A rewarding environment

Designing a workplace that lets employees thrive

Many Canadian workplaces, particularly offices, have a lighting problem. That’s because many are lit by fluorescent lights that are “just terrible” to work under, according to Alison Logue of Toronto-based design firm Logue & Associates.

“Most of the offices in Canada really are not conducive to good working environments,” she said. “They tend to be overlit. We actually have more light than we know what to do with.”

The ideal would be to remove the overhead lights and install lighting that bounces off the ceiling and then radiates down.

That’s just one of the recent trends in interior office design. The days of dingy, dimly-lit lunchrooms tucked into the far recesses of an office are over, according to Doug Bullock of Toronto-based design firm Bullock Associates.

“Food is a real focus now,” said Bullock. “It’s not hidden away anymore.”

The result is that many new offices, or those that have undergone a facelift, feature lunchrooms that are front-and-centre. They’re in high-traffic areas with natural lighting, scattered around the office with the intent of creating more casual conversation among employees.

And lunchrooms are being used for more than just eating. Organizations are using them as meeting rooms and asking designers to make them multi-purpose, featuring moveable walls that can open a larger area up for a town hall-style meeting or allow them to be broken up into individual rooms for special projects, said Bullock.

Getting employees talking

A lot of the current trends in office design are meant to encourage interaction between employees.

Design fads from a few years ago, such as installing pool tables and aquariums, are still fun and serve a purpose, but Bullock said the real push is on getting employees to communicate more informally because that’s often where the best ideas are generated.

Logue said there is a real trend towards encouraging collaboration.

“The days of having just workstations and just meeting rooms are probably over,” said Logue.

Workstations are getting smaller, and companies are creating more common areas as they come to understand that an employee doesn’t have to do all her work at her desk. But with smaller workstations, and lower cubicle walls (if any), some employees have expressed concerns about privacy, said Logue.

Because it’s expensive to set up small offices for every employee, employers are creating “huddle rooms” — small areas about 10 feet by 10 feet — that employees can book to use for private meetings or to concentrate on specific tasks. The same rooms can also be used to socialize and collaborate with others, she said.

One company with 500 employees put a television into a lounge area and organized a soap-opera club where employees could gather during lunch and catch their favourite daytime drama, said Logue. That helped employees get to know each other a bit more on a social level, she said.

“All of that makes employees happier about coming into the office,” she said. “They like the social aspect of it.”

The ‘right to light’

Every employee should also have access to daylight. The “right to light,” as Logue called it, is catching on and in many firms managers are relegated to interior offices while the bulk of staff have a window view.

“The world of exterior offices is going, unless it’s a very senior position,” she said.

That can be a tough pill for some managers to swallow, said Bullock.

“You might have a new CEO who wants all senior management on the inside and all staff on the glass,” he said, but that same management feels they have worked hard to climb the corporate ladder and wants the window.

In situations like that, the organization — and the designer — has to sell the idea that this is what top companies in the sector are doing, it helps employees do a better job and will ultimately make for a stronger company, said Bullock.

Surveying employees

Once a company has settled on a designer, the first step is for that designer to talk with senior management to get an understanding of the company and its vision for the future.

Bullock said he usually conducts an electronic survey of all employees to find out if there are any underlying problems. One thing that always surprises him is the low response rate. Typically only about half bother to complete the survey, he said.

He blames that on the fact employees feel their voices won’t be heard, but the opinions can make an impact on the design. During a recent renovation at a travel company with about 200 employees, Bullock surveyed staff and found a high number of employees who were dissatisfied with the washrooms.

When he brought the washroom issue up with management, one of the executives said: “We’re 80 per cent women here and the building wasn’t designed for that many women.”

Management hadn’t brought up washrooms as an issue with the designer, though it was clearly on the minds of employees. So when the company moved and the new office was built, Bullock converted one of the men’s washrooms into a women’s washroom.

“It made for a lot of happy employees,” he said. “By surveying staff, you can pick up things that are crucial to the design.”

Management is sometimes wary of surveying staff, because they think employees will ask for the moon. But, from his experience, Bullock said employees only ask for things that will make their jobs easier.

“They think employees will ask for saunas or whirlpools,” he said. “But they never do. Most people are pretty serious about improving the way they do their jobs.”

The ultimate design feature

Given an unlimited budget, there are a number of things Bullock would like to try. At the top of his list is a “living wall” — a two-storey high wall he could cover with plants fed by a water system. The benefit to such a setup would be the oxygen the plants create, because office air tends to be very stale.

Water elements are always interesting to integrate into design, and he’s currently putting in a two-storey-high fireplace for clothing retailer Roots in a Toronto office.

Both Bullock and Logue said the key to the success of any design is having the culture to back it up. Even if a CEO is committed to a vision, it doesn’t mean it’s being adopted across the organization.

“A lot of times CEOs tend to think they have a very dynamic and free culture,” said Logue. “And you find out it’s not that way, it’s only their perception.”

How much does an overhaul cost?

Estimates vary depending on how much work is done, but a good rule of thumb is that it will cost about $25 to $35 per square foot. So a 10,000-square-foot office would cost about $250,000 to $350,000, said Bullock.

If the furniture is being replaced, that amount basically doubles, he said.

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