“Wellbeing is very important,” he says. “The boom and bust mentality of work – people working ferociously to hit the deadline and then burning out – leads to peaks and troughs in performance. We’ve gone to extra lengths to create an environment where we attract the best people and once they are here they are able to do their best work.”
Harris’s approach was borne from a frustration with old fashioned beliefs about office life. An “always on” culture where technology makes it difficult to switch off means many people are looking for more flexibility in where, when and how they work.
Rethinking the open plan office
He is one of a number of business leaders rethinking the design of offices to improve staff productivity. But it’s not all about toys and beds. Others, for example, are looking at the open plan design that has dominated workspaces since the 1950s. Once thought to facilitate more collaborative working, research now suggests open plan offices could actually be undermining productivity.
A 2014 survey (pdf) of 10,500 workers across 14 countries, commissioned by office furniture maker Steelcase, found that 69% of people were not satisfied with their working environment, in part due to a lack of privacy. A separate Steelcase-commissioned survey of more than 39,000 workers found 95% of employees said they needed quiet, private places for confidential conversations, but only 41% said they could do so, and 31% had to leave the office to get work completed.
Researchers have also suggested a correlation between employees who work in open plan offices with multiple colleagues and the amount of short-term sick leave those employees take.
One of the main faults of the open plan design is that there is an assumption that all you have to do to boost creative collaboration is throw people together in one room, says Max Chopovsky, founder and CEO of Chicago Creative Space, a company that produces video and media content on office design and culture. But if your staff feel like they don’t have autonomy or someone who will listen to their voice, it’s irrelevant if they are in an open space or not, he adds.
“The main problem is that companies are looking at Google, for example, and just wanting to have the same as them. They are not being authentic. They need to listen to their employees and understand what specifically they want beyond the basics like natural light, good internet connection and comfortable chairs.
Harris admits his office would not be suitable for every business but it has proved a success, with absence from sickness low, staff retention high and employee feedback overwhelmingly positive. Key to making the concept work though has been ensuring that everyone buys into it.
Office of the future
Leaving aside debates about open plan offices, do we even need offices anymore? Advances in technology and remote working mean many staff can choose to work elsewhere.
For Chopovsky, this does not mean the end of the office. If staff can choose to work elsewhere, the office could become a place where workers can have important social encounters and build professional relationships rather than simply knuckle down and work. That means a combination of open plan offices and private rooms. He believes companies should facilitate that by creating areas where staff can come together either for informal chats or company-wide meetings.
This may already be happening in the UK. A survey of 1,100 British office workers, published in June, shows that most workplaces (70%) now also include a communal environment – break out spaces such as a shared kitchen or beanbag area – to work from or have meetings in, providing a space for more dynamic working. This is key to meeting workers’ needs, with almost a third (29%) deeming the ability to work from a variety of different locations in the office to be important, and almost half (48%) considering access to collaboration space with colleagues an imperative.
Better designed offices are not the end of the matter, however. John Ridd, councillor of the Chartered Institute of Ergonomics & Human Factors (CIEHF), says that while getting the design of the office right for your business and worker needs, it cannot be used as a panacea for improving employee wellbeing.
“To me the major thing is looking at the design of a person’s job in terms of workload and responsibilities. That is going to be far more important in terms of increasing productivity and indeed the wellbeing of the individual – because it is the happy worker who works more efficiently.”
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