The workplace of the future: green, healthy and productive

The open plan office will continue to be most popular choice but new insights offer ways to enhance efficiency and wellbeing.

Technology has severed the chains which once bound workers to their desks. Today your fellow team members could be operating from almost any location – the coffee shop around the corner, or the other side of the world.

Yet for most companies, the office remains the hub of the business and where key decisions are made. The central role of the office seems unlikely to change in the coming years – in fact, total office space in Australia has risen by 18 per cent in the past decade to over 2 million square metres, and demand is continuing to grow.

But what will the office of the future look like? And what do companies need to consider? The biggest trend in recent years has been the move to open plan layouts and, with tech giants like Apple and Google leading the way. Corporates such as KPMG and Telstra have invested heavily in new concepts like ‘agile’ or ‘activity-based working’ aimed at encouraging creativity and collaboration.

However, not all open plan schemes have been successful. Workplace environment expert Remi Ayoko, an Associate Professor at The University of Queensland (UQ) Business School, has spent years researching the way in which the physical business environment can affect behaviour. She believes that open plan offices are here to stay, but there is potential to learn from others’ experience and create healthier, more productive workplaces.

“Research into the impact of open plan offices shows mixed results,” Remi explains. “Some studies show they encourage collaboration, increase commitment and motivation.”

“Open plan layouts also aid learning as staff can see the managers and observe other people’s interactions, but the noise can be a distraction and together with the lack of privacy, can make workers feel stressed and anxious," says Remi.

“It is also important to note that, while collaboration is a key goal for many companies, people don’t collaborate just because they are in the same building, but because they intend to do so, but the open plan layout may facilitate that."

“Looking into the future, companies need to look at ways to use design to create workplaces that enhance wellbeing, increase productivity and respect the dignity of their staff.”

Here are five things to consider:

1. Design can make a big difference

Even small details can influence results, says Remi. “In a meeting, the design of the table can affect the outcome. If it is rectangular, the people at opposite corners will find it hard to interact with each other, while a round table will make it easier for everyone to share in the conversation."

“Managers need to think carefully about the ‘design’ of work – the different types of tasks, task processes, and workflow will need different open-plan office configurations. Managers need to be clear about the alignment between work design and the physical office configuration.”

Remi urges companies to liaise with staff as part of the process, rather than instructing a designer without consulting those who will be using the space.

2. Find new measures of performance

Open plan offices have helped to create a shift in culture away from the formal nine to five work hours, where employees who were subject to constant supervision now take a more flexible approach where they are free to come and go or work from home.

The flexible work schedule that is encouraged by the open plan office and enabled by technology means that managers must find new ways to measure employees’ performance, says Remi.

“Workers will no longer be judged on the time they spend at their desks but rather, the results they achieve. The question is not, were they in the office? But, did they do the work and if so, how well?’

3. Give staff space to relieve stress

In an office without walls, everyone is on full view all the time with nowhere to hide. Workers are unable to stand up, move around or pace the floor without drawing attention to themselves. If a conflict arises, there is nowhere for either party to withdraw and reflect, nor an opportunity to discuss your problems with a sympathetic colleague. In many offices, even side rooms have glass walls and have to be booked in advance.

Remi adds, “in open plan offices tensions can build, so managers need to consider ways to relieve and minimise stress. One solution could be to have a side room that is not ‘bookable’ and where employees can take sanctuary when they are under pressure without needing to book in advance .”

4. Avoid the ‘office chair problem’

Having a sense of ownership is not just limited to those with shares in the company – employees can have similar feelings about their jobs, work space and even office furniture. In one case, a manager from a big Australian company could not understand why employees were so upset about leaving behind their old chairs when they were moving to a plush new office with brand new ones.

Dr Momo Kromah, a researcher at UQ Business School, says having a sense of ownership can increase job satisfaction, commitment and performance but creates a feeling of loss when such attachments are disrupted. The ‘office chair problem’ as he calls it, is often misinterpreted by managers as deviant or dysfunctional behaviour.

Momo says companies should be sensitive to such attachments when moving office or rearranging the physical workspace.

“Changes are often implemented with the intent of saving money, but a loss of ownership, especially of work areas might threaten the success of any managerial initiatives if not managed carefully,” he adds.

5. Create a cleaner, greener office

Buildings, including workspaces, account for a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions in Australia. With growing concerns over climate change and the need to meet emissions targets, companies need to be more conscious of environmental issues – and not only in terms of energy use.

The office of the future will need to improve ventilation and air quality, reduce chemical contaminants, provide better lighting, green plants and calming colour schemes . All these factors can help to generate a sense of wellbeing and a happier, healthier workforce says Remi.

More on the physical workplace of the future: Organisational Behaviour and the Physical Environment edited by Oluremi (Remi) Ayoko and Neal Ashkanasy is published by Routledge in July, 2019

Want to keep your team happy and productive?