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Roundtable: Is office design killing productivity?

A panel of office design experts, chaired by AJ technical editor Felix Mara and invited by Saint-Gobain Ecophon, discuss the situation facing office workers today

The media is full of stories about the detrimental impact of open-plan offices. Studies cite stress, disruption and lack of privacy and research indicates that excessive noise in the office severely reduces productivity, while 54% of office workers think the acoustic environment in their office makes it difficult to work. But are open-plan offices killing productivity or improving collaboration?

Felix Mara Today we’re going to talk about the impact of office design on productivity, focussing mainly on acoustics, but also taking a holistic view. We’ll discuss the current state of play, then compare the acoustic design of other building types and conclude with possible solutions. Let’s start by introducing ourselves, saying how office acoustics relates to our work.

Russell Richardson More and more, we’re getting involved in sorting out offices that don’t work, rather than getting in at the early stages to provide offices that do: in the past year the ratio has been at least three to one. To improve the office environment, this might involve sound insulation and layout or helping people improve building services. Office design is killing productivity, but there’s no paradigm for good or bad offices.

Benjamin Lesser Derwent is an investment company with about five million square metres of commercial buildings, with a pipeline for developing existing stock or acquiring new. We started by converting industrial buildings into workplaces. We’ve taken early 20th century buildings and made use of attributes such as large volumes, robust materials and exposed services.
Acoustics are part of this mix, but we find they are low in people’s priorities. We’ve gone a long way from traditional cellular office environments; people enjoy socialising while they work and open-plan environments suit today’s focus on collaboration.

Nic Crawley We work across all sectors, doing a lot of education, healthcare, offices and housing and we’ve enjoyed working with Derwent over the years. It’s important that people can create space without taking out piles of fittings and partitions; I’m not sure if we’ve ever put a suspended ceiling in an office. So for the warehouse, media-type office, the funky, edgy space, that’s what we do. And rather than killing productivity, I agree with Benjamin, people are keen to work in environments completely differentto those of the past. Office design has increased productivity massively.

But internal environments have significant acoustic issues. Ecophon’s survey of staff revealed 17 per cent of people say the environment is poor. Not good, but not a huge number. 51 per cent say things are OK and 27 per cent say it’s good. It’s something we look at on each project. We’re finding that as we move away from conventional ways of servicing buildings, background noise becomes an issue and has a masking effect, so we’re thinking about displacement, fan coils and natural ventilation.

David Frise The AIS represents the fit-out end of the industry. In office acoustics, there isn’t a simple yes or no. It’s more subtle, we don’t just conclude, ‘Yes, it destroys productivity’, or ‘No, it doesn’t’. That’s mainly because most clients don’t specify many buildings in their life. They don’t know how to and they don’t admit to it.

I spent many years in M&E, where clients don’t value it until they haven’t got it. The same is true of acoustics. If you ask clients to invest in proper acoustics in their offices most would say, ‘I’d rather have this funky bit of furniture so you spend all your time rectifying the aftermath. Another big issue in big cities is air quality. In the future you’ll have to seal buildings and filter air more, which will affect acoustics and productivity.

Tom Lloyd We started primarily as furniture designers and now work in research and strategy, looking at different types of shared space, including offices. We’re interested in how people interact with strangers or colleagues. Efficiency and technology have led to more open-plan working. Flat screens mean smaller desks, so you don’t need corners and you can now get eight people on to a bench rather than having an 1,800 x 1,800 ‘L-shape’ from the 80s. We’ve got to the point now where the bench is a common part of development, specification and design. There’s something to be said for the fact that people need big, open-plan, noisy spaces, that are great for ‘collaboration’, but these don’t support focus, concentration, training and video conferencing.

Sharon Baker Along with acoustic suspended ceilings, we also manufacture a lot of funkier, high-end acoustic solutions. We’re aiming for a more holistic view, looking beyond office acoustics. We often get called in with architects, clients and developers, as consultants. So we try and look at what’s going on in individual spaces; the people, the activities and the places.

We have a conceptual team looking at what’s up-and-coming in offices. For example, we’ve been involved with Google in Ireland. These are big investors who take a lot of notice of what’s happening in their buildings. The message we’re trying to push is at the next step down, where there’s less investment. Bad acoustic environments can hinder productivity, although I don’t disagree with open-plan environments, as long as they’re good acoustically or there are breakout spaces.

Ricardo Canto-Leyton My job is to explain the complex matter of acoustics in a simple way. I work with research communities to find ways to measure what people feel in offices.

The way people react is very much affected by acoustics. The only sense we have while we’re asleep is hearing. If you hear a sound or stop hearing it, you wake up. Acoustic design is often misinterpreted as being solely aimed at producing quiet zones.

Productivity in buildings is complex and hard to assess. What we do know is that if you do tasks that require concentration, silence will always be better than any noise. That’s the way it is. But are we really doing that much focussed work anymore?

Jane Stead There’s a particularly interesting relationship between the workplace and education sectors at ORMS. My focus on the workplace is in understanding demand and relating that to building supply. I have a particular interest in research and in developing workplace strategies. Before ORMS I was at DEGW, where the focus is on measuring the performance of spaces and organisations.

Open-plan working environments aren’t killing productivity. They actually support and increase it and research undertaken with GSK about four years ago supports this. When they reshuffled their R&D department, they opened up the office for senior members to sit with their teams. There was a 41 per cent increase in their products’ speed to market. Just putting people into an open-plan environment, giving everybody a desk and some breakout space, isn’t the answer. There has to be engagement with the client to define their objectives and match them with the space.

RR The issue with open-plan is always that there’s a compromise. The skill is asking the correct questions and getting clients to write to you to confirm, so you have a piece of paper at the end. Once you’ve done that, you stand a chance of making it work and it can be made to work very well, but it also has the potential to murder productivity.

FM Do you think following standards and codes might help with that briefing process?

BL There’s definitely a problem where codes of best practice don’t reflect the way we work. And therefore there’s always a lag time, so on an institutional level where you’ve got to tick every box, you produce buildings that are over-specified and create environments that are too quiet. On one building I worked on, in order to get another BREEAM point we needed to introduce white noise. Absolutely crazy: a system above the ceiling to create noise because the office floor was too quiet, using power to get a BREEAM point. Those who don’t understand the science will always over-specify. For a margin of safety they’ll say, ‘Yes, I need 45dB, I need all the bells and whistles’ in case they’re shot down later.

For the past 20 years Derwent has been able to fund its own developments and take risks. In each building, we’ve tried to push the boundaries because we think that’s what our occupier market wants. No one’s telling us for sure and sometimes we go against guidance. If that’s a success, then in the next building we push the boundaries a little bit further, but we always research our target occupier market thoroughly.

RC-L It’s important that we compare the same things and speak the same language so that it doesn’t depend on which consultants you speak to. Then everyone can go for the same acoustic quality, the same definition.

RR And there are various routes to that point. What isn’t changing is the human brain, or at least very slowly, and also the movement of sound in air and the way it reacts to materials. It may not be convenient for people who want to push things in a different direction, but there are times when you can’t do certain things, because they will never work. Open-plan classrooms don’t work. Even the best examples are terrible.

TL But there are the choices you make about what type of space you need. Historically, in office planning, there’s a big polarisation between open-plan and acoustically secure spaces. But there is a place for something in the middle which is an opportunity for design, productivity, specification, architecture and everything else.

BL Some lawyers are making the transition towards open-plan, but with breakout and meeting rooms. And these are lawyers, who have private clients and sometimes conflicts of interest, but they are dealing with it on an open-plan floor plate because they’re finding their day is more enjoyable. This is a sector that is incredibly traditional, but times have moved on and even the older generation are seeing the benefits.

RC-L You can make sure early on that sound does not propagate or go from work group to work group and keep a low radius of sound spreading.

SB We’ve also started talking about acoustic etiquette in offices. Do people understand where personal calls are appropriate?
BL I’ve noticed over the past three or four years that if you go out at lunch break, everybody’s on their phone having private conversations. The public realm has become private space because you can just chat away. No one’s really listening so behaviour does change. The way we work nowadays is predominantly through a screen. So we need a bit more life in our offices. It’s too quiet, so you try and lighten things with stuff that goes on and you make spaces where you can have informal meetings because it adds a buzz.

FM If we could go back to these survey findings provided by Ecophon, which indicated that 54 per cent of office workers think their acoustic environment makes it difficult to carry out their work, is it possible that the problem is with people’s perceptions of their environment, or are they being bullied into something they don’t want?

RR Maybe half the problem with these surveys is that people have never considered it and then somebody asks them a question.

RC-L The mix of people you ask is also critical, because they perform different activities.

TL Two or three years ago the conversation was all about the fact that you were at your desk and then you could go somewhere to collaborate. Breakout isn’t collaboration space. It’s an old fashioned idea about putting coloured fabric in spaces. It doesn’t really function as relaxation or a work space. But now it’s flipping towards an arrangement where collaboration space is your work space and you go somewhere else to concentrate.

DF Is there an age dimension here? When I was younger I listened to music while I was working, but now I like silence. Am I alone, or should you consider that not everyone is young?

RR An office where you feel you have to put earphones on is a failure. If it’s an occasional thing where I need to concentrate, that’s fine, but if I need to remove myself from the rest of my team and put headphones on, there’s something wrong. One of the great strengths of open-plan offices is the ability to collaborate, but if you’re removing yourself from that environment, you’re not doing that.

NC The only thing a company exists to do is make money, retain staff, reduce illness and stress levels and increase productivity - anything to help the person at the desk. Good office design can massively improve productivity and that’s too infrequently recognised.

TL It feels that the conversation for the industry is a technical one that needs to be demystified. There is a role to educate or to have a conversation. An acoustic engineer I once worked with was talking about having a ‘lively sound’ and the ‘correct mix of hard and soft’, and all that. That kind of conversation needs to be more a part of the everyday language of design.

RR It’s difficult to translate between technical and creative disciplines, but there are tools available to us. We can do auralisation, so that you can listen to what sound might be like in a building, giving basic audio demos to architects to assess absorption in spaces where there’s a particular degree of absorption. It’s a language that others understand and I accept that when presenting numbers and graphs and talking about reverberation times and speech index, the best you can say is, ‘We’ve complied with the Building Regs and resolved the guidance.’ But at no point are you actually imparting an understanding.

FM One thing that’s come across very strongly is the value of experience and an empirical approach to design. Are there any other conclusions to discuss?

NC An important consideration is building services and whether we’re naturally ventilating spaces. How that effects the internal environment is a big issue. What modifications will we make in 30 years’ time when the street outside doesn’t have noisy cars on it?

BL If you design intelligently, you can have the best of both worlds: a densely occupied building that can be naturally ventilated for most of the year. The design end of the industry is trying to create working environments that are about people, not pounds and pence. Occupiers have come to realise that productivity drives a knowledge business, which is what the majority of businesses are. I’d say office design isn’t killing productivity. It’s very much the reverse.

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