Efforts to shrink federal and private sector real estate footprints are changing the workplace. Sharing non-dedicated spaces and adopting technologies that allow work anywhere, any time have been expected to improve employee productivity even as square footage per worker constricts. But the 2013 U.S. Workplace Survey by design and architecture firm Gensler reveals that workplace effectiveness has declined since 2008, and only 1 out of 4 office workers feel they work in an optimal environment.
Gensler research since 2005 has examined the links between workplace design, worker productivity and business success. In its latest online survey, 2,035 “knowledge worker” respondents were drawn from diverse age groups and locations and from 10 industry segments, including telecommunications, biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, and professional services such as accounting. Questions focused on work modes related to task completion: focus, collaboration, learning and socializing.
By comparing results from a parallel survey in 2008, responses showed that workers are spending 13% more time in deep concentration than they were 5 years ago (54% vs. 48% of their time), yet the effectiveness of their focus has declined. Gensler Principal Janet Pogue explains that focus is down because distractions are up. “We weren’t surprised,” says Pogue in a YouTube discussion of the survey results, “because we have been tracking this over the last five years with our clients.” Increasingly popular open-plan office spaces are intended to encourage collaboration, as well as to save space. But often, shared desks, non-designated equipment and flexible work schedules also create distractions. Even as worker density increases, time spent collaborating has declined 20%, while 77% of respondents prefer quiet when they need to focus, and 69% reported dissatisfaction with noise levels in their workspace. “Noise has a huge impact on the ability to focus,” says Pogue.
The Gensler study also points toward traits of more effective workplaces. Workers who can focus are more satisfied (31%) and higher performing (14%) according to the survey. Almost a quarter of the respondents reported that their companies value a balanced workplace, supporting individual work in private spaces as well as collaborative efforts in group spaces. These satisfied workers found their spaces more effective for focus (21%) and for collaboration (20%) and rate their workplaces as more effective overall (23%). A balanced workplace also provides choices of when and where to work, resulting in more job satisfaction (12%) and higher effectiveness scores across all four work modes studied. Diane Hoskins, co-chief executive officer at Gensler, said in a press release about the findings, “Balanced workplaces where employees have the autonomy to choose their work space based on the task or project at hand are more effective and higher performing.”
The General Services Administration (GSA) is already putting the balanced workplace concept into practice in its renovated headquarters at 1800 F Street NW, D.C. A study of occupancy and badge data confirmed that the facility’s 4,400 workers were often away from their desks at on- or off-site meetings or while traveling or teleworking. Guided by a Gensler assessment of worker needs and behaviors, the GSA sought more efficient, renovated space that would enable the agency to move out of six leased properties and save $24.4 million each year. The headquarter’s new “activity-based working” approach allows each employee to reserve whatever type of individual or group work space is needed for a particular task. Kit-of-parts furniture makes spaces easily adaptable, and policies allowing choice support flexible employee behaviors. Balancing employee needs to focus as individuals and to work in cohesive teams is predicted to improve overall agency performance, even as space available per worker declines. Gensler’s Janet Pogue sees the GSA project as “leading by example” in a research-based federal effort to improve performance as in a changing workplace. Says Pogue, “GSA is rolling out these strategies to other Federal agencies across the country to assist in right-sizing their operations.”