Getting workspace into shape

Air Miles and Honeywell show how improved workplace design makes for healthier environment

Approaching the end of a 10-year lease, Air Miles decided to change the location of its headquarters. The company was keen to revitalize its workspace with a more open concept and incorporate “amenities and facilities more reflective of themes we were putting through the workforce, along the lines of health and well-being and looking to build employee engagement,” says Bryan Pearson, president and CEO of Air Miles.

And while Air Miles anticipated a 10-per-cent turnover with the August 2008 move from North York, Ont., to an office in downtown Toronto — about 15 kilometres away — it was less than one per cent among 1,300 employees.

“It is a testament to the design of the building and the energy that was in that new location and facilities we provided, in combination with the business we’re in. People really like what the company does and feel proud to work for it,” says Pearson.

Whether it’s greater use of ergonomic furniture, the addition of an on-site fitness facility or more windows, the effect of workspace design on employees is increasingly apparent.

“There is an awareness among employees that there are aspects of their work environment that affect their health and they’re beginning to put on pressure,” says Jacqueline Vischer, head of the New Work Environmental Research Group at the University of Montreal and author of Space Meets Status.

“Rather than think of it as a cost and keep it as low as possible, it’s more useful to think of it as an investment in employees, whether that investment is trained in terms of making them more productive or more healthy and less prone to be sick and away, or whether it’s just that companies care about morale and they want their employees to feel happy and not be motivated to leave,” she says.

Air Miles started communicating its intentions to employees 15 months in advance of the move. It also encouraged staff to vote on two versions of the new workstation and, to ease the transition, introduced new flex work hours before the move.

The new, modern office has 10 floors with 170,000 square feet, colourful wallpaper and much more natural light. Exterior offices have been pushed to either end of the rectangular floors so natural light is not as obstructed. The open layout features “huddle” spaces with comfortable chairs, along with private phone “booths.” The walls of the workstations are lower, creating seated privacy but a more exposed, naturally lit environment.

“People moved into a smaller footprint in a more open environment and we’ve created a higher degree of energy and engagement,” says Pearson. “We’ve got a group who is much more interactive and social, they get their work done, there’s no loss of productivity. If anything, there’s been an increase of productivity because there’s a much higher level of collaboration and discussion.”

Initially, about 10 per cent of the workforce felt distracted by the new setup because in the old location, people sat in “pens” with higher walls, says Pearson.

“In the new environment, nobody uses a speakerphone and within about two or three weeks or so of people working there, the noise level came right down in terms of phones and how people work around each other,” he says. “It’s much more considerate in the new environment than it was in the old environment. I don’t hear any complaints.”

The company also set up various wellness initiatives, such as a full-service lunchroom, a bistro serving fresh meals and a fitness centre. And the downtown office is steps from transit, another important consideration because of environmental and everyday concerns.

“We used to be on the subway line in our old office, so we wanted to not disrupt the work-life balance and systems people were using to get to work today,” says Pearson.

For employers considering a less-costly alteration, “you need to understand what vision you have in mind and canvass your employee base if you want them to be part of that decision, to prioritize what to change and have the largest impact,” says Pearson. “We just recognized that it was more in tune with what kind of environment we wanted to create for our workforce.”

Employee, HR involvement

Employees are the experts on the demands of their job and their behaviours, so they should be involved in workspace design and feel that “environmental empowerment,” says Vischer.

“Not so many years ago, managers would have all the good ideas about new space and move people, but then wonder why it wasn’t working and people weren’t happy. Now people realize you can’t just count on new space to make cultural change. On the other hand, new space can be a tremendous driver to cultural change.”

But it’s crucial to understand how employees work — in terms of computer and phone time, what work surfaces are really needed, who are their important contacts and where they often go in the office.

“You can put together a portrait of how people use their space and then you can see some things are barriers, such as distance or lack of meeting rooms,” says Vischer. “Those (barriers) become the basis for how to solve the problem in a low-key, cost-effective way.”

Surveys are a good starting point but further discussions with HR or design consultants reveal truer details, she says. And as members of the internal team, HR can be advocates for employees, so the process does not become adversarial.

“Because HR professionals are not, by and large, trained or alerted to the issues of workspace or space planning, often they’ll say, ‘This is interesting but it’s a facilities topic,’ and I think it’s terribly important these days, with the amount of changes going on, that HR professionals start to think of workspace as part of their responsibility,” says Vischer. “Think of it as part of the quality of life for employees and not as separate, just related to the building.”

Honeywell makes a move

HR played an integral role in the relocation of Honeywell Canada’s headquarters in Ontario from North York to Markham, says Jason Larry, Chicago-based director of strategic facility planning for Honeywell. The technology and manufacturing company consolidated a couple of its old buildings to occupy a LEED-registered building (one that met Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design criteria) while hoping to improve employees’ time at work.

As part of the programming team, HR helped define design requirements and took charge of communications, such as letting people know if they would have an (increasingly rare) office.

Honeywell spends a lot of time on change management and acclimating people to the new workspace, which can take up to six months. The company also uses as much objective data as possible, such as a “dark space study” that demonstrates employee usage of certain areas.

“When you expose that data to the population or leadership, you’re letting the facts do the talking,” says Larry, as many employees still believe they need big, dedicated space. “It’s a way to pave the way for a more open, collaborative workspace.”

On average, people spend 50 per cent of their time away from their desk, “so we prioritized opening up the floor plan, with no office on the window line, natural daylight a priority to everybody, hard walls such as offices and training rooms in the core of the space, so everybody’s personal space has access to natural daylight,” says Larry.

The walls of the Honeywell workstations were also lowered, which aesthetically opens up the space and creates more energy in the workspace, says Bob Omark, Chicago-based manager of America’s construction for Honeywell.

“A lot of experts tell you there’s privacy in the cube with higher walls but it’s a false concept because acoustically it doesn’t segment you away from your neighbours that much. And when you know your neighbours are close by, people lower their voices,” he says.

And while there were the expected complaints during the first few months after the move, positive feedback soon came through.

“Picture yourself walking into an old, dark, boring workspace one day and then walking into a fresh environment, where you see things going on and there’s colour and daylight,” says Larry, adding it’s a completely different feeling.

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