Research and common sense tell us that the work environment has a big effect on employee efficiency and morale. But are firms meeting the hopes and expectations of staff in workplace facilities? Are managers proud to invite clients or suppliers back to the office, or ashamed? MT teamed up with Stanhope and ICM Research to find out. Jeremy Myerson reports.
What does your workplace say about you or your employer? Does it breathe confidence, ambition, status and vision, as well as providing all the space and facilities you could wish for to excel at your job?
Is it perhaps just functional and adequate? Or is it a Dilbert-style cubicle farm, reeking of penny-pinching, disappointment and abbreviated horizons?
The results of MT's first ever Workspace Satisfaction Survey suggest that many of us would choose one of the two more defeatist statements to describe the place we spend our working days in. Conducted in association with Stanhope, the developer of Chiswick Park business estate in west London, and ICM Research, the survey reveals that British managers have an unfulfilled yearning for superior working accommodation, and that they are ready, willing and able to make big sacrifices to get it.
Nearly half of those surveyed would relinquish one week's annual leave for a better office, and sizable numbers would also forgo pounds 1,000 in salary or the benefits of private medical insurance in exchange for a significantly upgraded workspace. And 45% might make the ultimate sacrifice and contemplate changing companies in return for an improved work environment, even if the role, salary and benefits in the new job were no better.
The message is clear: the issue of office environment is moving rapidly from the margins of management to become a central power broker in terms of recruiting, retaining and motivating the best people. But although managers in Britain are more aware than ever before that well-designed workspace counts for a lot in meeting business objectives, the general feeling is that most employers aren't getting it right yet in terms of providing a better alternative to the beige office cubicle with its curling carpet tiles and view of the fire escape.
There were high levels of agreement with the idea that a better work environment can reduce stress, improve morale, reflect corporate culture, reinforce brand identity, help retain staff and drive up productivity, yet nearly a third of those surveyed would actually be ashamed to bring clients or contacts into their own workplace.
In other words, there is a gap between understanding the theory and implementing it in practice. In a world of home make-over TV shows and celebrity interior decorators, we're all much more aware of the design of our physical environment than before. But bosses aren't doing enough - yet - to turn personal aspiration into corporate reality.
And the rumbles of discontent behind the scuffed metal filing cabinets are getting louder. One harassed manager wrote to MT on his survey form: 'My office is distracting, noisy, has poor lighting and design - uncomfortable.'
What most managers want are workplaces that are better designed for their needs - with additional leisure and social facilities that traditional gradgrind offices have neglected to deliver. Nearly three-quarters believe that having such amenities would contribute to higher levels of satisfaction in the workforce.
At the top of the wishlist is the provision of relaxation/thinking spaces, a reflection of how difficult it is to do simple things in most organisations like book a meeting room. More than half of those surveyed wanted break-out areas that offer an escape from the pressures of the desk inside an organisation. However, only a fifth enjoy relaxation/thinking spaces at present.
Similarly, more than half would like a gym to relieve stress, whereas only 14% currently get to work out. Fewer than one in 10 have any shopping, cultural or childcare/eldercare facility in their place of work. And only 5% have the facilities for staying overnight.
The commonest amenity on offer is a shower, with nearly four in 10 able to wash their locks, although this appears well down the list of most desirable facilities. The fact that more managers would prefer a cultural activity in their workplace than a shop says something about the need to have civilising distractions from the pressures of the job.
Interestingly, public-sector managers are more likely to have such facilities as a shower or gym than their private-sector counterparts, just as they are more likely to be able to physically rearrange their local work environment and benefit from flexible work practices. But does this suggest a generation of smugly content feather-bedded civil servants? Not a bit of it. Public-sector managers are actually more disenchanted than those in the private sector. Fewer support the notion that workplaces are designed for people or encourage social interaction with colleagues.
Clearly, work environment matters a lot to those in the public sector.
There's greater willingness to swap jobs or trade annual leave for a better workspace than among private-sector managers, for example. But workplace change is happening too slowly for some tastes.
Sir Stuart Lipton, CEO of Stanhope, the developer behind Chiswick Park, Broadgate, Stockley Park and other schemes, including the Treasury Building in Whitehall, counsels patience: 'Government is becoming more aware of good architecture and there's a focus on outcomes, not just output. A more holistic approach is emerging, centred on light, art, diversions, break-out spaces, landscaping and all the things that make us feel good at work. Generally, I'm not surprised by the overall willingness of managers to trade other perks for a more productive, more communal, less stressful work environment. We're working harder and longer. We want it to be more enjoyable, more fun.'
To support Lipton's thesis, there's good news in the survey if you like natural light at work - and who doesn't? More than half of all managers now sit within a metre of a window. This reflects not only more open, glazed-design thinking but also changing practices in office space-planning.
The old days of senior executives in private rooms hugging the perimeter of the building and hogging the best views while the serfs sit in semi-darkness in the middle are fast disappearing. The trend is towards open plan, with circulation spaces around the edges of buildings There's good news too for those who like to adapt their own local environment to individual needs. Two-thirds of those surveyed are allowed to do so. But if you are a smoker, you belong to a nearly extinct species. Only 2% can now smoke inside the office, and fewer than half are permitted to smoke outside.
Companies are clearly clamping down on that forlorn band of puffers who form a graceless guard of honour outside the entrance to every corporate HQ.
If smokers are treated like workplace war criminals to be hounded and persecuted, advocates of hot-desking don't fare much better. Although the benefits of flexible working practices are given a general thumbs-up in the survey and there is wide take-up when they are offered, only flexitime survives the popularity test.
Hot-desking engenders deep hostility, with nine out of 10 managers preferring the security of their own designated workspace. And the attitude towards homeworking is at best ambiguous. Less than a third of managers would actively prefer to work at home. (Not having to commute is given as the main reason why homebirds choose this option.) The vast majority are eager to maintain a separation between home and work, claiming that the social interaction and face-to-face networking of the office is essential to their role. Women are even more hard-nosed about leaving the kids than men.
When they do get to work, they may well find the builders in. There's no doubt that many offices are hoisting the 'under construction' sign.
Nearly six out of 10 managers say the layout and design of their workplace has been reviewed in the past 12 months, a reflection of the restless search for better solutions. And nearly a quarter have physically relocated within the past year.
But qualified architects have been involved in only one in 10 of such projects. The in-house facilities team still holds sway in this area, accounting for nearly two-thirds of office design jobs. So-called Chairman's Wife syndrome also emerges as a small but not insignificant factor here, alongside free design advice from office furnishing contractors.
Workplace architects know the score only too well. 'The in-house facilities team often feel the need to make their mark on a design scheme,' says Ken Mackay of architects Harper Mackay, whose clients include M&C Saatchi and Deloitte Consulting. 'So once we've finished the building, they pop in partitions and other ideas that are often far removed from the core ideas of a project.'
Observes architect Richard Paul of the Richard Rogers Partnership, who led the design of Chiswick Park: 'As a nation, we've a working culture that is prepared to put up with second-best. They're a lot more vociferous about quality in Swizerland and Germany. If a client is prepared to nickel-and-dime it, the environment will suffer. It all starts with making the case for sustainable business - a crap environment will simply lose companies key individuals they can't afford to lose.'
Given that managers clearly recognise the importance of work environment to improving productivity and wellbeing, and appear to know what they want, will we see a new wave of workplaces that are better designed for people's real needs? One encouraging sign from the survey is that levels of staff consultation on relocation are higher than previous research has indicated.
Also, eight out of 10 employees appear to know who's in charge in terms of making decisions about property and work environment - and those decision-makers are increasingly at senior board level. Once, companies made such decisions at lower levels of the organisation. Now the office or facilities manager is the key decision-maker in fewer than 30% of cases.
The downside is that, despite a general understanding that property and people are the two biggest costs to any company, a third of managers continue to believe that workplace issues - the junction point between the two - are neglected within their employer's corporate strategy. So there's a lot of catching-up to do.
Standhope's Lipton believes we can all learn from the exemplars of change out there, especially smaller firms. 'If you look at environments like GlaxoSmithKline in Brentford, which offers a terrific social infrastructure, or Bloomberg in the City, which has a tremendous buzz and confidence, you will find major corporations giving their employers a much better quality of working life,' he argues.
'I think we'll see office buildings becoming more like hotels - more individual, more comfortable, with more personality and greater focus on work/life balance. It's the factory farming versus free-range argument. Most people are against factory farming.'
Jeremy Myerson's latest book, The 21st Century Office, co-written with Philip Ross, will be published this autumn by Laurence King
- GlaxoSmithKline's new UK head office in West London had a symbolic as well as a functional purpose when Tony Blair opened it in 2002. After the merger, it was a home for the two newlyweds. GSK House is a high-tech, glass affair housing 3,500 staff with a light and airy feel complemented by an alarmingly youthful, tie-less worforce. The building is dominated at ground level by The Street, a facsimile shopping mall that accommodates a hairdresser, a gym, a dry cleaner, several restaurants, a library, shops offering two packs of Aquafresh (a GSK brand) for the price of one and even an Indian head masseur. Justine Frain (opposite), vice-president of global community partnerships at GSK, likes the building a lot. 'On a good day the views are spectacular - you can see Canary Wharf, the London Eye and even do a traffic forecast for the A4 flyover. It's a very social building in which you keep bumping into people. I think it has encouraged us to work in a different way - more creatively.'
< STAFF FACILITIES really wanted/actually provided Relaxation/thinking space 56% 20% Gym 53% 14% Restaurant 41% 31% Childcare/eldercare 27% 06% Shower 27% 39% Cultural activity 12% 07% Concierge services 09% 03%
- Toyota UK's corporate nerve centre is perched on the side of a hill in leafy Surrey. It cost pounds 34 million (pounds 7.5 million for the land, pounds 26.5 million for the building) and houses 400 staff in steel, glass and leather-clad surroundings reminiscent of the interior of the Lexus sports car - an example of which hangs upside-down from the atrium roof. Designed by architects Sheppard Robson, the building offers a lakeside restaurant, coffee shop (with a brace of decorative Toyota F1 cars), subsidised gym and acres of landscaped gardens. Particularly popular with staff are the numerous informal break-out spaces, reckoned to have done wonders for inter-departmental communication. It also telegraphs Toyota's commercial ambition to staff, visitors and competition alike. 'It's a statement of our brand vision, of the scale and success of Toyota and the people who work here,' says commercial director Paul Philpott (opposite). 'It's not about where we are, but where we want to go.'
< HOME WORKING 32% would prefer working at home because There's no commute 44% It's a better environment 17% It's more productive 16% It's quiet and peaceful 08% Other reasons 15%
LOOK WHO'S TALKING
MT mailed workspace satisfaction questionnaires to 5,000 selected readers. Nearly 600 completed forms were returned to ICM Research - a 12% response rate. About 40% of those who took part in the survey are at board, director or head-of-department level. Three-quarters work in the private sector. Their mean age is 39 and they work about 41 hours a week on average. Just over half work in London and the south-east, but the Midlands (15%) and the north of England (13%) are well represented. More women than men completed the survey. Are female managers (57%) more aware of their environment, or do they just feel more strongly about it?
< SMOKING Where is smoking allowed in your workplace? Outside the office 48% Nowhere 27% Designated area only 23% In the office 02%