Despite a few well-publicised bumps in the road this year, the co-working trend looks like it is truly here to stay. Everyone from multinational banks through to start-ups are embracing free-flowing workspaces in efforts to tap into the creative collaboration that co-working is said to encourage.
However, recent studies suggest that not everyone thrives in this flexible office environment. According to Savills’ What Workers Want survey, 30% of workers in open-plan offices feel that their workplace layout has a negative impact on their productivity levels, compared with only 11% of workers from private offices.
This seems in part because workers in closed or flexible spaces have control over sound, light and temperature to create their own private space that they know works best for them.
Hot-desking can offer many benefits but means workers are less able to personalise their own space – something that has been shown to improve productivity and happiness. As Savills finds in the same report, 52% of workers prefer a dedicated desk because of the familiarity and comfort that controlling their own space brings.
In this Instagrammable age, there is a desire for workspaces to be aesthetically beautiful, but it is important that this desire for picture-perfect views doesn’t have a negative impact on our comfort and sense of security.
This is especially important when considering the requirements of the full range of building users. We are a diverse bunch with an array of needs and wants, which we, as designers, must be aware of. And this includes our mental approach to life.
Research since the 1970s has shown that we all focus in different ways, with some preferring audio and visual methods and others preferring kinaesthetic and mathematical styles. Employees represent this natural range of human neurodiversity, working in particular ways, with various triggers, distractions and tools to help them keep their focus – and our workplaces need to reflect that.
Neurodiversity is a relatively new but extremely important field. According to the National Autistic Society, 700,000 people in the UK are on the autism spectrum, while some studies estimate that between 30% and 50% of the world’s population is introverted.
But unfortunately, the working world is set up to prioritise the neurotypical, extroverted population. This is partly reflected in the fact that only 16% of autistic adults are in full-time employment. By designing welcoming and comfortable places to work, employers can make their offices places where all people will thrive, regardless of neurodiversity.
Having a broad array of voices is increasingly being shown to boost productivity and the bottom line. Studies from McKinsey show that companies that are gender diverse and those that are ethnically diverse are, respectively, 15% and 35% more likely to outperform.
It may seem impossible to design offices that can be productive for each and every employee, but this is why flexibility and autonomy in our workspaces are so important.
Offering a range of public and private spaces will give workers the choice between noise levels and location. It is also important to provide dedicated desk space, giving staff the chance to organise in the way that suits them best and provide a sense of ‘home’ within the office set-up.
Adjustable features are also essential in office design to provide that control. As human resources trade body CIPD points out, lighting, noise levels and office equipment are some of the biggest barriers to those on the autism spectrum, but these can be simply addressed with flexible, conscientious design.
Of course, company culture plays a big role in affecting employee wellbeing, with one in six UK workers experiencing issues with stress, according to Mental Health First Aid. After-work emails, long hours and high expectations can all contribute to an unhealthy work-life balance.
But if offices can be designed to mitigate stress and tend to our needs, then they can provide the confidence and wellbeing boost to ensure workers are in control of their work life.
Ben Channon is an associate and mental wellbeing ambassador at Assael Architecture