The design problems we are often faced with are universal, and include accommodating ever-growing numbers of staff, incorporating brand identities into physical space and generally creating functional, yet aesthetically pleasing spaces. In previous posts in this series, we’ve looked at the impact of the office environment, the kinds of work employees engage in, the spaces that support them and what’s taking place in office design overseas. It is important for us as designers of workplaces, to process this information and apply it in such a way that design in Barbados develops.
One way to do this is to assess the pros and cons of changes in design. As change in Barbados is measured, we have the opportunity to see some of the effects of design advances in other areas of the world, and consider them through a Barbadian lens.
There are many positive elements that have developed from and continue to be generated by research and new design solutions. Viewing the office environment as a space that should not only be functional but inspiring and comfortable is the first step.
Valuing the Employee Experience
While budget can direct the bottom line, it must not be the only factor influencing the design solution. Beyond fundamental factors of the physical environment, such as good ventilation, lighting etc, workplaces that allocate the best spaces for the most people immediately show that employees are a priority. In open office situations, providing employees with a variation of areas to work from has the ability to help them better accomplish their tasks. Introducing protocols that permit staff to shift throughout the day based on these tasks allows them some autonomy. These factors can mitigate some of the drudgery some work days can have.
Free access to amenities such as tea, coffee and snacks is an added bonus. Some organisations even introduce amenities that have a more explicit impact on wellness, such as gyms and meditation rooms. The idea here isn’t to introduce several different spaces, or free donuts and yoga classes, but to consider added elements employees might require. When employees feel valued, they tend to be more engaged and productive.
Innovative and vibrant design at Skype Office Palo Alto, designed by Design Blitz, Photography by Matthew Millman (Officesnapshots.com)
Bolstering Brand & Corporate Culture
Incorporating brand identity into a space also acts to reinforce principles of the brand culture amongst staff, as well as affecting the more implicit corporate culture. The office environment should also convey the brand ideals to not only to staff, but to clients and visitors as well.
This goes beyond a coat of paint. If a company professes to be vibrant and innovative, the feel of the workplace should also reflect those attributes. The types of spaces should help to foster the habits that are encouraged in staff. However if a company prides itself on discretion, privacy and traditional values, perhaps a completely open office is not the right solution.
Offices with glazed fronts provide privacy while allowing a connection to the outer office at a private investment firm in London, designed by Resonate Interiors, Photography by Philip Vile (officesnapshots.com)
Applying a Broad Brush Technique
Workplace design is an exercise in customisation. An organisation should not be forced into a design solution that is far removed from the essence of a company. Rather than reinforce the corporate culture, the incorrect design solution can detract from it. Take again for example, the company that values discretion and privacy of client information. If even the CEO is sitting in a benching system, are those ideals conveyed to both staff and visitors? Perhaps transparency is also part of the culture - then that design might work.
Alternatively, changes in design can be used as an impetus for change in companies. However organisation leaders need to manage the change process so that employees are aware of what to expect. This can alleviate some resistance that is often found when substantial design changes take place within organisations.
The Dark Side of the Open Office
Less privacy, less space, and more distractions are the major problems related to open offices, and these can reduce productivity. The open office needs to translate to the type of company and the work being done.
As part of the open office plan, many companies are moving toward unassigned, ‘clean desk’ work areas for employees. This may work well for mobile staff, whose time in office is minimal, but for someone who is in office every day, this isn’t optimal. It also has the potential to cause employees to feel detached. We are generally creatures of habit, preferring to sit in the same place, and engage the same activities. We also like to feel some type of ownership of our space, however small, and have the ability to personalise it somewhat, especially in the Caribbean.
In most cases, not everyone can have an office, and sometimes an office isn’t necessary. What is necessary however is some type of private space, where staff are able to engage in a confidential call, or even focused work. While the preferences of each person in an organisation cannot be accommodated, it’s important to remember that employees are not unfeeling drones.
Workers have access to different types of spaces at Solstice Mobile Chicago, designed by Baumann Studios, photography by Jacob N. Clary (officesnapshots.com)
When discussing office design, there are many facets to consider. Even with the ideas we have presented in this series, we are only skimming the surface. Fundamentally though, the type of company, corporate culture and well-being of employees should be drivers for design. Design solutions should not be duplicated haphazardly, but a bespoke design must be proposed for each organisation. As designers, we need to identify useful design elements and translate those into the Barbadian context, while excluding ideas that are not functional for our clients.
Year to year, we see the landscape of offices changing in overseas markets. Some changes are for the better, benefitting employees and organisations as a whole. However, some simply don’t work in the long run, and so we have seen the workplace evolve over time. Where does the Barbadian corporate office fit in with design advances overseas?
As we know, change in Barbados can be gradual, and the standard office is a conservative one, illustrating classic indicators of status and traditional ways of working. The office environment is, at times, not taken into consideration outside of accommodating staff numbers and providing a necessary workspace. What some fail to realise and we discussed in the previous post in this series, is that the workplace environment has an impact on employee engagement and productivity. Considering that the corporate population spends most of the day in this environment, it should support the people and the work being done in an efficient manner.
In a standard Barbadian office, executives and managers are usually located in offices on the perimeter of the floor plate, with access to natural light and views, which is generally seen as an indicator of status, something for staff to aspire to. The support staff are likely located outside of these offices in assigned workstations, away from the perimeter, natural light and views. Depending on the number of support staff, there can be an expanse of workstations, some with high panels to offer privacy – cutting employees off from one another. Meeting rooms are often the only space to facilitate collaboration. This model does not align with trends that we see in overseas markets.
The ‘New Yorker’s’ take on the traditional office layout (John O’brien, The New Yorker)
Leaders of organisations are giving priority to the work environment, in an effort to recruit and retain productive, engaged staff, as well as to reinforce their brand identities. Many organisations now allocate the best spaces to the most people, so that the majority of workers have access to natural light and views. In juxtaposition to this is a general reduction in square footage for each employee based on factors such as high rental rates, and the ability for some employees to be untethered to a desk, either working from home or elsewhere in the office. Desks have become smaller, but this has also led to an increase of collaboration spaces, either lounge areas or meeting rooms. Some staff are given freedom to choose their workspace. Wellness has become a focus. Amenity areas for food and tea or coffee have also been given more significance. With the emphasis on open and collaborative spaces, there has of recent, been a renewed emphasis on private spaces, combined with new protocols on use of these spaces. These trends drive more than interior design, also influencing architecture, product design and real estate, but do they work?
Various types of work areas offer employees a choice of where to work at any given time (What Now Offices New York by Fogarty Finger, from officesnapshots.com)
For some types of businesses they do. Take for example, technology ‘start-ups’ with their open layouts, reduced privacy, unassigned works spaces and popular amenities. These elements work since employees need to collaborate frequently, often work outside of traditional hours and do not need to be in an office setting to complete tasks. They also reinforce company culture. The Gillespie & Steel offices too are completely open, to facilitate collaboration, the only enclosed space is the conference room.
Smaller, height adjustable desks offer the ability to change posture throughout the day (Danone Utretcht Innovation Centre Netherlands by Cepezed photos by Stijn Poelstra, from officesnapshots.com)
Open collaboration space (Cision Chicago by Eastlake Studio, from office snapshots.com)
Café space takes gives the traditional tea point/lunchroom more emphasis and allows employees another area to work, collaborate and socialise (Media 24 Offices Cape Town by Inhouse, from officesnapshots.com)
Other industries have replicated some of these design elements with less success. We cannot apply a ‘monkey see, monkey do’ approach here. We do, however, have the benefit of the overseas markets’ hindsight, and the ability to apply successful strategies to corporate Barbados. The type of business, company culture and work being engaged in must inform the design of the spaces and ultimately the space must support these factors. What factors benefit the Barbadian corporate office?
The Impact of the Office Environment
Much of the work we do at G&S Interiors involves the design and development of corporate Barbadian environments. Often the main objective is to accommodate a defined number of people, but we still need to ensure the office environment is inspiring, pleasant and efficient for those working there. We see many changes taking place in the overseas market. These tend to infiltrate our market, in the form of new design ideas and more tangibly in the form of products made to facilitate these design ideas. In the upcoming series of blogs we will investigate some elements of office design and how they translate in the Barbadian market, starting with the office environment itself.
Space with abundant natural light (Index Ventures San Francisco Office Expansion by Garcia Tamjidi Architrecture Design, From officesnapshots.com)
The Barbadian Context
The office environment has an impact on the productivity and engagement of employees. This may seem like an obvious statement, but we do not often see this in all corporate offices in Barbados. Physical factors such as the amount of light, both natural and artificial, the indoor air quality and ergonomics of products have a direct effect on an employee’s physical well being, and most people acknowledge that these form the foundation of good office design. The design of a workplace can however, also include factors which influence the psychological and emotional well being of employees, and this is what we find is not so readily accepted.
Locally, the importance of a ‘healthy’ workplace is generally understood, and the implementation of the Safety and Health At Work (SHAW) Act is a positive step forward. A sick employee will not have the same level of productivity as one who is in good health. Absences and lowered work output can be directly attributed to their illness, but what about the physically well employee who feels unmotivated and disengaged? The cause of their work absences and lowered output may not usually be directly perceived. Absenteeism and lack of employee engagement is a constant struggle for Barbadian companies. There are many factors that influence this, but research has found that the design of the workplace environment contributes to these sentiments.
Focus, Collaboration, Socialising and Learning
In the past few years research, such as Gensler’s Workplace Surveys from 2008 and 2013, has amassed data to show that the types of work spaces must apply to the type of work being done there. Spaces which support the type of work tasks, as well as ways in which employees perform these tasks, create office spaces where people want to be present.
Further research undertaken in the US by Gensler and others, has shown that there are four work modes - Focus, Collaboration, Socialising and Learning. A typical workday is made up mostly of tasks that require Focus and Collaboration, with Socialising and Learning also taking place, but to a lesser extent. These work modes can be readily identified in Barbadian offices as well. An individual may be working as a part of a project team, and so need to collaborate, but often needs to go away from meetings and concentrate on their area of the project. The collaboration typically takes place in a meeting room, and the focus work at the individual’s assigned work area, be it an office or workstation.
A collaborative space next to a private space for focused work. (Philip's North American Lighting Headquarters by Gensler, From officesnapshots.com)
Studies have found that companies whose office environments offer a varied balance of spaces that support Collaboration as well as Focus have employees who are more engaged and productive. This is enhanced when workers can choose the spaces they want to work in throughout the day, something not regularly seen on island. Further to offering different spaces to work in, research has also found a benefit in offering products which support different postures. This has seen the introduction of height adjustable desks, which allow the occupant to sit or stand, as well as different types of seating, for example lounge chairs, stools, ottomans etc. These choices encourage people to move about during the day rather than being sedentary.
Different types of spaces to support different work modes (The Factory San Francisco by ASD Photography by Mariko Reed, From officesnapshots.com)
The Bottom Line
The type of office and corporate culture can also impact the work environment. Design elements can be used to support the organisational culture. While many Barbadian companies tend to be conservative and follow a historic design model, there is also an expanding presence of multinational corporations, amongst local companies. Many of these organisations have design guidelines to emphasise brand identity, while homogenising their physical presence globally and we as designers are often charged with helping more traditional clients transition to these new types of spaces.
The valuable take away is that organisational leaders have the ability to shape the office environment for their staff and themselves, ultimately investing in their employees. It is worth it if this can underscore the corporate culture, act as a recruitment tool for new employees, help to retain those already there, and boost productivity.The office environment should be viewed as a desirable place to be which evokes positive feelings and not just be seen as a place to work.