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Designing for productivity

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How is it possible to prove that good design can improve business productivity? A recent debate addressed the issue

Good design does improve productivity, but how do you prove the predicted business benefit to finance directors? This was the core of a recent debate held in London among leading experts, practitioners and academics.

It was hosted by the Building Research Establishment, which presented a draft report on the subject. Financed by the detr as part of its Sustainable Construction Business Plan, the report brings together existing research and asks: 'Is productivity still an issue?'

The answer must be 'never more so', in a world of ever-increasing competition. But how do you measure it, and indeed what is productivity? Measuring knowledge work - which is much of our current output - is quite different from measuring the manufacture of goods. 'Controlled subjectivity' seems the best available method, coupled with measuring reduced losses from staff turnover, absenteeism, stress, rsi, error rates, and down time.

Every time a staff member leaves and is replaced, the employer pays out about 75 per cent of a year's salary. So what can be done to reduce turnover? Job satisfaction, good relationships, salary and perks can help - but so too can a good place to work. Staff salaries amount to around 75 per cent of company expenditure, whereas buildings represent only 10 per cent. Designing or refitting a building to be better than average does not necessarily cost that much, but the advantages can be enormous. It does seem that occupant comfort correlates with occupant productivity.

In Edinburgh, a magazine distributor - John Menzies Wholesale - commissioned a building from Bennetts Associates and found that the atmosphere had totally changed. 'People arrive early, stay late and smile,' says strategic development manager David Morton. 'We don't need post-occupancy surveys to tell us that things are much better now.'

Pharmaceutical companies understand the importance of cross-team fertilisation. The breakthrough on the next wonder drug may come from a casual word over coffee. Glaxo Wellcome's r&d building at Stevenage was designed by Sheppard Robson to encourage interaction, with break-out areas central to the building. There is also a fine-art collection, which provides character and emphasis to the space, and helps orient the visitor in a rather complex building.

There are art works too at Addison Wesley Longman's new office at Harlow, designed by Conran Roche. The building also aims for energy efficiency, with windows that open (the feature that most staff voted for). Environmental care is increasingly on the main-board agenda. Customers prefer to buy from 'green' companies; and energy efficiency makes sound financial sense.

Moving or refurbishing an office gives an opportunity to redesign the business culture, allowing real, and profitable, business advances to be made. The design of the office can reinforce where your business is going, and where you want it to be tomorrow. New management initiatives can be developed and facilitated by the physical framework in which they take place.

New workways need newly designed workplaces, but to achieve this an effective overlap and interplay between management consultancy and building design is essential. Management must listen to staff, and involve operational and facilities management in the earliest strategic decisions. Ongoing partnerships must be developed among those responsible for funding, designing, constructing, managing and maintaining the premises.

Providers of offices need to listen to the customer, and understand that premises are no longer just a cost, but can add value to the bottom line. Occupiers' representatives often only lease (or build) once, so it is the property experts who should lead the way.

Finance directors will be asking questions about these new premises - but how can we ensure that the right questions are being asked? 'What will it cost?' is one mind-set; but another - and more useful approach - is: 'What will our business gain, not just this year but in five years to come?'

It is hard to prove quantitatively that good design increases productivity, but we can use our common sense and observe that having a contented workforce pays. We can use our eyes, noses and ears to remind us that we all feel good and function better with clean air, comfortable furniture and seamless telematics. We can believe in the benefits of a good work environment: hopefully the bre will help us to evaluate that before too long.

Santa Raymond is co-founder of src - workplace strategist, helping organisation fit new workplaces to new workways. With Roger Cunliffe, she wrote Tomorrow's Office - creating effective & humane interiors (E & FN Spon 97).

For information on the bre report contact Ursula Garner on 01923 664361 or e-mail garneru@bre.co.uk

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