As members of the design and construction community, we believe without question that spaces impact occupants. Over the last decades, an ever-increasing body of research has proven that design affects occupant outcomes.

In the workplace, the most desirable outcome is a profitable business, led by a productive workforce. But how do we define productivity?

As early as the 1960s, experts were beginning to question the relevance of “productivity” as a measure of individual worker success in a knowledge-based economy. Because Input and output are difficult to quantify once you move beyond manufacturing, many designers, workplace strategists, and management consultants have thrown out the notion entirely.

“Happy employees are engaged employees, and engaged employees are productive employees.”

Amy Manley, National Director of Workplace Strategies for Jacobs, is one of them. The firm’s workplace architecture and interiors philosophy focuses on improving employee engagement, which many advocate as the best measure of success.

“Happy employees are engaged employees, and engaged employees are productive employees,” she explains, listing off indicators of satisfaction with the physical workplace: Do employees have pride of place? Is the office considered a tool for recruiting and retaining talent? Does the environment enable you to deliver your work efficiently?

Whether you choose to call it engagement, productivity or some other term, there is no silver bullet — design-based or otherwise — that guarantees improved workplace performance. An intensive review of more than 800 individual research papers and 35 meta analyses conducted in 2013 and 2014 did not reveal any definitive causal relationships, a number of organizational factors did surface that had a strong correlation with the most productive knowledge work teams. 1 Fortunately, smart workplace design can support these factors.

Factors identified with highly productive teams

  • Trust
  • Social cohesion
  • Perceived supervisory support
  • Information sharing
  • Vision and goal clarity
  • External communication

Additional data and insights are available in our full whitepaper on designing for workplace productivity.

The four modes of knowledge work

In their first WorkPlace Research report in 2008, the Gensler Workplace Research Team identified four distinct modes of work for knowledge workers, all of which occur among productive teams. 2

  1. Focus: Individual work that requires concentration on a particular task such as writing, problem-solving, and analysis
  2. Collaboration: Two or more people working together to achieve a goal. Includes tasks such as brainstorming and co-creating
  3. Socializing: Interactions that build trust and solidify relationships, including talking, laughing, celebrating and networking
  4. Learning: Individual or group-oriented tasks that involve the acquisition of knowledge

In subsequent years, they broadened the context of their research to look at the relative importance of the work modes, how they integrated, and how design can support these them. In a 2012 report, Gensler went so far as to state “the most significant factor in workplace effectiveness is not collaboration, it’s individual focus work” and furthermore, “Workplace strategies that sacrifice individual focus in pursuit of collaboration will result in decreased effectiveness for both.” 3

While this may sound like a serious indictment of the open concept office, the reality is that open plans aren’t going anywhere soon. Individually assigned private offices require considerably more space and limit options for reconfiguration. With as many as one-third of employees working off site at any given time, the traditional closed office model simply doesn’t make economic sense for most employers. A recent CoreNet Global report shows clear evidence of the trends toward more cost efficient, flexile open offices. They found that between 2010 and 2012, the average workplace dropped from 225 square feet per person to 176 square feet. They predict it may drop to as low as 100 square feet for many facilities by 2017.

Our whitepaper presents insights on productivity at the CertainTeed/Saint-Gobain North American headquarters.

Making the open office work

Determined to avoid the common open office pitfalls, the Workplace Strategies and Interior Design teams from Jacobs worked closely with CertainTeed to understand how individuals teams worked, and they worked even more closely with CertainTeed Ceilings as a manufacturer to make sure they were specifying the best solutions.

The solution to the conflict between concentration and. collaboration in the open office rests on three simple concepts.

“Workplace strategies that sacrifice individual focus in pursuit of collaboration will result in decreased effectiveness for both.”

1. Creating spaces to accommodate each work mode

According to Jacobs’ benchmarking data, high-performing open office environments have one enclosed conference or meeting seat for every two staff member. So, with 800 employees, CertainTeed needed 400 enclosed seats. The trouble with early open offices was in the homogeneity of their enclosed spaces. By the old rules, those 400 seats would have been divided among a handful of large conference rooms designed to seat 25 to 30 people.

But formal conference rooms that must be scheduled and reserved are not conducive to the kind of free-flowing collaborative work that leads to innovation. Research has identified five to eight as the ideal number of people for a productive collaboration. There are also one on one meetings and any number of other configurations short of the full-scale conference-worthy meeting. Not to mention the need to be alone in a quiet setting for a phone call, virtual meeting or intense focus work. A well-designed office includes space to accommodate the full range of work modes and group sizes.

2. Strategically locating spaces in relation to each other

Workplace planning and design strategy has taken a page from the urban planning playbook and focused on zoning. Muffy Byrne, Jacobs’ Project Manager on the CertainTeed/Saint-Gobain project, maintains that when it comes to ensuring productivity now and in the future, the planning concept is everything. Following sound principles of space allocation, positioning, the open to closed space ratio, and the location of different spaces in relation to fixed elements in a facility such as stairwells or restrooms, yield a consistent success rate.

In describing the CertainTeed headquarters, she speaks in terms of neighborhoods in each wing and on each floor of the building. These neighborhoods are defined by banks of conference rooms and include everything the employees in that area need to function within close proximity: a copy/printer area, a pantry with coffee, water, refrigerator and microwave, collaboration rooms, rest rooms, and a stairwell. Like-minded spaces are co-located to minimize the number of auditory and visual distractions for those engaged in focus work.

3. Using the right products to support function of each space acoustically

Considerations like furniture, partitions and wall assemblies are all important to supporting the function of a space, but the number one way to manage sound in an open-plan office environment is ceilings. Not only is it the largest surface area available and located in close proximity to users, but if left untreated, it becomes a vast reflector of voice sounds. And while clean, consistent looks are high on the list for most designers, the fact is that one or two ceiling products is simply not enough to meet the diverse acoustic requirements within a 277,000 square-foot office building.

To optimize acoustic performance, the CertainTeed/Saint-Gobain North American headquarters features a total of 20 different acoustic wall, ceiling and suspension system products. Each was carefully selected to meet the acoustic and aesthetic goals of the five different types of workspaces:

  • Open office space
  • Closed collaboration spaces
  • Open collaboration spaces
  • Socializing spaces
  • Learning spaces

The final secret to success

Space planning, design and acoustic treatment are all incredibly important and will improve office productivity significantly. However, the ultimate predictor of whether or not an open-plan office transition is effective goes beyond these physical concepts. Embracing ongoing change and viewing the CertainTeed/Saint-Gobain North American headquarters as a living laboratory for workplace productivity is at the heart of making the project a success.

Details on acoustic performance criteria for each type of space and the CertainTeed Ceilings products selected are presented in our Foundation of Productive Office Design whitepaper.

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1 Measuring Knowledge Worker Productivity. Workplace Advisory at Allsteel, Sept. 2015. http://cms.allsteeloffice.com/design-resources/workplace-trends 30 Mar. 2016.

2 What We’ve Learned About Focus in the Workplace. Gensler. Jan. 2012. http://www.gensleron.com/work/2012/1/24/focus-on-focus.html 11 Apr. 2016.

3 2013 U.S. Workplace Survey Key Findings. Gensler. http://www.gensler.com/design-thinking/research/the-2013-us-workplace-survey-1 11 Apr. 2016.