The Business Case for Evidence-Based Workplace Design

Wednesday, July 1st, 2015
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It is well established that the largest cost factors in the life of an office building are the salaries of its occupants.

These costs also include the great expense of replacing employees that leave for whatever reason – one of which could be due to the workplace itself, especially if it is not conducive to a positive, productive organisational culture.

High staff turnover is one of the highest costs to a business. In 2012, an Insync Retention review found that the average staff turnover rate of 18 per cent costs organisations with 100 employees around $1 million every year, and that employers can save around $280,000 per year for every 100 staff they employ by reducing their turnover by just five per cent. But how much of this staff turnover may be due to the work environment?

You’ve probably heard at least a few people say they like their job and the people but have issues with their work building and surroundings. But what is the hard evidence available to really support such claims? Where is the data to help change the attitudes of employers and procurers of new buildings and work spaces?

Click to enlargeCABE, The impact of office design on business performance. 2004, The Commission for Architecture $ the Built Environment: London.

Click to enlargeCABE, The impact of office design on business performance. 2004, The Commission for Architecture $ the Built Environment: London. 

When we think of the cost staff carries with a building there is a presumption that the design factors which improve staff productivity most will have the best rate of return on investment. Currently though, this is just a presumption; the evidence still needs gathering.

However, architectural design which embraces all the positive aspects of a work environment such as natural light, ventilation and fresh air, acoustics, thermal comfort, design layout, colours and materials that support good social interaction are a must. All affect the journey between spaces plus the places to meet and congregate, which is why atria are now so common in higher rated buildings. They all provide an aesthetically pleasing place to be, a place where employees will look forward to coming to every day.

To date, most of the studies conducted into occupation satisfaction and productivity are perception based and undertaken at a point in time rather than as part of a series of ongoing comparisons. This needs to change so we can provide clear guidelines on what makes a building the most productive and cost effective. This is where closing the loop on evidence-based design must play a role.

A low-performance building can be devastating for a business, resulting in disengaged employees that do not perform well and absenteeism high across the board. This costs thousands of dollars in wasted productivity. If someone in charge of procurement is constantly checking the financial bottom line, he or she may believe choosing such a low-performance building with a lower up-front price tag for their company is a cost saving, but is it really? What will the long term price be?

The problem is that most studies do not measure work through-put, although some – like Brookfield’s Shelley Street Office building (Macquarie Bank) – have looked at proxies like absenteeism and sick days out. Overall, however, there is a good correlation between greener buildings, better indoor environmental quality and productivity.

What is less well-known is what design characteristics – such as window selection, colour factors, interior layout and spatial types, workspace arrangements (closed/open office, hot desking, etc) – have the most impact on worker productivity, though there have been studies looking into these quite separately to overall performance.

So a developer deciding on what features to focus on in a major new refurbishment or building they are planning to construct to get the biggest bang for their buck needs better guidance – a tool kit for proven high performance, high productivity buildings, disaggregated to specific design decisions.

Closing the loop is all about deeper investigations into post occupancy performance in buildings which informs the front end decision making about design choices. Brett Pollard, head of knowledge and sustainability at HASSELL has said that if you construct a building that does not take advantage of the evidence, organisations and businesses are ultimately missing out on the opportunity to create workplaces that are healthier and more effective.

This is so very true, which is why we need to focus on closing the loop to ensure all the facts, figures and knowledge is available to decision makers about what makes a building work and that why the triple bottom line needs to be truly enforced to get the best results for staff productivity. A low-cost building is not necessarily the most productive, though if it is designed well and ticks all the boxes that the evidence can provide, it can be.

World Green Building Council chief executive Jane Henley seems to agree.

“With up to 90 per cent of a company’s costs spent on salaries and benefits, even modest improvements to staff health and productivity can have a dramatic impact on organisational profitability,” she said recently. “Closing the loop will enhance our understanding of the health, well-being and productivity implications of building design so that we can create environments that positively encourage health and well-being and stimulate productivity.”

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