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Why Office Space can be a Strategic Asset

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Employees spend a third of their life at work, or on average, 25 – 30 years. It therefore stands to good reason that the office should be engaging and stimulating to those who spend a good portion of their time there.

Yet, according to the Gallup Engaged Workplace study, a staggering 87% of global employees are not engaged at work while a whopping 91% in South Africa say the same. Simply put, an engaged workforce is the difference between a company on a path to success or failure.

As the owner or manager of a business, these statistics should be cause for concern as lethargic, uninspired, overworked or stressed staff are not good for business. So unless you are AirBnB and have the luxury of turning a disused warehouse into a new headquarters to improve employee privacy and socialisation – a project that is now the blueprint for its global offices – there are other more realistic fixes business owners can pursue to yield tangible, long-term returns and talent retention.

Provide places for privacy

Crowded open plan areas surrounded by coveted corner offices have been a mainstay for decades. Yet the reality is that open plan breeds high noise levels, causes privacy and interaction issues, often has unsuitable furniture, poor air quality and uncomfortable temperatures.

According to research conducted by Jungsoo Kim and Richard de Dear from the University of Sydney, between 25 and 30% of employees in open-plan offices are dissatisfied with workplace noise. It was also found to increase epinephrine levels and cortisol in the body which leads to stress and health issues.

While giving every member of staff their own office is costly and unrealistic, a recent trend in corporate interiors has been to democratise the floor, placing all levels of employees together in an open plan area. While many companies have jumped on this trendy bandwagon, there is a caveat: This only works when small breakaway rooms are available in abundance to hold private phone calls or team discussions in. Communal coffee bars and cafes are also highly beneficial in an all open set-up as they allow employees to step into a non-corporate environment which in turn encourages ad-hoc interactions and cross-pollination.

Get connected

It’s more and more common for businesses to deal with colleagues or clients in different geographical locations. Typically video conferencing is used to host presentations or call-overs in the boardroom. Yet, as virtually interacting with others outside of the office becomes the norm – and needed – equipping employees with laptops that are Skype-enabled and providing ample spaces for small, quiet meetings is essential. It also means that the office must have a multitude of plug points and be fully Wi-Fi enabled.

Create places for “team-time” and “me-time”

In 2011 AOL / Huffington Post famously introduced Nap Pods into its office for employees to use to recharge. The futuristic pod allowed users to recline into the sleeping position and enabled better blood circulation. A light vibration was used to wake users from their restorative slumber…and get back to work, fresh.

While new-age nap pods are not within everyone’s budget or even their cup of tea, creating spaces for personal or collaborative downtime does have its advantages. South African developer Korbicom, producers of legal management software Ghost Practice, for instance thrives on optimising “me-time” for developers to think in private while larger meeting spaces enable idea sharing. By introducing breakaway places, think spaces and technology-centric meeting rooms the team’s experience is enhanced, global communication optimised and staff acquisition and retention measurably improved.

Design around business goals

Any interior project that’s pursued without having a clear view on what the purpose of the refurb or build is from a business perspective, will in all likelihood be a lost opportunity. Much like an advertising campaign must have a clear business goal in place that is measurable, so too must an office fit-out project be linked to strategic outcomes. Merely slapping lipstick on a pig may make a space look more attractive, but without intimately understanding the impact that the spatial layout and the facilities provided will have on staff interaction, satisfaction and performance, the design will not adequately impact the bottom line and may in fact even have the opposite effect.

Get senior buy-in

Contrary to popular belief, motivating teams’ performance is not the sole responsibility of their manager or HR; it is a strategic imperative for the CEO or MD.  The majority of employees significantly benefit from working in an environment that has a clear corporate culture that provides the tools and space to function to the best of their ability.

Yet too often, interior architecture, ergonomics and design are based on late 1900s and early 2000s thinking. Not only was technology’s role less influential then, 20 years ago employees had different needs and were happy with a cubicle, pension fund and life-long security. Today’s 23 – 50 year olds’ needs have changed and they are more likely to job-hop, in search of their “ideal” environment.

Corporates who understand the role that physical work environments play in their staff’s working lives and general wellbeing will have the strategic, talent and financial advantage.

About the author: Grant Johnson is the Founder and Head Designer at Conduit Interior, a hands-on commercial interior design agency.