking sessions, red for short decision making meetings, e.d.


It is not just a luxury development, by the way. The major change in the way people work, with al the benefits of ICT equipment, has changed the functional requirements of the working environment. The traditional office space no longer meets those requirements.
Adapting the office to the modern way of working is not just a matter of transforming fixed workplaces into flexible workplaces, although that already can lead to considerable cost reduction and increase in productivity. It is also a matter of offering sufficient compensation for the increase in concentrated intellectual work.
Most people are not aware that intense intellectual effort takes a lot of physical energy, especially if it continues over a long period of time. Previously, that intellectual concentration was interrupted frequently by moments of relaxation, because people had to go to another room in order to speak to a collegue or to print a text etc. In the modern office, those interruptions by physical exercise and change of activity are more and more eliminated.
As a result, the intellectual effort tends to go on with great intensity all day long. That is why the design of the office environment becomes so important: If people are expected to perform on such a high level of productivity all day long, anything that can preserve and restore their physical and mental energy is a worthwhile investment in the continuity of the company's level of performance.
So it is important to investigate what preserves and increases people's energy level, but it should not be a short term overexiting stimulus because that wil drain them even more in the long run. Anything, from comfortable chairs and harmonious colours to beautifully designed spaces and objects can improve the employees' sense of well-being. In Holland, there is even a 'light' guru who explains that people get tired and hungry (and therefore tend to snack during work!) if the room is lit in the wrong way. During the day, people should work in an office where the lightest areas are high up in the room, just like our natural environment where the sky is light during the day. So the light should not be reflected downward onto the table top, like it usually is, but up-wards, against a white ceiling.

A simple, low cost change like this can already drastically improve the energy level of people working in that room. And this is just one small example. There is a whole world of other 'secrets' to be discoverd in the area of 'office design'.
 
The secrets of office design
By:klaas-pieter
Date:26-07-2006
Responses:For me this article was striking for i am doing research for my HRM master thesis on the subject of office design as well. Although there's still a lot of scepsis about the effects of the physical environment on knowledge worker's productivity there's growing evidence that investing in work environments in which people feel in control and derive pleasure from is beneficial to creativity and (so) knowledge worker productivity (Frederickson, Positive Psychology).
In an experiment we are trying to dismantle which office design factors are important for knowledge worker creativity and productivity. With aid of animated pictures, of the 'typical' academic researchers' work environment, that are each varied on preselected factors, we hope to get significant results on the influence of certain design factors by respondents valuing the animated pictures on their pleasure and well being-eliciting capacity.
 
zinvol maar gedateerd
By:John Vrakking
Date:26-07-2006
Responses:Creelman schopt de bal nog maar eens terug in het veld: wie gaat er nou eigenlijk over de productiviteit van een afdeling en hoe wordt dat beïnvloed? Hij lijkt een aanzet te willen geven en je vooral uit te nodigen op zijn website te kijken (doen: www.creelmanresearch.com ). Kan met toch niet aan de indruk onttrekken dat het een opgekookt komkommer-artikel is: welke call-center medewerker zit er tegenwoordig nog aan een draadje of moet van zijn werkplek af om bij iemand anders op een scherm te kijken?
 


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Readers' responses

Send us your results
Klaas-Pieter, and anyone else who is doing research on the effects of office design, let me know you...
Lisette van Hulst
Editor of Pi Project & Interior, Amsterdam
Dear Sir, As an editor of a Dutch magazine on contract interiors, I'm very pleased to note that yo...
Lisette van Hulst
The secrets of office design
For me this article was striking for i am doing research for my HRM master thesis on the subject of ...
klaas-pieter
zinvol maar gedateerd
Creelman schopt de bal nog maar eens terug in het veld: wie gaat er nou eigenlijk over de productivi...
John Vrakking
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