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The ugly truth about UK office spaces

Philip Watson | 30 Jun 2016 | Comments

Recently The Telegraph reported on an Ipsos poll of 12,000 people that found employees in the UK feel ‘uncomfortable, uninspired and unable to concentrate at work’. The study found that as many as 20% of UK workers described their office as cold, 30% were unhappy with their light levels and 13% thought their workplace was ugly, twice as high as the global average. Overall, a third of British workers said they disliked their environment.

I’m sure many people would see this article and say “Surely it’s your job and not the space you’re in that makes you happy at work!” but clearly, people don’t perform at their best when the physical environment becomes a barrier to doing their job. And if we really want to improve UK productivity, it’s not something we can ignore.

We need to get the basics of air quality, light, noise and temperature right in our workplaces as they have a significant impact on our ability to function effectively. In fact, research has found that good ventilation can result in 11% productivity gains, while distracting sounds can result in a staggering 66% drop in performance.

But it’s not just about the physical aspects of our built environment, it’s about how the workplace make us feel. People need a working environment where they feel comfortable, have a sense of belonging and feel connected to the people around them. However, the Ipsos poll found 30% of Brits currently consider their workplace impersonal, almost twice the global average.

Providing employees with better working environments can also play a large part in helping to ease the huge personal and economic burden associated with mental health illnesses, such as depression and anxiety, estimated by the World Health Organisation to cost UK employers £30b each year.

What the Ipsos survey (see graph from The Telegraph) underlined for me is that in the UK we do not truly understand the importance of our built environment and the impact it has on us. It’s a real wasted opportunity and with the average person spending 90% of their life indoors we’re all suffering as a result.

Northern European cultures more readily recognise the importance of our environment to our wellbeing. This coincides with countries such as Norway and Sweden having labour productivity rates over 2%higher than those in the UK. Of course there will be many factors  influencing these figures but I do believe that this is, at least in part, a result of these countries considering employee wellbeing in their workplaces.

Another interesting correlation from this study appears to be the link between open plan offices and dissatisfaction. With half of UK workspaces now being open plan (twice the global average), that’s potentially a big problem. But this shift in office design hasn’t just being driven by cost saving and the need to reduce square footage, it’s also been part of a well-intentioned attempt to promote flexible working, collaboration, and interaction. So, how do we balance the two?

As designers we need to understand that ‘flexible space’ doesn’t just mean open plan. It means providing a variety of spaces that support a range of activities and then getting the blend of these right. We have a duty to get the psychological as well as the physiological aspects of the workplace right, for the benefit of staff and the improved productivity that UK companies will benefit from.

To find out more about how Atkins are putting wellbeing at the heart of their building design click here.