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Can an office refit really improve productivity?

​24 November 2014

Can an office refit really improve productivity?

Businesses that take health and well-being seriously will reap the rewards, says JLL's Peter Hilderson


Could your office really make your workforce ill? It sounds extreme but new research has highlighted the impact of the office environment on employee health and wellbeing, which ultimately influences profitability.

"If you're in a building with poor air quality, for example, it makes staff more susceptible to things like colds and flu," says Peter Hilderson, Head of Energy & Sustainability Services (ESS) and Engineering & Operations Solutions (EOS), JLL Asia Pacific.

"Noise, temperature, poor lighting, the ergonomics of your furniture and even the way the space allows people to interact in meetings, it all affects productivity."

The effect of a poor environment on overall productivity was recently highlighted in a JLL co-sponsored report from the World Green Building Council.

Teams of experts from the around the world were assembled to investigate a range of office design factors, from indoor air quality, thermal comfort and daylighting, to acoustics, interior layout, views and even biophilia – the extent to which humans are hardwired to need a connection with nature.

It may seem counter intuitive to overhaul office space to save money but Hilderson says the two are inextricably linked.

Health days over sick days
Take absenteeism, for example.  Staff sickness comes at a major financial cost to companies. In Australia alone, the cost of ill-health among a workforce is estimated at AU$7 billion per year, while the cost of 'presenteeism' (not fully functioning at work because of medical conditions) is estimated at AU$26 billion. It's a significant sum given that staff costs typically account for 90 per cent of a business's operation budget.

The numbers speak for themselves, yet Hilderson says companies are still struggling to find the balance between profitability and productivity.

"Those that take health and wellbeing seriously will reap the rewards. It's about balancing the physical effect of a space with the psychological," he says.

"Every company is after Nirvana when it comes to the workplace but you can't remove subjective factors and the intangible aspects."

The physical vs the physiological
While culture and the management style could be a far greater barrier to change than your choice of blinds, by removing the physical variable businesses can measure productivity more objectively.

"If you improve the physical space, what you're left with comes to culture and management, which is a separate problem."

Balancing the physical and physiological needs of staff requires a two-pronged approach to office design. Air quality, noise reduction and temperature control are examples of passive design elements that are proven to significantly impact productivity.

But active design is where companies can benefit by spending dollars on fit outs.

Supporting social networks
The World Green Building Council report highlights a recent pilot study for Bank of America showed the remarkable impact on productivity that occurred by actively creating space that supports social interaction.  

Focusing on one of Bank of America's call centres, it provided space for employees to collaborate over scheduled breaks. Cohesion was found to have increased by 18 per cent at the end of the study, which led to a 6 per cent reduction in measured stress and a drastic reduction in employee turnover from 40 percent to 12 per cent.

It's estimated that this could save US$15 million per year on call centre costs across the Bank of America.

Attracting the best and the brightest
Building space to boost the productivity of workers is tried and tested in Silicon Valley.

"Look at Google, their fit outs are an extreme example but they really illustrate what it is to be a 'Googler'," says Hilderson. "They put their money where their mouth is and it attracts the best and brightest. Other companies have to compete with this. That said companies should be conscious that there is no 'one size fits all'.  They need to understand what productivity looks like for their own organisation and design a workplace strategy that enables the activities that create value – in our experience these activities are different for every organisation."

"Taking health and wellbeing seriously makes your workplace more attractive to a younger workforce. They're very conscious of environmental issues and their employers can demonstrate their commitment to this through office design."

Retrofit Vs. built from scratch
Start-ups benefit from the ability to be agile in creating new space. But established corporate behemoths with longstanding space may be limited to retrofitting options

"Retrofitting is easy to do if you're looking at lighting and fixtures and fittings, that may improve the overall office feel, but a major overhaul requires much more,"

Hilderson says that 95 per cent of JLL's sustainability clients require retrofit expertise while 5 per cent build new fitouts

"You can't just forget about these buildings," he adds.

So what will the office of the future look like? If best practice is implemented across the board, workers will be well-rested, free from illness with space designed specifically to enhance their working day.

However, companies will find facilities management easier in the next 5-10 years, which is a good start to redesigning the office environment.

"What we're seeing is a move to more centralised data-led systems. Everything from smoke detectors to air conditioning sensors to lighting can be controlled in one centralised hub.

"Centrally controlling these systems will lead to further cost savings, efficiency of employees and, ultimately, wellbeing, which will impact the bottom line."

To read the full World Green Building Council Report on Health, Wellbeing and Productivity in Offices, co-sponsored by JLL, click here

For more information about JLL's workplace strategy report, 'Forget the Workplace … for Now',  click here