What do office workers really want?

What do office workers really want? 04 April 2022

Avison Young’s new workplace design approach explores how spaces can foster productivity and collaboration.

Offices will always be fundamentally important to people-based businesses, but how we use them is changing. How can occupiers best support their workforce? Understanding their habits and activity-based needs is a good place to start.

Like many companies, Avison Young took the opportunity to rethink its workplace approach throughout the pandemic. As a strategic real estate advisor to our clients, it was important for us to ‘walk the walk’, exploring how changing our own spaces could impact collaboration, wellbeing and productivity. Lessons learnt will benefit our people, as well as allowing us to better guide our clients.

Before and after

Employees in our London office at 65 Gresham Street were already working in an agile way before the disruption of COVID-19. The space was organised in departmental “neighbourhoods” where employees shared desks within their teams.

While one of our two occupied floors in the building remained the same, the other underwent a transformation with the intention of creating an activity-based model. This created two separate pilot spaces, enabling us to compare the performance of the transformed 2nd floor, to that of the largely unchanged 3rd floor.

In place of the reduced individual desks, we introduced a larger variety of additional spaces and work settings: focus pods, phone rooms, open collaborative areas, quiet reading spaces, and a large “war room.” The individual desks that remain are unassigned.

Measuring success

We wanted to understand two things from the transformation project:

  1. First, do employees prefer the updated space (2nd floor) to the older configuration (3rd floor)?
  2. And second, does the transformed space provide better support to the way that we work?

As employees returned only gradually toward the end of 2021, our challenge became how to measure the impact of the transformation during a period of low utilisation. Using a combination of data sources, we developed a holistic methodology to get the most out of our newly transformed space.

  1. Employee sentiment
    We deployed the Leesman Office Survey to measure employee sentiment about workplace effectiveness across all our UK locations, including home offices. This survey is renowned for measuring employee perceptions of how well their work is supported by their workplace – whether in the office or at home.
  2. Attendance & Utilisation
    Because our spaces are access-controlled, we can track how many people come into the office on a given day, and we recorded regular observations of utilisation across the various types of space on both floors of the office.
  3. Measuring light, temperature and air quality
    Sensors allow for constant, real-time, objective measurement of light, temperature, humidity, particulate matter, noise, and other elements of indoor air quality (IAQ). We installed a set of IAQ monitors supplied by the PropTech firm Infogrid in both the transformed and legacy spaces.

Key lessons and take-aways

  1. Employee Sentiment
    Leesman’s Office survey addresses individual work patterns, including each employee’s indication of what they require to be well supported in their role. When aggregated, the data (which includes responses from nearly 900,000 employees across 97 countries) generates several outputs, including:
    • The Lmi Effectiveness Score, a composite measure of each unique workplace and group within it
    • A set of Super Drivers, comprising 13 fundamental attributes that are consistently required for effective work
    • The Leesman Index and Leesman+ benchmarks, which help place an individual Lmi in a context of performance relative to over 6,000 workplaces measured

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Leesman has also introduced a measure of effectiveness for home offices known as the H-Lmi.

Overall Leesman Results

Avison Young’s overall workplace effectiveness score exceeds not only the Leesman Index, but also the Leesman+ benchmark, which designates a superior level of workplace. The Gresham Street office was in line with this performance, scoring in line with the Leesman+ benchmark.

Results found that employees who spend more of their time in the transformed space on the second floor tended to rate the space as more effective as compared to those using primarily the legacy third floor.

We also noted younger team members preferred the second floor, and that the gap between Lmi and H-Lmi is largest for the youngest workers, those in Gen-Z. This would support the notion that younger workers appreciate the office environment for the opportunities for learning and mentorship it provides, not to mention its superiority to workspaces available to many of them at home.

Floor Comparison

Comparing the responses from employees spending most of their time on each of the two floors yields some fascinating results about the nature of workplaces and what truly drives effectiveness. The 2nd floor earned a slightly better Lmi than the 3rd. However, an analysis of the individual attributes that together comprise the Lmi shows that the 3rd floor actually outperforms the 2nd on nearly half of them.

The third floor earned higher satisfaction for 22 of 50 physical and service features, including meeting rooms, personal storage, and computer equipment. Furthermore, it is seen to support the majority of specific work activities better than the 2nd floor, including video conferences and reading.

The 2nd floor’s higher Lmi score can be traced back to it more fully delivering on what Leesman calls “Super Drivers” – activities and features that are common in importance to workers in roles across the spectrum of collaboration and complexity and that, therefore, form the bedrock of workplace effectiveness. In short, the 2nd floor provides more of what matters most, including superior ratings for informal break-out areas, general décor, desk quality and noise levels.

Attendance & Utilisation

Prior to the Omicron wave, attendance at Gresham Street increased slowly but steadily from its lowest pandemic-era levels. Daily attendance has also been much higher on Tuesday-Thursday.

Floor Comparison

Fundamental to providing an effective workplace is an understanding of the activities that are most important to employees’ work. Overall, employees at 65 Gresham Street indicated that approximately a third of their important activities involve individual work, while nearly half are collaborative. The remaining activities are split between learning and social activities. There is essentially no difference in the distribution of these important activities between employees who spend more time on the transformed second floor and those who prefer the legacy third floor.

But despite the similarity in work activities, the observed usage pattern of space types was dramatically different across the two floors. At any given time, most employees occupied an individual desk. The presence of individual work areas is vital even for people in highly collaborative roles – although desks also support collaboration through activities including video calls. Even so, employees on the third floor were much more likely to be at a desk than those on the second floor – 73 percent vs. 58 percent. They were also nearly twice as likely to be in a formal meeting room, while those on second floor tended to make greater use of informal collaboration areas and specialty spaces such as the large break area. More generally, employees on the second floor tended to distribute themselves more evenly across available settings.

Choice itself impacts behaviour

We therefore drew a second conclusion from our data - given a variety of options, people will choose to use the one that supports them best at any given moment. The second floor offers more variety to employees than the third, and that choice itself appears to influence behaviour. This accounts for greater relative usage of informal collaboration and social areas, which are not as prevalent on the third floor.

Observing where employees choose to work in the office underscores the importance of providing multiple settings, not least of which is ample individual desk space. Workers on both the second and third floors identified a similar set of priorities for their roles yet fulfilled them in different ways based on the options available to them. The implication is that, if employees are properly supported with appropriate settings at the office, they need not plan attendance based on how they want to work. Instead, they can work effectively whether they choose to be onsite or remote.

Measuring air, temperature and light quality

During our visual observation period, we noticed that a smaller desk area on the 2nd floor, designated for quiet work averaged only 16 percent occupation. While noise was consistently lower around the desks, the space averaged a full degree cooler, which impacted negatively on employees’ willingness to use it.

No matter how attractive the amenities and layout of a space are – its success is also based on getting a few underlying fundamentals right. Fresh air, comfortable temperatures and adequate lighting are some of the factors which can affect employee wellbeing and productivity, but often fly under the radar.

IAQ monitoring can help us understand why employees might choose to utilise one particular area or setting more frequently than another. If a space might otherwise be suitable for a particular type of work but is otherwise uncomfortable due to low temperature or poor lighting, then fixing those problems must be prerequisite to altering the space further.

How can businesses support their employees best?

We have identified three key take-aways from observing employees in our experimental workspace.

  1. Begin by measuring and understanding employee priorities to avoid acting on assumptions
  2. Encourage agility and adaptability by providing a range of appropriate settings
  3. Employees still need space for individual focused work

Navigating the new workplace is nuanced, and there are no one-size-fits-all solutions. But by keeping these in mind, occupiers can facilitate future ways of working that encourage connection, collaboration and innovation.

To read the full report, click here.

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