Focus on Workplace Design

Gensler's U.S. Workplace Survey reveals that better office design can lead to increased productivity and bigger profits. But employees think corporate America is still too focused on design costs, not value.
August 11, 2010

U.S. corporations often underestimate the importance workplace design and layout has on their employees, and as a result productivity—and profits—suffer, according to the U.S. Workplace Survey, commissioned by Gensler (ranked no. 1 among architects in BD+C's 2006 Giants 300 report). The architecture giant surveyed 2,013 U.S. office workers to gauge how workplace design affects their productivity, creativity, and attitudes about work, and to better understand the relationship between workplace design and business outcome. The independent research firm D/R Added Value, Los Angeles, conducted the research.

An overwhelming 90% of U.S. office workers believe that better design leads to better overall performance. Respondents said that, on average, they could increase their work output by 21% if their office environment were better designed. Surprisingly, a great workplace environment can even be enough to make employees agree to an extra hour of work each day, with nearly half of the respondents (48%) saying that better workplace design would make them amenable to longer workdays.

However, the survey shows that that extra productivity is being left largely untapped because U.S. workers feel that corporations are too focused on office costs rather than design value. Nearly half of the respondents (46%) believe that creating a productive workplace is not a priority for their company, with 40% of employees citing corporate belt tightening as the main reason. Only one-third of respondents think their current office design and layout is the result of the company's concern for creating a productive and enjoyable working environment.

“These were big numbers and we were surprised,” says Jim Williamson, principal in Gensler's Washington, D.C., office and a member of the firm's Workplace Practice Area Taskforce. The feedback Williamson received regarding these high numbers is that workers have previously had bad experiences with employers who set office design expectations too high; then, as a result of value engineering, the workplace environments failed to live up to initial promises.

“The expectation is that we're going to give them something cheap and small because that's been their past experience with office design,” says Williamson. “People now have a negative impression about what goes into designing a workspace,” he says. “Employers need to do a better job of setting the stage for what workers can expect down the line.”

Some survey results, however, indicate that employers understand the connection between office environments and company performance better than employees give them credit for. For example, nearly all top executives (90%) said that a better office environment is key to a better bottom line. Upper management perceptions of potential worker productivity due to better workplace design, expressed in dollars, is $330 billion per year (based on U.S. GDP from 2003 census data, the most recent figures available).

With the survey indicating that both employees and employers—to varying degrees—understand the importance of workplace design and layout, what accounts for the disconnect evinced by the survey results?

“So many differences come from individual perceptions and experiences,” says Williamson. “When we present the survey, a lot of people challenge it, but it's an opinion survey, so it depends on your perspective.” The biggest challenges, says Williamson, come from employers whose perceptions of how employees work differ from how employees say they actually work—or hope to work if their workplace environments were better. “The results can be polarizing,” says Williamson.

Elements of workplace design that U.S. workers say would improve their environment:

Half would like more collaboration space, with 30% of respondents saying their current workplace design doesn't promote interaction among colleagues.

67% of respondents say they're more efficient when working closely with co-workers.

Private offices were desired by 65% of respondents, even though 62% of those surveyed said they greatly respect management and leaders who work in an open-plan environment rather than in a private office.

“We need to ask more questions about why people say they need a private office,” says Williamson. “It's most likely hierarchical—the 'private office' they've been working toward for all these years.”

Nearly two-thirds of respondents (64%) want to have input into the design and layout of their workspace, and they say they would focus on eliminating the following pet peeves: frequent interruptions (47%), lack of space (42%), noise (35%), and cheap and uncomfortable workstation furniture (32%).

Bad coffee was cited as a problem by 14% of respondents, although nearly 100% said they weren't to blame for brewing it.

The full U.S. Workplace Survey can be found online:

The distribution surveys came from U.S. office workers in eight industry groups:

Legal 12%
Accounting 11%
Consulting 14%
Financial services 14%
Entertainment and media 10%
Energy and telecommunications 10%
Retail 14%
Product management 15%