A new book called The Elemental Workplace from the former Workplace Director of Sky Neil Usher lays out in simplified form the most important factors firms need to consider in the design of their workplaces. What is interesting about the book is that its core theme is people and not buildings. This is exactly as it should be but we are aware that it is not always the case. It’s an important work because it not only encapsulates what makes workplace design effective, but is also indicative of the changing nature of work.  It sets out twelve aspects of a workplace that make it most effective for individuals and so by definition the organisation for whom they work. This direct link is a result of the value of knowledge based work.

The book build on a growing body of research which establishes the link between workplace design and individual and organisational success. For example, according to research conducted by researchers from Imperial College London, more thoughtfully designed workplaces, centred around people’s needs, could improve performance and help tackle the UK’s productivity gap. It claims that by applying design thinking, it is possible to boost workplace productivity by 5-8 per cent which could in turn contribute up to £20 billion to GDP. The potential gain in productivity, is equivalent to twice the annual contribution to UK GDP made by the aerospace industry. The research was commissioned to better understand and quantify the economic benefit from human centred design. The research claims to examine the ripple down effect on productivity brought about by an human centred focus on health and wellbeing. This in turn has a benefit for future business growth and can enhance the position of the national economy, according to the report. The research claims to support the importance of employees’ experience of the building in which they work and confirms that steps to create the right working environment can have a material impact on staff productivity and wellbeing.

It identifies six key areas where different approaches could be taken:

  • Lighting – improving daylight provision and the quality of artificial lighting
  • Ventilation / air quality – increasing ventilation flows and reducing Volatile Organic Compounds and carbon dioxide
  • Thermal comfort – including solar overheating in the working environment and enabling an individual to control the temperature of their immediate space
  • Noise and acoustics – reducing environmental noise (roads etc.), white noise (air conditioning systems etc.) and pink noise (human voice frequency)
  • Interaction – increasing the control and self-determination of the office environment including control of lighting, ventilation, physical desk setup and chosen setting
  • Visual elements – including plants and outside views, nature and materials

It also notes that relatively rapid payback on investment in these areas can be achieved, this is estimated to range between two to six years, with some individual elements seeing payback in as little as six months. The findings come amid growing scrutiny of the UK’s productivity versus other countries. Recent figures show productivity in the UK continues to lag behind the levels seen before the financial crisis.

It is also no coincidence that the areas identified in the Imperial College study also overlap with those laid out in The Elemental Workplace. By focusing on people’s basic needs when designing a workplace, we can not only address their individual needs, but also drive value in the organisation.

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