New NICE guidelines fuel the workspace productivity debate

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has published a new set of guidelines, highlighting the link between employee well-being and productivity. The notion itself is not new, but the further consideration given is necessary to understand why the UK is still not performing as efficiently at work as its developed counterparts. Andrew Jackson, Director at SAS International, explores what can be done to improve occupant well-being and as a result, increase productivity.

According to a 2014 Office for National Statistics report, the average output per hour worked in the UK is 21% lower than the average for the US, Germany, France, Italy, Japan and Canada.[1] One contributing factor to this situation could be the 27 million working days lost due to work-related illness each year, costing the UK economy an estimated £13.4 billion

NICE’s recommendations[3] now suggest to make employee health and well-being a core priority for top management to establish the link between employee productivity and health.

The new Building Performance Report – Rethinking the relationship between owners, managers and occupiers, by the British Council for Offices (BCO) offers support for the NICE recommendations from a building performance perspective. Highlighting the gap between expectation and experience of occupiers, the report stresses the need for building owners and managers to engage with corporate occupiers in order to understand how a well-performing building can help them to drive quality and value for the occupier’s business.

It is vital for building owners and managers to recognise the tenants’ changing needs and to be able to respond to them accordingly. A willingness to do so will excel in the three Rs of real estate – revenue, retention and reputation.

By stepping away from cost-cutting and moving towards value and quality creation for the occupiers, an environment that fosters collaboration and promotes well-being among employees can be provided.

The Building Performance report further encourages the education and training of managers and a ‘you are only as good as your people’ attitude. This includes resulting in the proposal to define building performance as the way that a building supports occupiers’ differing aims and needs, providing environments that meet the need of users, resulting in efficient workplaces.

However, as predicted by the latest edition of the BCO guide, ever denser growing office spaces pose a challenge for employers to provide an environment that promotes well-being. For example, studies have found that the acoustics in open plan offices can have a negative effect on occupant comfort, causing changes in heart rate, breathing, and brain waves. Julian Treasure, author of Sound Business and chairman of the Sound Agency explains: “There is also a lot of research to demonstrate that noise in offices changes people’s behaviour- it makes them less helpful, more frustrated, absenteeism goes up and so does the rate of sickness.”

The occupants’ emotions and cognition are also affected and productivity can be degraded by up to two thirds when performing knowledge tasks within audible distance of other people’s conversations. [4 Sound Business, Julian Treasure, The Sound Agency]

Furniture, floor coverings, plants and curtains are insufficient to prevent noise from spreading over long distances. To ensure speech privacy and also guaranteeing good speech intelligibility at short distance, reverberation times of less than 0.5 seconds need to be achieved. This requires privacy screens, waist high cabinets and sound absorbing ceilings which can be customised to fit design criteria.

Nowadays, 72% of companies are looking to real estate to improve productivity, with 61% expecting an enhanced people and business productivity outcome, according to research by JLL. [5 Forget the Workplace…for Now, JLL, May 2014] Therefore, a physical environment that offers the right context for concentration, learning, communication and collaboration will have the competitive edge over a building which simply goes for aesthetic appeal.

Engaging office design does, of course, play a significant part in attracting and retaining talent. Creative interiors allow companies to make a statement and acquire a competitive advantage in the recruitment process. The BIFM Workplace Conversation Report 2015 warns that although bean bags, table-football and slides might be all present in the ‘cool offices to work in’ debate, ‘design for design’s sake’ is a dangerous route to take. Before letting the interior designers loose, there needs to be an understating of how the occupiers within the space are going to utilise it.

The functionality of an interior concept does not mean the office’s ‘cool credentials’ have to be compromised. Quirky offices have been proven to encourage creativity according to Claire Mason, managing director at advertising agency Man Bites Dog.[6] One option to provide a flexible and personalised environment is to install demountable partitioning systems, allowing workspaces to be adapted in the future to accommodate change.

These systems can easily integrate with surrounding materials without damaging the existing building fabric. Fully-glazed partitioning systems are especially popular for open and transparent working environments, encouraging collaborative working and employee involvement through visual accessibility alone.

Furthermore, partitioning systems allow the creation of quiet zones by providing for high levels of sound attenuation – the reduction in sound between two spaces separated by a dividing element. This helps with privacy and ensures that there is minimal disruption from sound outside a meeting room or office.

As it becomes ever more apparent that the link between people and place, work culture and physical environment is crucial, specifiers have to create spaces that successfully support the changing nature of work and promote occupant comfort. Flexible environments which are ready for transformation are key as offices play an increasingly important role in the battle for talent, and manufacturers need to be ready to accommodate the changing requirements to provide a future-proof business.

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