The Transformation of Workplace Transformation

The Leesman index talks about the primary purpose of a workplace being ‘to provide employees with an effective work environment that supports productivity’. Is that correct? We wonder. To attempt to get to the bottom of this we invited a crack panel of industry experts to spend a fascinating afternoon at the Senator Group’s awesome Clerkenwell showspace. We start the conversation by asking a question that has been mulled over by design firms and clients alike for years: exactly how do you measure productivity?


Angela: The idea of productivity being measurable and the fact that a new scheme is not a guarantee of increased productivity is, I think, quite apparent – we’re all aware of that. There has to be support, change management and a shift in culture – there has to be a real intention to change before you can even start to think about measuring productivity. I think clients are now more aware of this and don’t see design as a quick fix. They understand that there is much more to it than that.


Trina: I’d concur with that. We’d always suggest that change management is something that should be there up front and transgresses throughout the lifecycle of a project – and often ends with a formal post-occupancy evaluation. But it really does start with the brief – and if we, as designers, are not clear on what the objectives of the client are, whether they be something that can be measured in terms of productivity or whether they are ‘softer’ in terms of cultural change or behavioral change – if we don’t set those objectives up front as part of the brief and if then we don’t articulate well enough what the design solutions are, when we come to do the POE, we won’t have a baseline with which to say, ‘We started here – and we’ve got to here’. So we’re quite clear that it does start with the brief. I think that when you talk about productivity in terms of something that can be measurable, FD’s and those responsible for the money are becoming increasingly concerned about trying to put a dollar or a euro on it. Actually, things such as absenteeism and presenteeism are easier ways to get a harder measure.


Steffan: It is easy to measure some types of productivity – but then again it’s far more difficult to measure other types of productivity. I think productivity is important – but it’s not the only thing that’s valuable commercially to an organisation.


Is it realistic to aim to create a workplace transformation and increase productivity?

Maria: I think it is. If you were to take an extreme example where you imagine an office where everyone is working in isolation and they weren’t able to easily communicate with one another – and then you put the same group of people into an office where there is a bit more space and they are able to talk to one another, to communicate, then you would really be able to measure the quality and quantity of work produced. If you take our world of design, a huge part of productivity is generating ideas. Doing the actual physical drawing/CAD work is of course the ultimate output – but the difficult part is the thinking part. If you can enable people to think and design together more easily, then that productivity becomes measurable.


Jon: I think the word productivity has so many connotations in terms of the premise that you can measure it. You can measure stuff that comes off a production line but it’s far more difficult to measure increased productivity in a charity, for example. But at the end of the day, any intervention that we as designers give to our clients through design services should be attributable to some improvement in performance within that organisation – rather than anchoring it to the premise of productivity. To me, it’s about understanding what is the performance criteria that the client is looking to change – why do they want to affect the culture?


Trina: That goes back to my point about absenteeism/presenteeism – which is measurable. If you are absent then there is no productivity and there is no performance. If there is presenteeism then there is productivity but it is reduced because it is sub-optimal. I have seen strategies whereby, in order to be able to quantify the bottom line or what the impact of that poor performance is, the answer has been to look at the health of the workplace and then assimilating that back to whether or not the workplace itself is affecting things.


Anibal: Also, you should consider how many opportunities we now have to collect this data – not just on your computer but also on your mobile phone. So you actually don’t have to physically collect this data now – you can utilise your workforce to collate all this information. Trevor: There are various proxies – and one of these proxies is employee engagement. There is research coming out now that shows that high level of employee engagement tend to be associated with very productive cultures and organisations. I’m sure that everyone around this table has had clients come to them and say that they want a workplace design that will help to increase engagement of employees within the organisation. I think this is an important thing – and the technology angle is that, by using artificial intelligence, there’s all sorts of clever analysis that you can do with the unstructured data. This can be as simple as offering an opportunity for employees in the workplace to comment on, in their own words, what they feel is good or not good about the workplace and then you can use a tool to analyse that and draw out common themes.


Steve: From our point of view, we do a lot of work in the financial sector and for those guys, before committing to a project, a speculative improvement in productivity is not enough. They want to know that they’re going to improve the value of their space or they’re going to reduce the cost of their space. Often, these guys do appreciate that there is a benefit to investing in their property. That creates a virtuous circle; at a strategic level they might be saving money and there will be financial benefits, which as a business they view as positive in terms of productivity. But by improving their space, you can also improve the human metric – so you can improve engagement, reduce absenteeism and create better space that everyone can be proud of. I think the financial sector is more acute in analysing the benefits – and when we do presentations to management they are often much more interested in graphs and spreadsheets than in sketches to be honest. The focus is very much on the business benefits. When we move on to work with their teams we can then engage our design skills – and get the best of both worlds. In the last 10 years there has been real change – there was a need for a cultural change in the financial sector and a need to restructure businesses. It has been a really interesting process to help them change the way they work and change the way they are perceived. They now look at the workplace as a human space.


Steffan: On the subject of financial institutions, one thing I’ve noticed over the years is that they tend to respond much more to the risk of loss rather than the benefits gained. We recently pitched for (and won) a project for a large financial institution and the first slide in the pitch set out the risk – the risk of not doing this job. They were looking to reduce their footprint by about 25% and we calculated, using HL databases in that particular sector, in that geographical location, that the cost of each employee taking one additional sick day a year and the churn rate increasing from 14% to 15% was exactly the same as the annual saving they’d make from reducing the real estate footprint! After that, they told us that this first slide had won us the job. I think we all need to really speak the language of these organisations and understand that the transformations they are going through are huge. I worry that there are firms who simply don’t grasp this.


Luke (Alemanno, The Senator Group): I have a similar scenario. I’m fortunate enough to work with a lot of clients from different market sectors across the world. We recently did a mock-up, together with two other manufacturers, and the other two were so far off base with regards to the product being specified. The client was trying to move into a brand new world of flexible working. What the other manufacturers hadn’t done was to look at the brief and realise that the product needed to work for seven and half hours a day, for a person to sit there, input data and take calls. What they were trying to do was to give them something bright, new and wonderful – that wasn’t actually going to work for the client. All I did was talk to the client and then offered something that was absolutely on point!


John: I think it’s curious that, if you look at Google as an example, they have a lot of very bright people who work in very different ways from people who work in a bank. They need to think and work differently. Their peak performance might be at midnight. I think that sort of dynamic, laced into the premise of why you would put all these different settings into a building, is what you should be looking at – rather than, as we’ve perhaps seen in the past, that cynical perception that if you put everything into the building it will keep people there for as long as possible and stretch the working day. It should actually be about the working life – working where you want, when you want.


Anibal: I echo that. Some tech firms now have unlimited holidays for employees. So you can still work when you’re on holiday – you actually never switch off! You don’t need to go to the office anymore. You can do everything virtually and you can pick where you work. I think this shift is really interesting.



We completely agree with Anibal’s final point. It is really interesting. With the culture of the ‘modern’ workplace so stretched – and the needs and aspirations of different sectors being so different, it’s almost impossible to say what the absolute primary purpose of workplace transformation should and will be. As Luke points out, some clients need products and space that will support more traditional ‘office working’ while, as many of our other guests suggest, the metric for calculating productivity is constantly evolving, as is the workplace itself. We’ve said it before (and we’ll say it again), it’s about people, wellbeing, happiness…




Angela Bardino, Head of Interior Design, Grimshaw

With over a decade spent working in the interiors industry, Angela has been involved across a range of sectors including hospitality, arts and culture and, most recently, a focus on commercial fit-outs. Angela’s work is defined by informed materiality choices through detailed research and end user insights.


Anibal Cruz, Associate, AFK Studio

Anibal specialises in creating sophisticated, creative working environments to help attract and retain the best talent, for a broad range of businesses. His diverse portfolio extends to innovative design for commercial and hospitality interiors, and to developing sustainable designs projects in the UK, Middle East, North America, and Australasia.


Trevor Miles, Real Estate & Facilities Smarter Buildings Consulting Lead, IBM

Trevor advises clients on transformational corporate real estate and facilities management solutions. These are enabled by digital technology to address business objectives. He regularly speaks at conferences and has served on the RICS Management Consultancy Executive Board.


Jon Race, MD, MCM

Jon is a major advocate for using a knowledged, integrated approach to realise the potential of buildings, spaces and people. Whether working with a developer to increase the value of their asset or a CEO to bring about cultural change, Jon ensures that MCM continuously aligns to the purpose of a project and delivers responses that contribute to clients’ business growth.


John Avery, Director, LOM

John has led workplace architecture, interiors and strategy projects around the world, with a focus on financial sector clients. Recent projects include developing HSBC’s Global Workplace Standards, delivering a new HQ building for the National Bank of Oman and working with RBS Group to deliver workplace and portfolio transformation projects.


Steffan Williams, Director of Workplace, Scott Brownrigg

Steffan specialises in workplace strategy and has delivered agile working solutions for Sainsbury’s and Network Rail. Steffan has managed projects for clients including Deutsche Bank, Expedia, Unilever, Discovery Channel, DTZ and has vast experience working with financial institutions and media companies.


Steve Taylor, Project Director, Peldon Rose

Steve is a Project Director at Peldon Rose, a leading London D&B company. He is passionate about creating spaces that connect with people and engage with their behaviours. Steve has over 15 years’ experience in the D&B industry and has successfully delivered a number of award-winning design and fit-out projects.


Trina Marshall, Principal, HOK

Trina has more than 20 years’ experience guiding clients in optimising the operational performance and workplace experience potential of their portfolios. She’s committed to market leading design concepts such as biophilia and Inclusivity and assisting clients in decoding the strategic and practical application of them.


Maria Cheung, Head of Interior Design, Squire & Partners

Maria is Director and Head of Interior Design at Squire & Partners. Recent projects include the practice’s award winning offices in Brixton, The Department Store, The Frames in Shoreditch and The Ministry of Sound’s first coworking members club, The Ministry in Borough.