When Sapient Canada moved its head office to downtown Toronto in 2008, it took the opportunity to set up an ideal working environment for its workers. This article goes beyond the exposed brick and beams to show how the open workspace with individual pods arranged around large tables fostered a collaborative work philosophy and boosted morale, energy and productivity.

The author also shows how a number of small, low-cost design changes worked together to inspire creativity, ranging from wall art derived from company marketing efforts and flatscreens looping work from past and ongoing global ad campaigns to carpet runners running down halls and branching off into pods to muffle noise.

The company conducted ergonomic assessments, lowered workstation panels to let in more natural light and controlled the resulting higher noise levels with wall and floor coverings, fabric window treatments, acoustical ceiling tiles and sound-masking equipment.

The article lists a number of low-cost upgrades employers can undertake that lead to heightened employee morale and productivity. Notes one expert: “It costs less than one percent of a person’s annual compensation to take a mediocre space and turn it into a great space. You don’t need a huge productivity improvement to make that a good return on investment.”

Source: Sarah Dobson, Canadian HR Reporter (Toronto); Jun 1, 2009

Full Text: COPYRIGHT Jun 2009 Carswell Publishing

Abstract (Summary)

When Sapient Canada moved its head office more than a year ago to downtown Toronto, it had the opportunity to set up an ideal environment. That meant the inclusion of exposed brick and wood beams along with a wide open workspace for its 150 to 180 employees, who now work in pods around large tables. There are several small, low-cost upgrades employers can do, such as an ergonomic assessment to evaluate a chair’s position or desk height. Often people have the right tools but are not using them properly. The movement to be more efficient, to use space more efficiently, comes more from the accounting side than the HR side. But the ideal scenario has HR pitching the initiative.

Healthy Workplaces: From floor coverings to keyboard trays, low-cost upgrades can boost productivity, engagement.

When Sapient Canada moved its head office more than a year ago to downtown Toronto, it had the opportunity to set up an ideal environment. That meant the inclusion of exposed brick and wood beams along with a wide open workspace for its 150 to 180 employees, who now work in pods around large tables.
“We’re big advocates of working in groups, working collaboratively and really establishing a flow in the office that’s very important,” says Brad Simms, vice-president and general manager at Sapient, which provides marketing, business and IT strategy services. “Pretty much everyone except for HR and finance sits on the floor, there’s no offices that creates a different type of flow, a different type of environment for us.”

While removing walls does require employees to get used to increased activity around them, after a few days it becomes a non-issue, says Simms.
“If you weigh the amount of time it takes to get comfortable with the activity versus the collaboration it creates, your benefit vastly outstrips the cost,” he says. “The boost in productivity is huge.”

The morale and energy of employees definitely improve with the change, says Lou-Ann Patton, HR manager at Sapient, as people feel the liveliness of the activity around them.

Included in the major move are small changes that also foster creativity, such as artwork from the company’s marketing efforts posted on walls or flat screens looping work from global campaigns.

“It really inspires creativity when you see what other folks are working on,” says Simms. “You walk by and you can kind of get a vibe for what’s going on with other teams.”

Sapient has also installed bike racks in the office, which is not only convenient for people but creates a more casual environment “which I think people appreciate and are more productive in,” he says.

But it’s important to keep assessing the space and make changes when needed, says Simms. For example, the company realized the large client rooms on one floor were noisy for people on the floor below, so it installed carpet runners on the wood floors to dampen the sound.

“We constantly stay in front of that by chatting with folks, getting new ideas. It doesn’t have to be expensive,” he says.

The price for a well-designed workspace can be minimal, says Jim Mills, CEO and president of Office Interiors in Dartmouth, N.S.

“It costs less than one per cent of a person’s annual compensation to take a mediocre space and turn it into a great space,” he says. “You don’t need a huge productivity improvement to make that a good return on investment.”

Economical Ergonomics

There are several small low-cost upgrades employers can do, such as an ergonomic assessment to evaluate a chair’s position or desk height. Often people have the right tools but are not using them properly, says Mills.

“The benefit of that is an employee goes, ‘Wow, my company actually cares about me. They hired a professional to make sure I’m working in the best ergonomic way I can.”‘

Other areas that are overlooked include the proper use of the keyboard and keyboard tray, the mouse and the computer screen, which is preferably a flat screen with an articulating arm. That can add up to about $400 per workstation.

“It’s not a big cost but it’s absolutely the best place to start,” says Mills.

‘Right To Natural Light”

Another way to change the workstation is to lower the panel heights, a growing trend driven mostly by the “right to natural light” movement he says.

“People, for obvious reasons, like natural light, they like a view outside.”

While the trade-off can be higher noise levels, there are several options to control acoustic properties, says Mills. These include wall and floor coverings, fabric window treatments, high-acoustic tiles in the ceiling or sound-masking products.

Another option to boost an environment’s appeal is the inclusion of live plants and tasteful art, and there are reasonably priced rental programs for employers, he says. The addition of a small kitchen area can also be both functional and serve as social spot for employees. Workers want to have fun on the job, along with working hard, “so the more of that you can incorporate into a space helps.”

Spaces Should Be Flexible

Another area to consider is the layout. As organizations are always changing, the more flexibility built into a space, the better, and it’s no more expensive than building a rigid one, says Mills. There can also be hazards for employers determined to stick to the status quo, such as putting a new manager into a cubicle because a company is reluctant to turn two offices into three.

“That creates all kinds of issues,” he says. “Peers want to be treated as a peer, so there are all kinds of hidden costs that manifest when a space can’t flex to meet the needs that the organization knows it has.”

Because of the speed of change in organizations, reconfigurability is an important criterion so a company can change at short notice, says Jacqueline Vischer, director of the work environment research group at the University of Montreal’s Faculty of Environmental Design.

“Those criteria have led to things people aren’t always happy with. You get the increased densities of people and equipment generating noise problems, privacy problems and ventilation and air quality problems,” she says. “Those options do work for some groups but they’ve sometimes been applied rather hastily and people, the workers themselves, don’t report well on their experience.”

More traditional organizations may have an outdated model or space allocation based on status and rank, says Vischer. But more companies are trying to be more function-based in space allocation, by looking at what the job needs, not what the person needs.

“In situations where people are not functionally supported and they actually have to overcome some kind of blockage or barrier in the environment, they have an extra step or two in order to get their work done, then we assert that’s stressful,” she says.

Trillium Health Centre’s ‘Spa-like’ Space

Several obstacles were removed when Trillium Health Centre built a new in-patient wing in Mississauga, Ont. Incorporating the input of nurses, patients, occupational health and safety advisors and ergonomic specialists, the organization designed a “spa-like” structure filled with natural light, privacy, quiet and greater efficiencies of space.

Smaller elements in the large project added up to a less stressful environment, such as moving electrical sockets located inconveniently on the floor level behind a bed or widening narrow bathroom doors that made access difficult. Frequently used nursing supplies are now only four rooms apart, limiting the distances travelled by nurses.

“We really wanted to get rid of some of the ergonomic situations that we found ourselves in, in the old design,” says Patti Cochrane, vice-president of patient services and quality at Trillium. “Our mission was to really develop an ergonomically friendly place that reduced the amount of walking steps, that ensured the nurses had the supplies they needed.”

Even in semi-private rooms, every patient has her own door, which makes for much less cramped space and fewer bruised legs for nurses who had to move beds. And private rooms have bathrooms with double doors.

“We’re trying to create a healthy workplace, healing environment, low stress, more home-like. When you walk in off the elevators, it doesn’t feel like an institutional setting,” she says.

The movement to be more efficient, to use space more efficiently, comes more from the accounting side than the HR side, says Vischer. But the ideal scenario has HR pitching the initiative.

“This is really more of an HR concern – it has more to do with quality of life and retention and recruitment and human capital than it has to do with walls and furniture.”

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