Effective Workplaces Survey

Fall 2013
UBM’s San Francisco offices feature a “pod” set at the center of a group of workstations, to which employees can retreat conveniently for small group conversations while avoiding distracting those intent on more focused work. Photos © Gensler.

“U.S. workers are struggling to work effectively. A confluence of factors, from economic challenges to longer workdays, is compromising the ability to get work done.” So concludes Gensler’s “2013 U.S. Workplace Survey,” which represents the responses of 2,035 randomly sampled knowledge workers worldwide. How can developers, architects, and employers better design work-places to drive innovation, improve performance, and increase satisfaction, given new workplace realities? The report offers some tantalizing suggestions.

The global architecture, design, planning, and strategic consulting firm has been conducting workplace surveys since 2005. Its 2006 survey established connections among workplace design, employee productivity, and business competitiveness; the 2008 study presented a framework for understanding knowledge work by identifying four primary work modes: focus (work involving concentration and attention), collaboration (working with another person or a group), learning (working to acquire new knowledge through education or experience), and socializing (work interactions that create common bonds and values, collective identity, and productive relationships). “Companies that value and support all four work modes,” that report concluded, “are higher performing and have more satisfied, effective employees.”

interior view of 22Squared's Atlanta office

At 22Squared’s Atlanta offices, a mix of different types of workspaces located near each other  —  including open tables, conference rooms of varying sizes, and floor pillows scattered in open spaces  —  enable employees to chose how and where to work, all within a single office space.

The recently released report reveals three key findings:

1) Workers are struggling to work effectively. Extended workdays, new distractions, and downward pressure on real estate costs are compromising the effectiveness of the U.S. workforce. Strategies designed to improve collaboration — including open workplaces and low-or no-paneled desks — have proven to be ineffective if the ability to focus was not also considered. Since 2008, time spent focusing has increased by 13 percent while time spent collaborating has decreased by 20 percent. While employees may be focusing more, they are not focusing better; workplace effectiveness has dropped by 6 percent overall. Gensler’s survey found that when focus is compromised in pursuit of collaboration, neither works well.

2) Effective workplaces balance focus and collaboration. The most successful workplaces are those designed to enable collaboration without sacrificing employees’ ability to focus. Companies with “balanced workplaces” value both individual and collaborative work — and are seen by their employees as more creative and more innovative.

3) Choice drives performance and innovation. Employers who allow workers to choose when and where to work are seen as more innovative and have higher-performing employees. Companies that use an effective combination of tools, policies, and spaces to enable workplace choice can create a climate in which autonomous, en-gaged employees are able to maximize their own performance. (Increasing choice, however, does not mean that everyone works at home — survey respondents with choice reported that they still spend 70 percent of their time in office settings.)

chart on balanced workplaces

How will these findings influence the office spaces of tomorrow? Gensler suggests “a number of spatial and strategic actions companies can take to design workplaces that improve the employee experience, enhance performance, and drive innovation and success.” These include providing effective focus space (with design solutions that will vary from company to company); encouraging collaboration without sacrificing focus (by prioritizing both — and by providing a mix of settings that support focus and collaborative work alongside learning and socializing); and driving innovation through choice (by providing a workplace culture, policies, and tools that allow employees to choose when and where to work).

What does this mean for office designers, developers, and employers? The most successful offices will feature a balanced mix of places where people can concentrate (quiet rooms, private offices, desks with high panels) and those where they can collaborate (small and large conference rooms, clusters of desks with low or no panels) as well as learn and socialize (lounges, media rooms, libraries, kitchens, and break rooms). And they will feature tools — including mobile technology, Wi-Fi, and remote access to files and networks — that will enable employees to work from anywhere within the office or outside it.

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