Bad workplace design means most employees
are "struggling to work effectively"


Gensler US Workplace Survey 2013

News: new office technologies and a move towards collaborative, open-plan offices are leading to declining performance among workers, according to a new workplace design study by architects Gensler.

The 2013 US Workplace Survey found that workplace effectiveness in America has fallen by 6% since 2008, when the firm carried out its first survey.

Gensler US Workplace Survey 2013
UBM, San Francisco by Gensler. Top image: Saban Brands, Los Angeles by Gensler.

"Extended workdays, new distractions, and downward pressure on real estate costs are compromising the effectiveness of the U.S. workplace," says the survey. "Strategies to improve collaboration proved ineffective if the ability to focus was not also considered."

Distracting noise and visual stimulus in open-plan offices is one reason for the drop, according to Matthew Kobylar, regional workplace practice area leader at Gensler.

“As you squeeze more people in, the chances of being distracted by noise and visual distractions increases,” Kobylar told Dezeen.

Employers have moved towards open-plan offices over the last ten years to reduce real-estate costs, as they can fit more people into the same amount of space.

Firms have justified this by claiming open-plan offices increase opportunities for collaboration, Kobylar said, but he added: “Cramming people in does have an impact on effectiveness. Just because you can see your colleagues doesn't mean you’re going to collaborate with them.”

Gensler US Workplace Survey 2013
TM Advertising, Dallas, by Gensler

To counter this, workplace designers should provide a variety of "secondary" workspaces where workers can concentrate on individual or group tasks, away from distractions - and to prevent them from creating distractions themselves.

“Open plan is quite effective as a general space but there are times when you need to focus on collaboration, and it fails to support that,” Kobylar said.

Quiet areas, spaces or booths for quick meetings and workspaces with views can all help create a balanced, and more effective, office environment, according to Kobylar.

“It allows them to get away from the distraction,” he said. “We’re telling our clients, don’t give up on open plan but acknowledge that people need balance.”

US Workplace Survey 2013 by Gensler
The cover of the US Workplace Survey 2013 by Gensler

Writing about the reports finding on the company’s blog, Gensler principal Janet Pogue said the research does not mean that open-plan offices don’t work. “Our research shows that effective work can happen in both open and enclosed environments,” she wrote. “Even private offices are not as effective as they were in 2008.”

Instead, the decline in worker effectiveness is down to changing work patterns, including an increase in multitasking and in particular the introduction of always-on technologies such as email, mobile phones and virtual conferencing.

“The world has changed in the last five years, shifting the way we work,” Pogue wrote. “We have more distractions and interruptions, including 24-hour technology demands. Most of us have more on our plates and have to multi-task to get everything done. Collaborating with virtual colleagues takes tremendous concentration and effort. And if effectiveness is declining across the board, open plan offices aren't at fault.”

In their survey, Gensler found that companies that offered a “balanced workplace” with a variety of different workspaces for different tasks outperformed those offering just one option.

“Achieving balance in a workplace is a delicate process,” Pogue explained. “The first priority is to optimize the functionality of primary workspaces. Design elements must mitigate noise and provide access to colleagues while minimizing distractions. It's also important to design a pleasing space where people actually want to be. A balanced workplace also provides a healthy dose of alternative workspaces where groups of one to four people can seamlessly transition from individual work to group work or a person can simply go into an enclosed room and shut the door to concentrate or take a call.”

To compile the report, Gensler surveyed 2,035 "knowledge workers" in firms across the USA. They found that only one in four operate in optimal workplace environments. "The rest are struggling to work effectively, resulting in lost productivity, innovation and worker engagement," the report says.

“Our survey findings demonstrate that focus and collaboration are complementary work modes. One cannot be sacrificed in the workplace without directly impacting the other,” says Diane Hoskins, Gensler co-chief executive officer. “We know that both focus and collaboration are crucial to the success of any organization in today’s economy.”

“Balanced workplaces where employees have the autonomy to choose their work space based on the task or project at hand are more effective and higher performing,” she added.

Kobylar said that as well as increasing pressure on workers, technology could help increase effectiveness if used properly. Tablet computers, smartphones and wifi – technologies that didn’t exist when Gensler carried out there first workplace survey in 2008 – allow staff to move between different work environments according to the tasks they are working on.

“Technology has moved on a lot in the last five years,” he said. “You can be mobile in the office. You can pick up your kit and go.”

Pogue said that employees should create “secondary spaces” where noisy activities such as meetings and conference calls can take place, adding that spaces that allow between two and four people to hold meetings are the most in demand.

“The availability of secondary workspaces is particularly important for creating a balanced workplace,” she wrote “The proximity and availability of secondary work environments can bring balance to a workspace and help occupants work more effectively, both by providing the spaces they need to perform a variety of activities and moving noise and distraction-creating activities away from desks and into more appropriate spaces.”

She concluded: “To really drive performance, companies must create work environments where workers can shift between various work modes and feel comfortable working privately or collaborating with colleagues.”

  • Concerned Citizen

    Concerning distractions, it appears that Gensler has missed the 800 pound gorilla: the ubiquitous mobile phone. Private offices, open offices, sound and noise control have no effect on mobile phone distractions. The only thing architecturally feasible to deal with phones is to build a Faraday type cage around the work area to block mobile phone signals.

    • 1234

      “Instead, the decline in worker effectiveness is down to changing work patterns, including an increase in multitasking and in particular the introduction of always-on technologies such as email, mobile phones and virtual conferencing.” Seems to cover it.

  • AWG

    "Geef mijn cubicle terug!"

  • Man

    Interesting thesis. Would like to read the whole lot.

  • jack b. q.

    Interesting that it took a survey and 5 years for Gensler to deduce this. A simple understanding of human nature and the needs of an office environment brought our firm to the same conclusions 6 years ago. Further proof that the inertia created by Gensler’s massiveness holds it hostage to defining simple problems more nimble firms resolve on day 1.

  • Interesting that Gensler’s report does not elaborate on the importance of building sustainable working environments with ample daylight, green spaces and views to nature, elements that are well established as drivers of long-term employee well-being and job satisfaction, which leads to both productivity and creativity.

  • Bensola

    I am pretty sure all the headphone companies have been pushing the open-space office concept for years now.

  • Cognoscenti living

    Is it bad or just inappropriate design? I was interested to read this, especially following on from another article about ‘open space’ work environments, and an earlier conversation with an associate on the subject of ‘engagement’ in organisations, touching on such issues as collaboration.

    As I see it, work environments do indeed have an impact on how we work, and our productivity, however they are certainly not, in isolation, a way to engineer collaboration and engagement… and if a culture isn’t ready for collaboration, bringing in ‘open plan’ will most likely create a dip in performance whilst people get their heads around the idea of coming out of the enclosed office.

    Workplace designs must take into consideration where a business culture is at before embracing new working arrangements. It makes sense to have different working areas or solutions for different types of work (focused, collaborative etc) – the design process must take a business’ work-styles and processes into consideration, just as you would take lifestyles into account when designing a home.

  • JB

    An open office environment works against millions of years of biology. The brain has to train the eyes not to see and the ears not to hear. Any “malfunction” in this process, such as noticing someone walking by or a sound above a certain decibel will cause the senses to take note, which unfortunately results in a pause of working on any task that requires concentration. I feel strange describing the functions of a human, but must as it was not taken into account with the open office environment design.

  • Pontus Hammarbäck

    “Tablet computers, smartphones and wifi – technologies that didn’t exist when Gensler carried out there first workplace survey in 2008” uh, oh? Gensler are not very up to date are they? If the rest of the report holds the same standard it’s not going to add much value to what we already know. (Also, it’s ‘their’, not ‘there’).