Monday 29 Jul 2013

Does effective architecture boost office productivity?

With the Buro Happold Effectiveness in Architecture Award currently open, we set out to discover which architectural trends affect the commercial sector at office level. The days of individual offices are over, with open plan ‘non-territorial’ workplaces the modern norm. Early birds claim the most coveted ‘hot desks’ in compressed, more economic workspaces. But is this conducive to productivity?

There is no shortage of reports on the negative impact of open-plan offices. Studies show that noise and lack of privacy increase stress and disruption. This is often severe, with some 54% of workers citing the acoustic environment of their offices as an obstacle to efficient work.

Indeed, noisy colleagues are a main gripe in the office, with studies showing that the inclusion of background noises such as sneezing, eating or loud phone calls causes efficiency to diminish by 10-20%. Loudness is not the main problem here, but unpredictability. Our brains are finely tuned and alert to unexpected and irregular noises as an early warning system, which disrupts our thought processes.

This is not helped by the fact that architects seem to be enamoured with hard, flat materials like glass, steel and concrete, which efficiently reflect ambient noise back into the office. The trends for endless internal windows and plasterboard ceilings, or cheap ceiling tiles - which possess no acoustic properties whatsoever - accentuate the problem.

The other extreme - an office where you could hear a pin drop - can be intimidating. So is it possible to screen these noises out? Some offices have experimented with the use of recorded, ear-pleasing natural noises such as birdsong and running water to mask noisy colleagues and increase effectiveness.

Dr Jane Carstairs, an Occupational Psychologist at the University of Wolverhampton, agrees that saving on space and rent with open-plan ‘non-territorial’ offices can pose something of a false economy, as the stress and disturbances caused by non-personalised workspaces can lead to drops in productivity, or even force employees to search for work elsewhere.

Dr Carstairs states: “Having your own space allows people to gain control within that small environment and personalise it with pictures and little things that define their identity. The threats to that of the non-territorial office can result in a lack of motivation and even stress.

“There have been some studies that suggest people find working without the ability to personalise their space quite a stressful event. This emphasises how important perceived control is in being able to cope with stress.

“The worst case scenario is that it could lead to people having time off work. If there is a reduction in people’s satisfaction with the environment and job then that can impact on people’s commitment to the organisation. In extreme cases they might find a job elsewhere.”

As architect Alexi Marmot suggests, most contemporary offices are centred on activity-based working, and it follows that workers should migrate to the space appropriate for the task they are tackling at the time. This spatially flexible approach could provide a solution to the problem of noise.

While it can be argued that non-territorial, ‘wacky’ offices - perhaps complete with fire station poles and ball pits - can enhance creativity and informal collaboration, there is no evidence to support this. It may also be true that these modern, Shoreditch-style offices could be a source of distraction and anxiety for more ‘conventional’ workers.

One thing all research points towards is that daylight and natural, non-urban views are universally conducive to effectiveness and productivity. However, while architects are often blamed for the shortcomings of an office, the task of integrating psychological research and acoustic science with architectural practice is a tough one.

Throw into the mix that architects are often working ‘blind’, without knowledge of the office’s future inhabitants - not to mention the fact that most organisations don’t last as long as offices do - and the task of building a perfectly effective office is a tall order indeed.

Richard Greenan

The Early Bird Registration is closing for the Buro Happold Effectiveness in Architecture Award on Wednesday 31 July. Click here for more information.

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