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Rebalancing the Workplace—A Preview of the 2013 U.S. Workplace Survey

Confidential Consulting Firm, New York, N.Y. Image © Gensler

Gensler has completed the new 2013 U.S. Workplace Survey, profiled recently in the media. As the most recent iteration of an ongoing investment in workplace research, the study examines the design factors that create an effective workplace; how design can better support knowledge worker engagement, satisfaction, and performance; and the influence of the workplace on organizational culture.

Design matters.

We spend a lot of time thinking about how workplace design improves performance. Since Gensler’s founding, our firm has always used design as a lever to improve experience and promote positive change. And for the last eight years, Gensler has conducted ongoing research into what drives success in the workplace, pairing investigations and data gathered through thousands of project engagements.

The 2013 U.S. Workplace Survey is the latest report in this thread. We commissioned a nationwide survey of 2,035 professionals to take the pulse of the U.S. workplace and understand what a high-performance workplace looks like for today's knowledge worker. We asked big questions, building on our own knowledge of how work and the world are changing and on the findings of prior research. Analysis of this data, when compared with our survey data from 2008 (which asked parallel questions), is painting a picture of how a high-performing workplace today really works and the profound influence that a workplace aligned with an organization’s needs, culture, and processes can have on employee performance.

Today, knowledge workers are faced with an ever-changing business climate in which they must balance a wider variety of communication and a faster pace of change, often while being asked to do more with less. The workplace must follow suit, providing settings and supports for the broadening diversity of activities that are increasingly couched within the workday. To understand how a workplace best aligns with drivers of business success and employee engagement, we mined our survey data for workers at the top of their game. Turns out, 24% of our sample was thriving—out-performing and out-innovating their peers. We took a closer look to understand how.

22squared, Atlanta, Ga. Image © Michael Moran

The Key to an Effective Workplace

The big takeaway? Workplace design that supports the ability to focus and the ability to collaborate is an essential framework on which employee engagement and business success can be built. The interplay of individual and group work has been a hot topic of discussion in the past year, often under the assumption that the pursuit of one is inherently in conflict with the other. What we learned is that focus and collaboration aren’t in conflict; they are complements.

Ensuring the ability to focus is the critical first step. Analysis of findings from our 2013 study confirms that employees who can effectively focus are 57% more able to collaborate, 88% more able to learn, and 42% more able to socialize in their workplace than their peers who are unable to focus. They are more satisfied with their jobs, more satisfied with their workplaces, and see themselves as higher performing. Get focus right, and you’re already well on your way to creating an environment in which your employees can thrive.

Once employees can focus, other opportunities to drive performance and innovation emerge. Collaboration continues to be heralded as a key ingredient to the spread of ideas and the pursuit of innovation. Collaboration and inter-personal connection, when done right, have significant effects on team performance. And those in our sample who report that the design of their workplace effectively supports both individual work and collaborative work—what we’re calling a “balanced” workplace—exhibit promising performance improvements. These employees also report higher effectiveness across all work modes and are significantly more likely to rank their companies highly across a number of innovation and creativity measures.

Opportunity for Improvement: What’s Wrong With Most Workplaces Today?

The sad reality is that three out of four U.S. workers are struggling to work effectively. Longer work hours, smaller work spaces, and new and evolving technological distractions are challenging the effectiveness of the typical workplace. On the whole, office environments have also become increasingly open. The trend towards open workplace environments has been emerging since the 1970s, driven by the need for more collaboration and communication. In some cases, the pendulum may have swung too far, with too much emphasis on open communication and not enough on focus. The workplace environments, when not designed effectively, can have unintended consequences—the result is that many U.S. knowledge workers are less able to focus than in 2008, the date of our last survey.

Shifts in the modern workplace haven’t just compromised focus, however. Open work environments and under-provided spaces to meet and collaborate have shifted all work activities—not just focusing but collaborating and learning as well—towards people’s primary work spaces, eroding overall effectiveness and stifling productivity and innovation.

The Foundry, Palo Alto, Calif. Image © Sherman Takata

Finding Your Balance

No one work mode determines the effectiveness of a space. Instead, workplaces that balance work modes are the key to achieving high-performance and avoiding the pitfalls inherent to many workplaces. One size doesn't fit all. We work with clients to identify and create custom solutions to achieve that unique balance, beginning with client-specific data that parallels our national survey data but goes deeper to uncover unique opportunities to enhance performance at the level of their individual organization, office, and department.

After achieving balance, the opportunity is then to enhance innovation by leveraging choice and autonomy in the workplace. This can be achieved through the design of the workplace paired with the right policies. Feeling supported, valued, and autonomous as an individual has a significant impact on employee performance, engagement, and motivation. It may even affect health outcomes. Tools that allow employees to work anywhere effectively and organizational policies that offer choices in when, where, and how to work are necessary to achieve this goal. An optimal framework of spaces, tools, and policies then allows individual employees to make informed choices to maximize their own productivity. And that can pay dividends for performance and innovation at the enterprise scale.

“A sense of autonomy has a powerful effect on individual performance and attitude. According to a cluster of recent behavioral science studies, autonomous motivation promotes greater conceptual understanding, better grades, enhanced persistence at school and in sporting activities, higher productivity, less burnout, and greater levels of psychological well-being.”—Daniel Pink, Drive

Stay Tuned

One particular point has emerged from our research: In today’s world, design that is informed by gathering and leveraging diagnostic and contextual data on what drives performance is no longer a luxury. It’s an imperative, one that when leveraged uncovers new opportunities for innovation, and when forgotten leads to myriad adverse consequences. Identifying and proactively supporting the balance and choice that drives business success is an opportunity to gain competitive advantage at a time when it’s more necessary than ever.

Over the coming weeks, we’ll be publishing a full preview of our findings and organizing events and webinars to promote discussion on the future of the workplace. Stay tuned.

Diane Hoskins
Diane Hoskins is one of Gensler’s co-Chief Executive Officers. She has guided the firm in developing an industry leading research program as well as metrics that quantify the productivity, sustainability and economic impact of Gensler’s architecture and design work. Learn more about Diane’s vision for the intersection of design and performance by contacting her at diane_hoskins@gensler.com.

Reader Comments (10)

Your firm does the same corporate roll-out work in all offices ie: typ.all white spaces w/red or other primary colors,butt joint glass details & mid century furniture. This was popular 30 yrs.ago, and looks dated, even the Silicon Valley work that is supposed to be more leading edge - looks the same.
Does management discourage exploring other design styles? The work is mundane & repetitive, and lacks creativity. Obviously budget & quick turn-around comes into play in this market, but even with low fees, projects could look alot better!!
07.11.2013 | Unregistered CommenterDiane Lessione
After looking at possibly hiring an architecture firm to design our new offices in the northeast & midwest, my wife & I looked at these photos thinking they must have been done by an intern?!? This has convinced us to work with a professional interior design firm instead. Thank-you for inadvertantly steering us in a better direction.
Sorry to your marketing dept....
07.31.2013 | Unregistered CommenterDavid J. Niles
Odd that comments above are only criticisms about photos attached to your editorial, rather than your actual message content? Regardless, there are some out here that appreciate your firm's commitment to continued research on this topic, and for bringing forth a contrary view of the solutions that the rest of the design, commercial real estate, and furniture industry seem to be advocating... to the exclusion of what employees are telling them about how people actually work most effectively. Thanks for putting a focus on Focus in the workplace.
07.31.2013 | Unregistered CommenterLS
Many workspaces are now utilizing white as the primary paint color with accents of other colors. This is happening in part, I believe, for two reasons. Local and national energy codes have brought the lighting levels in new spaces down significantly. As a result, lighter colors (many times pure white) are being used on walls for light reflectance with accent colors used sparingly. Second, workers and consumers spend more and more time looking into LED and LCD screens and mobile technologies full of image, color, movement and activity. The white walls not only provide a visual balance for the day to day user, but also offset the visual overload we experience on a day to day basis. Again, colors and palettes are subjective, but there is logic behind the selections and final product.
08.14.2013 | Registered CommenterJim Williamson
Thanks for your comments. I think it’s important to stress that our research is focused largely on the functional aspects of a high-performance workplace and not on the more aesthetic design decisions, which are a personal decision between the design team and the client and the result of specific needs and tastes. In both of these projects shown above we are proud of the design solutions we achieved, and in fact both received numerous design awards—including the IIDA, AIA and Contract Magazine, among others—and showed performance improvements when measured post-occupancy. This second point is critical and the reason they are called out here: these projects are the result of careful design decisions made to better tailor the design and provision of the workplace to the needs and activities of these companies’ workers. Notably, each shows a space comprised of a variety of space typologies—what we’re calling a “balanced workplace” —and we see this as the key to their successes.
This is a good report. Focus and collaboration are keys to good innovation and a productive working environment.

My question and observation after looking over above images is:

How does one or more workers focus and/or collaborate at the same time?
09.30.2013 | Unregistered CommenterRDF
Thanks for the comment. A key finding of our research around both balance and choice is that high-performance workplaces must support both focus and collaboration, but not in the same space. This is an important point. In fact, the proximity, availability and quality of meeting and common spaces are a huge driver of overall workplace balance. Providing employees with alternate spaces in which to collaborate and socialize improves not only their ability to perform those activities but by removing distractions from nearby conversations, their ability to focus is better supported as a result.
10.2.2013 | Registered CommenterDiane Hoskins
First of all, I agree with L.S. - thank you for your continued research on the workplace.

I think a big challenge is changing occupant behavior to effectively use a better-balanced work environment. Although an individual's primary workspace may be intended for focused work, the openness and visibility common today fosters interaction "on the spot" creating distractions for the adjacent occupants.
10.11.2013 | Unregistered CommenterJ. Orton
Those images of 'workplace' environments look really good, there's nothing like an open plan office! Regards, The Apsara: http://www.theapsara.com/
07.14.2014 | Unregistered CommenterHarry Stone
Great contents are posted in gensleron square space. Well Done.

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