Want to green your office? Cut it in half!

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Business people in meeting

Natural light is an important element of building design.

You don’t need to be a fan of Mad Men to be able to visualize the archetypal 1960s’ corner office. Plush carpets deep enough to lose a shoe in, a seven-foot long mahogany desk, walls lined with art and enough furniture to fill a small apartment – the executive office back then, was clearly all about status.

Looking around my own office, with its large open plan layout, I was curious to understand how the nature of our working spaces has changed so dramatically over the last 50 plus years.

While the excesses of the 1960s have no place in these leaner, less hierarchical times, (even our executive team sits in open plan offices), I’m not entirely convinced that cavernous open plan working suits everyone’s style of working. To understand more, I spoke to David Guin. An architect by training, David is responsible for CSC’s global workplace strategy.

Wasted space

My first question was, ‘What’s wrong with the typical office?’ The big problem, David explains is that of waste, an issue which is understandably close to my heart. “At an industry level, typical office occupancy hovers around the 50 percent mark, meaning that at any one time, you’re heating, lighting and paying for space that just isn’t being used.”

Those direct costs are significant enough, but there are of course environmental costs in the form of the embedded energy required to construct a building and all of its fixtures and fittings – half of which, by the reckoning above, will largely go unused. As David points out, “The greenest building in the world is the one you didn’t need to build.”

This is a logic I think few people could take issue with, but what happens when the building already exists? How does any company ensure that it is being used efficiently? The answer in CSC’s case comes in the shape of the global workplace strategy.

“The strategy is all about reducing wasted space by designing agile workspaces in which people can be happier as well as more productive,” David told me.

The new approach, which starts with assigning more people to a building than there are available seats, has increased occupancy rates in many of CSC’s new or recently renovated buildings to nearly 80 percent.

The allocation varies by role. So while all call centre staff may need a desk, members of a sales or consulting team, who spend a lot of time away from the office with clients, may have just 20 seats for 100 people.

Prioritizing wellbeing

David goes on to explain the importance of designing the workspace to prioritize the wellbeing of those working within it. For example, as part of the agile working design, every desk is placed near a window. “Numerous studies have shown that a lack of natural light in the workplace can have a detrimental effect on a person’s sleep and quality of life, so maximising exposure to natural light for everybody was built in to the new design.”

Other benefits of the new agile approach include the flexibility to choose where to sit on any given day. That choice means that project teams can come together and collaborate easily and that certainly seems to be having a positive effect. It also means that employees can choose the most appropriate setting for the work at hand, rather than being confined to the same desk or office for the entire day.

A new way of working

Although I can see the attraction of this approach, I do find myself wondering how people are adapting to this peripatetic way of working.

David said, “Because people are working together, sharing ideas and getting up to go to speak to colleagues instead of relying on email, there’s a perceptible upward shift in the energy level in the new agile buildings. It also contributes to wellbeing and health as it encourages people to move throughout the day, rather than just sitting at one desk.”

And what about the perennial challenge to the concept of agile, open plan working – noise? “We know that too much noise can be disruptive, so to make sure people have quiet time to work, we pump white noise through the PA system which means that while you can still easily have a conversation with your neighbour, you’re not distracted by a telephone conversation a few desks away,” said David.

Lower costs, greater collaboration

David estimates that the portfolio has been reduced by around a quarter over the last three years thanks to the new strategy. With lower costs, fewer resources required, a focus on employee wellbeing and greater collaboration, it’s certainly a compelling case. One survey revealed that 87 percent of people, who had switched to agile working, wouldn’t go back to the old style given the choice. That said, although I’m in no way hankering after that corner office, I’m waiting to be converted to the truly agile model.

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