Australian office design failing in so many ways

The health of workplaces is ailing. A recent survey of 7600 office workers from 16 countries confirms what many of us have long suspected.

Five hundred Australians were included in the survey that discovered many office spaces are still not getting even the basics right.

"Fifty-one per cent of the Aussie workplaces had no natural light, 28 per cent didn't have windows, and 65 per cent had no plants," says Sally Orme, from carpet company Interface, which commissioned the Human Spaces Report.

The office squeeze: more than one-third of Australians surveyed didn't have a quiet place to work if needed.
The office squeeze: more than one-third of Australians surveyed didn't have a quiet place to work if needed. Photo: iStock

"With 93 per cent of Aussies working in an urban setting, we are right up there with China at 96 per cent, but the design of our offices isn't compensating for city squeeze and its potential negative impacts on staff wellbeing."

Workers wish lists

The research was led by Sir Cary Cooper, Professor of Organisational Psychology and Health at Lancaster University and a world expert on wellbeing and stress at work.

Job hunters ... want to work in an environment that inspires and motivates them.

Steve Coster

Topping workers' wish lists from all countries when asked what elements they'd like an architect to incorporate in their ideal workplace was more natural light, followed closely by indoor plants.

In Birkenstock’s Clifton Hill HQ designed by Melbourne Design Studios, natural materials and air-cleansing plants create ...
In Birkenstock’s Clifton Hill HQ designed by Melbourne Design Studios, natural materials and air-cleansing plants create a beautiful ambient feel. Photo: Peter Clarke

Not surprisingly, open plan offices came in for heavy criticism. To reduce real estate costs, these workplaces cram in more workers under the guise of better collaboration. Consequently, over one-third of Australian respondents reported they didn't have a quiet place to work if needed.

White noise

With all the noise and visual distractions that open space brings, productivity is reduced unless the primary workspace is balanced by secondary, more enclosed areas for focused concentration.

A warning was sounded, too, for HR departments: office design is a factor for recruitment, with 20 per cent of survey respondents reporting it impacts on their decision to work for a company.

At Credit Suisse, Singapore, designed by Hassell, hedges and hanging planters bring greenery into the open workplace.
At Credit Suisse, Singapore, designed by Hassell, hedges and hanging planters bring greenery into the open workplace. Photo: Owen Raggett

This comes as no surprise to Steve Coster, principal and workplace design specialist at international design firm Hassell. "The way a workplace is designed has an increasingly strong influence on how staff connect and identify not only with their colleagues, but the organisation itself," he says.

"Job hunters – particularly the younger generation – want to work in an environment that inspires and motivates them. Employers [need to] understand the power office design can have not only in attracting and keeping the best and brightest, but on productivity as a whole. Happy staff are productive staff."

Going green

Just as important is sustainable office design, which is more than merely a matter of eco-altruism, says Jorge Chapa, Green Star executive director of Green Building Council of Australia. "A sustainable building is good for workers' [health] too, as well as good for the environment," he says.

"There are now hundreds of Green Star-rated offices around Australia, but too many people still work in office environments that are not healthy, productive or sustainable."

While there's no quick-fix solution, the Human Spaces report suggests one of the most effective ways of improving work environments and energising employees, is the adoption of "biophilic" building design. This translates as connecting a building to the natural world in order to enable the occupants to feel, and perform, better.

Linking in nature

It may not be possible to conjure up windows or balconies where there aren't any, yet sunlight may perhaps be funnelled in through retrofitted skylights and a link to nature can be attained by bringing greenery inside either in massed pots or in dedicated larger planter boxes.

In the absence of a real-deal green outlook, furnishings can take cues from nature. Businesses such as architectural graphics firm, option[a], digitally print large-size scenes onto fabric or adhesive-backed vinyl film ready to be attached to a wall.

For Hewlett Packard's new Adelaide fit-out, it created a high-quality image of eucalypts to cover a two-storey high wall, allowing the trees to be viewed from the bottom of an atrium looking up as well as from the upper level looking down. Then there's Interface itself: its modular carpet tiles are designed to echo the textures and tones found in the natural world.

Happily, some leading companies are starting to walk the talk. For Birkenstock's Melbourne headquarters, Melbourne Design Studios rebooted a Clifton Hill heritage building to house retail, admin and warehouse operations.

Select plants located between desks were chosen as air purifiers; low VOC (volatile organic compound) materials were used throughout; periscope skylights in the upper floor channel southern, glare-free light down across desks, and employees can work outside on a deck for a healthy daily dose of Vitamin D.

All staff enter via the shopfront. Just inside the threshold there's a tiny patch of real grass that, according to MDS's director, Marc Bernstein, gets trimmed with small scissors.

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