MT Workspace Satisfaction Review - Strategic moves

A good office is about more than posh seating and fresh paint. As our three case studies show, workspace strategy promises higher productivity and fulfilled staff.

by Jeremy Myerson
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Bad office buildings do not make for good managers. Two years after the first MT Workspace Satisfaction Survey identified a gap between awareness of the benefits of better work environments and real action by companies to provide them for managers, the message from the huddled masses beneath the flickering fluorescents in open plan remains the same: we'd all be happier, more productive and less stressed if we weren't working in the 21st-century equivalent of a sweatshop.

Workspace satisfaction, it appears, is not an elusive thing. Organisations can achieve it simply by paying closer attention to the basics: lighting, air quality, soundproofing, external views, breakout spaces away from the desk. 'Companies come up with extravagant visions of what's needed,' says Paul Morrell, president of the British Council for Offices. 'But the hygiene factors come first. If you can't see, hear or breathe properly, or the lifts aren't working, then you aren't going to be satisfied.'

MT's study of the attitudes of 600 middle and senior managers, conducted with ICM Research and developer Stanhope in spring 2003 (MT June 2003), revealed that managers were willing to make considerable sacrifices in order to get a well-designed workplace in which they could see, hear and breathe.

Nearly half of those surveyed would forgo a week's holiday for a better office, and sizeable numbers would also give up £1,000 in salary or private medical insurance in exchange for an upgraded workspace. And 45% of managers would consider changing employers - even if role, salary and benefits in the new job were identical - in return for a better work setting.

Such findings didn't surprise Morrell back then and they don't surprise him today. If anything, he says, the clamour for change has grown. But what is holding companies back is the lack of evidence that supports a clear management case for investing in better workspace.

That is why, under Morrell's leadership, the British Council for Offices has been working with CABE (Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment), architects and workplace consultant DEGW to explore the links between office design and business performance. The search is on for metrics that companies might adopt to direct and validate their spending on office environments. It is the equivalent of the Holy Grail.

DEGW's Frank Duffy, the leading theorist in this area, admits candidly that early 21st-century architects know as little about how work environment shapes business performance as early 19th-century physicians did about how diseases were transmitted before the science of epidemiology had been established.

This analogy echoes the veteran management guru Peter Drucker, who noted: 'We are in the year 2000 roughly where we were in the year 1900 in terms of the productivity of the manual worker.'

We all know that the productivity of the manual worker increased roughly 50 times during the 20th century through changes in factory design, but how will knowledge worker productivity be similarly improved by changes in office design?

In DEGW's initial report for the British Council for Offices, Duffy outlines the reasons for past failures to establish a robust empirical argument for change: the volatile economic context, the sheer complexity of business practice, the clumsy and fragmented office building and supply chain, and so on.

In conversation, however, he pins the blame squarely on one target: 'The people I'd like to line up against a wall and shoot are the letting agents.

They're venal, corrupt, stupid and suffer from collective amnesia. They confuse the supply side by advising developers and institutional funds, as well as companies letting space. They have enormous power and they hold back innovative office design.'

The way forward, Duffy argues, is for a more vital discourse between developers, architects and the managers who will work in these facilities, supported by better information on user demand. Already, new thinking is being developed on workplace strategy, as MT's Expert Forum suggests (see p53). And more case studies are emerging in Britain to show how relocations can work well in practice.

In the MT Workspace Satisfaction Survey, there were high levels of support from managers for workplaces that could reinforce brand identity, underpin new ways of working and offer a more relaxing environment with breakout spaces. These responses drove the workplace designs for Edge's small office, the medium-sized Munro's Travel Agency in Aberdeen and the large Pfizer headquarters in Surrey. They are also evident in the hypothetical relocation of fictional company Suretouch by MT's Expert Forum.

So the message is beginning to get through. British managers want brighter, better surroundings, more suited to their business needs. Now those who commission, plan, design and build these cathedrals of commerce must gear up to deliver.

- Jeremy Myerson is director of InnovationRCA, the innovation network for business at the Royal College of Art, and the author of The 21st Century Office (Laurence King Publishing)


One might expect the office building strategy of Pfizer, the pharmaceutical giant responsible for Viagra, to be designed to work better for longer.

But the company's move to an award-winning new headquarters in Walton Oaks, Surrey, is widely regarded as a model of good relocation practice, in which high-quality design is tailored to management objectives.

It could all have looked very different. When Pfizer acquired the Walton Oaks site as part of a deal to buy the animal health division of SmithKline Beecham in 1995, it came complete with a listed Edwardian country house.

Among the architects that entered a competition to redevelop the site, only Sheppard Robson advised Pfizer to pull the house down.

This 'greenfield' approach paid dividends. The firm won the contract and designed an ultra-modern facility lying low in the landscape, with five office 'fingers' radiating from a curved central spine. The three inner fingers were occupied in December 2001; the two outer ones in March 2004, in a second phase.

Pfizer relocated 400 staff from its research centre in Sandwich, Kent, and recruited 50 people locally. The building now has 780 staff, with planning permission to increase capacity to 900. According to Maria Hazard, Pfizer's property and procurement manager, three key factors influenced the project. 'First, we moved to be closer to our customers: Walton Oaks is close to the airports and the M25. Second, we moved to recruit and retain the best people in the industry, especially in sales and marketing.'

The third factor, she says, was perhaps the most profound of all. 'We used the relocation to change the way we work. We moved from functionally located teams to cross-functional teams. Now medics, marketers and finance people are all co-located. We've taken the opportunity to build better communication and better team working.'

The shift in work practices required a major focus on change management and the visible commitment of the most senior managers. A 'design opps and culture' team ran focus groups to establish a consensus on the protocols around such things as shared printing services. 'Fear of change is fear of the unknown,' explains Hazard. 'We did lots of training and presentations. We had 400 people visit the site over three days in the week before we moved.'

So, as she sits gazing at trees and cows from a stunning environment, what is Hazard's advice to others thinking of relocating? 'Plan carefully and build in the time to be able to react if something goes wrong, because in my experience it always does.'


Munro's Travel Group in Aberdeen regularly sends its customers to the furthest corners of the globe. But when it relocated, it simply moved from one side of the granite city's famous Union Street to the other, a distance of less than half a mile.

The effort was well worth it, though, according to partner Murray Burnett.

'We'd been occupying four floors in the same office since 1918. It was old and cramped with lots of little rooms. We had communication problems. Now we have a totally different environment, which has improved the way we work and gives us room for expansion.'

Like many medium-sized enterprises with more than 50 staff, Munro's found the lack of suitably flexible accommodation a barrier to building a more robust business. Founded in 1903 by an entrepreneur who sold rail tickets as soon as the track between Aberdeen and London was complete, the company had grown substantially during the 1970s on the back of the twin boom in package holidays and oil industry executives coming to Aberdeen.

Burnett and his partners, however, recognised that their 55-strong travel group would stall if a better workspace was not identified. After an initial fruitless search, a 6,500 sq ft space on a single second-storey floor in the same street became available.

Scottish architects firm Space Solutions was commissioned to advise on design and space-planning. Its solution: a funky workspace, all colour and curves to enhance open-plan working. 'You could see the change in the body language of the staff as soon as they moved in,' recalls Jan Emery of Space Solutions.

Munro's needed to take its safe across the road, which meant that the city's busiest retail thoroughfare was briefly closed off to allow the heavy lifting gear to be wheeled in.

The company used the move in December 2004 to change its entire business process. 'With hindsight, I should have paid more attention to the phones. BT let us down and we couldn't take our old number,' says Burnett. 'But the space and light we've got has been worth the headache.'


Edge is a tiny organisation with just four people. But its remit is massive: to raise the profile and reputation of vocational learning in Britain.

So when the charitable foundation moved to a new central London office in Golden Square, it needed a space that simultaneously reflected the small scale of its operations and the large scale of its ambitions.

With the relocation came a rebranding: Edge was formerly the Edexcel Foundation. Chief executive Andy Powell explains that after Edexcel's examinations business was sold off to Pearson, the cash-rich charity settled on a new educational focus. 'We needed a workspace that would act as a magnet for our message, that would make people want a dialogue with us.'

The Foundation had been in bland offices in Russell Square. 'It could have been the offices of any company; it said nothing about education,' says Powell. Edge's new accommodation has a great deal more personality: the 1,000sq ft space on the first floor of a handsome late-Victorian building in Golden Square sits above the music shop in which, according to urban legend, Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits bought his first guitar.

Powell brought in architects Springett Mackay to work on the refurbishment, as partner Kirsteen Mackay had researched social dynamics in buildings while at the Royal College of Art. Mackay's study described the key elements of a 'magnet' office that draws in visitors, and Powell wanted his relocation to reflect the principles of vocational learning in action.

The result is an ingenious white-walled project where three spaces are arranged in linear fashion. At the rear is a compact office space for the secretariat; at the front, an eye-catching meeting and presentation room with student artwork looking directly on to Golden Square through magnificent picture windows. In between is a gallery space showing more student work.

Edge occupied the new office in October 2004. 'We've had a lot of positive feedback,' says Powell. 'When people come through the door, they know we do things properly.'


Take a hypothetical company, Suretouch, that is about to embark on the tricky business of relocation. Throw some spicy factors into the mix and invite five of Britain's leading experts on office design to stir the pot. That was the thinking behind the MT Expert Forum on Workspace Satisfaction at the Royal College of Art in London.


Suretouch has committed to a new corporate headquarters to accommodate 100 staff, which it might build itself or rent. The company has a long history as a manufacturer of typewriters, but has switched to hand-held computers. Although it has carved out a good market, price competition is forcing it to move manufacture offshore. Its current strategy is to focus on design and after-sales service, and provide enterprise management systems to medium-sized businesses.

Suretouch's manufacturing facility (where most of the staff will be made redundant) is in south Wales. Its current headquarters are oak-panelled offices in Mayfair, London. Suretouch has also recently taken over Crashandburn, a software house located in a converted warehouse in Clerkenwell.

A reconstituted board is in place and several members would like to be involved with the new building, including a non-executive chairman who believes a signature building would do the company a lot of good. Then there's the chief executive, who has recently commissioned change agents to 'drag the staff into the 21st century'; and the finance director, who secretly believes the consequence of a new HQ will be insolvency. His bonus is linked to reducing premises costs.

The HR director ought to be involved, but is busy dealing with redundancies in the factory. The production manager has more time and has been given responsibility for the move.

The CEO feels that open-plan offices will help, although she will need an office of her own because she has many confidential meetings - a view shared by the other ardent open-plan advocates, the finance director and HR director.


How should Suretouch organise itself to achieve a successful relocation? What information will its advisers need? And what decisions will Suretouch have to make?


Our experts immediately latched on to two things: first, Suretouch needs a new business model more urgently than a new building; and, second, the CEO needs to drive change from the front, with the HR director closely involved.

Does Suretouch really need a new high-profile headquarters? There are plenty of corporate building follies around, from Enron to Sainsbury's move to the former Daily Mirror building. Commissioning consultants to advise on corporate culture and direction is seen as the way forward.

This will inform Suretouch's new identity as well as relocation. The company, say our experts, is being pulled in different directions. A new building is a dangerous move that could bring it crashing down.

The value of the business is in providing solutions in design and in after-sales service, so lines of communication in the company and with customers need to be shortened. The CEO, FD and HR director all need to be present at the initial meeting with the consultants. IT would also need to be in the mix early on. 'IT is dismissed as plumbing in lots of businesses,' says Morrell ruefully.

The panel looked at how the main players will engage with three key drivers: efficiency (making the most of your space), effectiveness (making the most of your people) and expression (making the most of your brand). Efficiency will interest the FD most, but effectiveness and expression could deliver more in the long term. In considering its new building, Suretouch must look at transport links, staff recruitment, customer servicing - and its style.

Our experts quickly dismissed the Mayfair HQ and the Clerkenwell warehouse as inappropriate, instead describing a workbase sited at a sustainable London transport hub, such as Paddington or Kings Cross.

The next decision is to buy or to lease: maintain your flexibility and lease, advise our experts. Keep your options open for growth.

What message should the new office convey? Shuttleworth described two options: 'It can look to the past to convey wealth and stability, or it can look to the future as a modern 21st-century building.' Suretouch would need its own message.

That, our experts agree, should be high-tech and modern; but also with a bit of history, suggests Morey-Smith.

As several different organisational cultures will be brought together in one new space, our experts agree that introducing radical new ways of non-territorial and team working would be a bridge too far, so might come later.

The consensus is that most people will be given their own desks in an open-plan space. Senior managers will be given access to a private office, but will not own one.

'In the large banks, 70% of the space is owned by just 30% of the people,' points out Katsikakis.

Gradually, the new HQ begins to emerge: a modern leased office located 'where the Circle Line meets a main rail terminus'. Ideally, the 15,000 sq ft space will be on one upper floor for open communication. A ground-floor office is ruled out on the basis of security. The interior is defined by furniture systems, not by walls. The strategy for growth will be in introducing new ways of working to achieve a higher occupancy in the same space.

Will it work for Suretouch? Our experts argue that the chairman will be weaned off signature architecture by the modern message of the new facility. The CEO, the key person in the process, will welcome the way the new office is the framework on which to hang a new business model, and the FD will be able to predict future costs and anticipate growth without taking on more space.

One final thing: be sure to do a post-occupancy survey six months after moving in - and implement its findings, insist our experts.


Richard Evans director of real estate worldwide at GlaxoSmithKline

Despina Katsikakis chairman of international architects and designers DEGW

Ken Shuttleworth Norman Foster's former right-hand man who now runs his own practice, Make

Linda Morey-Smith head of design consultancy Morey-Smith Associates

Paul Morrell of Davis Langdon LLP, president of the British Council for Offices, and CABE commissioner.

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