Current economic conditions are causing many firms to cut back on real estate costs. Other companies are simply looking to rearrange things to eliminate the morale-sapping empty offices resulting from firm layoffs. This article looks at three design trends that have emerged to address this situation and create engaging environments for creativity and productivity.

The Green Movement: The Toronto headquarters of business software provider SAS Canada was the first commercial building in Canada to receive LEED certification. This company’s office design elements serve as an example of the first of the three trends: green design. Two years after the company’s 2006 move, absenteeism was down 35 percent, a drop senior management attributes to better air quality reducing sickness [office air is pumped to the ceiling instead of circulating across coughing workers] and to the flood of sunlight from their floor to ceiling windows improving moods and lowering stress. Meanwhile, the company’s annual energy bill is 62 percent cheaper than that of a typical Ontario office building and its green investment will be paid off in about three years.

Life Spaces: The second design trend identified by this article has to do with lifespaces – those airport lounges and Starbucks spaces people are comfortable meeting in – being mimicked in workspaces. Communications firm MediaCom Canada’s redesign with an open concept bistro at its heart reflects this trend as we read about staff sharing news over breakfast, attending town halls in the afternoon and social events in the evening. Although it’s hard to quantify the direct payoff, management is convinced that overall productivity is helped by bringing people together from different departments in a non-traditional setting that actively promotes the exchange of ideas.

Close Quarters: The third trend is exemplified by the headquarters of the world’s largest search engine, where Google catalyzes collaboration and innovation by sitting its people at close quarters. Engineers, for example, are clustered in small “pods” of three people, while other staff has similarly close desk designs. Managers believe this increases the chance they’ll overhear what’s happening on different projects and participate. Open floor plans and a casual atmosphere help in this regard, as do free lunches where colleagues chat as they stand in line.

The article includes a short section on “Cool Facts” gathered from research surveys and academia, where readers can find out such things as:

  • The optimal time [in minutes] to interact in line without it turning awkward [3½];
  • The percentage of workers who feel their office layout increases their stress because of clutter, lack of space, desk arrangement, etc. [60];
  • The maximum distance [in meters] that workers should sit from one another to collaborate successfully on a frequent basis [50]; and
  • The percentage of employers who said a green retrofit of their offices improved productivity [87].

The article ends with a brief section of tips to reduce the obstacles and improve the success rates for design change.

Source: Tavia Grant – The Globe and Mail (Toronto); May 9, 2009, pB16

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