By Daniel Brooks-Dowsett and Daniel Wade, Trident Building Consultancy
If any company was to carry out a straw poll asking employees whether they would prefer to work from the office or at home, the majority would probably select a combination of both. Increasingly employers recognise that offering flexibility can significantly benefit individuals’ wellbeing, help attract and retain the best staff, and that a combination of office and home working benefits output.
Creating a ‘destination’ workplace
While appreciating the benefits of flexibility, employers also understand the need to attract staff to their place of work on a regular basis. So a redesign of a workspace increasingly prioritises the ‘arrival experience’ – impressive reception areas with artwork and water features – to make workers feel positive about their workplace.
Open plan offices (70% of all workplaces) are great for communication – but recent study has shown that distracting noises in an office can reduce employee performance by 66%, while another study found that noise correlates with increased stress hormone levels and reluctance to engage with others. Furthermore, sleek, open spaces often use a lot of glass and concrete which creates harsh echoes and compounds environmental noises.
According to The Sound Agency, sound masking technology boosts employees’ ability to concentrate by 46% improvement and their short-term memory accuracy can increase by 10%. So what can architects do to reduce noise disturbance?
Solutions can include:
- Clever furniture choices such as acoustic soft seating, high backed chairs and enclosed booths to manage open-plan office noise problems creatively and effectively. If using cubicles, divider panels should be at least 60 inches high, ideally 72 inches. Furniture should have a sound blocking rating of about 18-20 Sound Transmission Class (STC). The layout of the furniture is a key consideration too.
- Boxing in noise by erecting enclosures around machines and using barriers to block the direct path of sound.
- Carpets (especially if well-cushioned) not only reduce footfall, but also absorb sound and block noise from the floor below. Similarly, raised access flooring achieves excellent sound absorption. Sound insulation can be increased by compartmentalising the underfloor using either low-level plasterboard drywalls or high-density wool bats or acoustic pads under the partitioning.
- Create additional absorptive surfaces such as wall panels, wall hangings, screens, ceiling baffles, airtight partitions, carpeting, synthetic ‘acoustic plasters’ created through spraying or trowelling for a smooth finish.
- When determining internal finishes, consider the orientation of absorption, the location, and whether the finish is reflective or deflective.
- Green walls can provide great acoustic absorption, especially if plants are spread evenly and large plant containers that can accommodate substantial amounts of compost are also effective.
The impact of lighting design and outlook
According to the BRE, up to 60% of staff in UK offices lack sufficient access to daylight.
Guidance which aspires to higher standards does exist (the BRE guide BR209; the BSi’s BS8206) but is not a component of planning consent, which can result in some office buildings having poor standards. The BREEAM code is helpful, but in reality the credits awarded in relation to daylight / sunlight can be difficult to achieve in urban areas and are often neglected in favour of other goals.
Without creating an onerous requirement which stifles development and creates problems for developers at the planning stages, more should be done by local authorities to prevent very poor standards in new commercial buildings – for example, by requiring current criteria are met.
The new European standard EN17037 (recently adopted as a British Standard BS EN 17037-2018) introduced in May 2019 is encouraging. This requires new buildings to be assessed using BRE methodology and takes into account the outlook in addition to levels of daylight / sunlight and is a more accurate measurement of the benefits.
Office spaces to benefit mental, as well as physical health
Research carried out by the Centre for Urban Design & Mental Health finds that putting health and wellbeing at the heart of development would lead to a £15.3bn boost to the economy by 2050:
- £3.6bn of savings from less reliance on the NHS and welfare bills
- £5.4bn productivity increase due to less people taking time off work for stress related issues
- £6.3bn boost in economic output from more people being in employment.
We have been building design helping considerably – in creating inspiring and calming artwork and design details, providing access to physical activity, through natural light, attractive views and ventilation. Office design is increasingly prioritising circulation and break-out spaces, rooms for team activities, open plan offices, desk sharing, desks in pods rather than cubicles, cafés and kitchens.
As Winston Churchill once observed, “We shape our buildings and afterwards, our buildings shape us”. An investment in wellbeing from a building design perspective is an investment in our individual futures and that of the UK economy.