... on employee productivity, Karen Higginbottom freelance journalist who writes on employment issues for The Guardian and People Management magazine asked Adam Burtt-Jones to share his views on the impact office design and ergonomics have on employee productivity and to talk about how our latest design for Nordic Bank, SEB’s new London Office aims to improve productivity tenfold.

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We spend inordinate amounts of time at work so it makes sense that our workspaces should encourage wellbeing and productivity. Research from the British Council for Offices has revealed that our working environment can have a dramatic impact on our physical and mental wellbeing as well as our productivity. What kind of track record do financial services firms have when it comes to creating a physical working environment that encourages wellbeing and productivity and where does HR fit into all of this?

Does the working environment really make a difference to employees’ productivity and morale?

The 2013 U.S. Workplace Survey by Gensler found that one in four U.S. workers werestruggling to work effectively. It cited longer working hours, smaller work spaces and evolving technological distractions as challenges which impinged on the effectiveness of the typical workplace.

Research has indicated a correlation between good workplace design and productivity and wellbeing. A British Council for Offices report published in 2005 found that the workplace was responsible for 24 percent of job satisfaction, with good lighting design linked to a 15 percent reduction in absenteeism and increases of between 2.8 percent and 20 percent in productivity.

A recent report, “Health, Wellbeing and Productivity in Offices" by the World Green Building Council, argued that many organisations were sitting on a treasure trove of information which could help to bring about immediate improvement for their two biggest expenses: people and places. The three important players in workplace design, HR, facilities management and finance, rarely work together, however, so organisations may be missing the chance to understand the relationship between the physical premises, people and organisational performance.

Where does HR fit into workplace design?

Most of the time, HR looked at the ergonomics of the office to prevent specific health conditions, Dr Emmanuel Tsekleves, senior lecturer in design interaction at Lancaster University, told Compliance Complete HR. “Corporates tend to use ergonomics for specific employees where there is a certain condition,” he said.

One of the issues being debated in workplace design was how to get the HR function more involved in the process of design solutions, said Gill Parker, managing director of BDG Architecture and Design. “At the outset of the project, we would ask for HR to attend stakeholder meetings in addition to facilities management and marketing people. Then the employees will be surveyed about their working environment and what can be improved. The more successful design is where there has been a degree of employee engagement throughout it.”

Workplace design in financial services

The financial services sector is still fairly conservative when it comes to workplace design, Tsekleves said. “The reason behind that is space is constrained, and the trend is to go for open spaces, which can be good if it enhances collaboration, cooperation and creativity but there are very few cases where open spaces are designed to take advantage of making people work more collaboratively.”

Banks needed to be more accountable in their use of workspace in the aftermath of the financial crisis, Parker said. “It’s less about creating splendid ivory towers and it’s about being more approachable in line with what customers want to see. Retail banks are putting emphasis on retail branches and what they look like to customers. However, at Canary Wharf it’s still about grand buildings. With all the banks there is a huge investment in technology and the benefits that can bring in terms of mobility.”

Financial and professional services firms understood that their staff were well-paid, Parker said. “The better the firm looks after them, the more productive they will be. If you look at the catering provision it’s high. It’s about what will make the employee’s life easier so they can work better.”

Adam Burtt-Jones is one of the founders of Burtt-Jones & Brewer, a workspace design consultancy which numbers financial services firms among its clients. He said that there had been a shift in the corporate working environment in the last 10-15 years. “Technology has been one of the drivers of workspace design and what the current generation expects from the space is different from the baby boomers. A strong influence on workplace design is culture, and in order to attract the right type of people, corporates need to be shown to be creating more domestic and environmental aspects. For example, there will be lounge areas but there has been a move away from quirky features.”

It was also about humanising the workspace, Parker said. “Open-plan desks doesn’t mean rows of desks. It means creating different work settings, so throughout the day an employee can move around easily and choose the location suitable for what they are doing.”

SEB Bank reception

Reception Desk designed by Burtt-Jones & Brewer in SEB’s former office.

Office ergonomics

Another consideration for employers when re-designing office space is ergonomics. This is defined as the applied science of fitting the physical environment, such as desks and chairs and computer screens, to the worker. When ergonomic design principles are applied to a space, employee comfort improves, risk of injury decreases and employee efficiency is enhanced. “To us, ergonomics means enabling people to work with stress-free posture and minimise the risk of musculoskeletal disorders, said Tim Hutchings, president of Humanscale, a Hong Kong-based ergonomics firm that has worked with clients such as HSBC and Standard Chartered. “There is a real focus on maximising the performance of the human being through the deployment of intelligent work tools and [an] environment which nurtures collaboration in comfort.”

Hutchings said that the financial sector made up the majority of Humanscale’s clients. “Banks are very forward- thinking and they understand that good ergonomic principles lead to increased job satisfaction and performance, and can reduce incidences of injury and illnesses. Organisations can forget they are designing for people. We spend a lot of time on addressing screen location and we create devices that enable individuals to move their screens to their neighbour and make it more mobile. We also know that screen position drives posture, so we design tools that address this.”

Case study: London office of Nordic bank SEB

The London branch of Nordic bank SEB is moving into new offices at One Carter Lane, near St Paul’s Cathedral, London. The office move was forced on the firm by the lease of the building coming to an end early next year, Malcolm Crow, head of SEB’s London branch, said. “We employed a consultant to undertake an initial scoping exercise to establish the type of working environment that would best suit our need and discovered that hot-desking and break-out areas furnished with cushions alone don’t really fit the bill for a wholesale bank. Therefore we needed the best possible update to our current working environment rather than a total new environment altogether.”

Crow said that HR had been involved in the project. “We hired an excellent one-woman consultancy firm to run the project and she liaises between the project and all staff, including HR. The employees were consulted in both the initial scoping and throughout the project. We established working groups of staff to consider storage, sports/social [the new office has a gym], workstation design and catering. We showed all staff round the premises before the fit-out commenced consulting them, through the heads of department, on the planned layout and showing them the intended finishes. We’re also running internal competitions to come up with names for the external meeting rooms and the canteen space.”

Crow said that the bank had also put a great deal of time and effort into ensuring that workstations and dealing desks were not only elegant, but also ergonomically optimal. “This included having staff test various varieties of chair, and testing different forms of screen supports on the dealing desks.” Productivity was not only the result of the desk environment, however, Crow said.

"We have carefully designed various forms of break-out rooms to enable open-plan office staff to have access to quiet workspaces, and hope that our canteen area will also be used for informal meetings throughout the day. We are also providing a gym and other recreational facilities: a somewhat fanciful term for table football tables!"

First published on Thomson Reuters Compliance Compete on the 4th November 2014