Is playtime over?

Author: Sandra Henke, Group Head of People and Culture, Hays

An Olympic-sized pool, landscaped rooftop gardens, wellness gym, massage rooms, indoor sports hall, ‘living walls’ of greenery and sleeping pods. At first glance, that might sound like a luxury holiday complex but it is, in fact, the design plan for Google’s latest £1 billion London office project.

The tech behemoth has been one of the trailblazers when it comes to building innovative and quirky workspaces, according to Michael Wiseman, Head of Office Leasing at property development and investment firm British Land. “When Google opened its new London office at Belgrave House in 2004, it really captured everyone’s imagination. It made us think differently about workspaces,” he notes. Since then, Wiseman continues, many progressive employers have followed suit and a number of contemporary perks, such as rooftop putting greens, trampolines and gyms, have been introduced.

These adventure playgrounds for grown-ups are intended to be engaging and entertaining workspaces to attract and retain the best talent, while seamlessly blending work and recreation.

Many of the tech giants, such as Apple, Twitter and Facebook, use their workspaces to showcase their company culture and brand. Their workplaces, or ‘campuses’, with their eclectic design and combination of work and play zones, act as clear virtue signals for their values – creativity, autonomy and fun.

This is not such a new concept though, and it’s not exclusive to tech firms. Australian investment bank Macquarie’s award-winning office in the City of London boasts a scarlet staircase, Eames chairs in the boardroom and a number of office sculptures.

In Europe, Red Bull’s headquarters in Amsterdam is situated in an industrial-sized space of architecturally designed wooden angles and almost everything in the office, including the urinals and skateboard ramps, featuring the famous drinks company’s winged logo.

Across the globe, Saatchi & Saatchi’s Bangkok office has a boardroom which rests on bicycle wheels and is made from recycled wood.

A recent study by workplace consultants and office designers Peldon Rose indicated, however, that employers often underestimate the importance of their office environment.

The study, published in May 2017, revealed that nine in ten (91 per cent) UK workers believe their office environment directly impacts on their productivity, but less than half (43 per cent) said it enhances their productivity. Only a third (32 per cent) of the 600 workers surveyed said their current office environment supports their wellbeing.

A separate study, led by Organisational Psychologist Professor Sir Cary Cooper, found that employees who work in environments with ‘natural elements’ such as natural light, live plants and, if you’re lucky, a view of the sea, are more productive at work. The Human Spaces Report, which was published in 2014 and looked at the working environments of 3,600 office workers across Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA), found that four in ten (42 per cent) office workers have no natural light in their workplace. Forty per cent said they would be more productive working at their own desk in a solitary office rather than in an open-plan one.

Progressive workplaces improve productivity

Jonathan Taylor, Senior Business Psychologist at business psychology consultancy Pearn Kandola, says the workplace environment can convey a number of messages to employees and the outside world. “As well as the basic ‘a happy worker is a productive worker’, a fun working environment sends a strong message that the company trusts its employees to get the job done, but that they have autonomy in how they manage their time,” he says.

The social environment at work is really important, Taylor continues, because we all have a fundamental need to belong and to have positive social interactions with others. This has a direct impact on our engagement and productivity. “If we feel we belong, we’re more likely to work harder for the ‘common good’,” Taylor believes.

Progressive workplaces, with their secret gardens and rooftop allotments, also allow and aid ‘time-out’ and recovery during the working day which is, according to Taylor, crucial to our wellbeing. “We’re not machines and we’re not designed to work for several hours at a time without a break. A bit like physical exercise, we need to take regular breaks throughout the day,” he says.

This is something that HR consultancy Reward Gateway has recognised. The company has a ‘retreat’ area in its office where people can go to de-stress, reflect and focus. Robert Hicks, Group HR Director at Reward Gateway, says: “I see the workspace as a key part of engagement, and of the overall look and feel of a business. It’s not a benefit per se as things change in the space. Like recognition, wellbeing and learning, they are all part of what you do for engagement, rather than being the be-all and end-all.”

Reward Gateway also introduced a café at the centre of its Tottenham Court Road office last year. “One of our objectives was to encourage more cross-team collaboration, so we put a café in the middle of the office so employees could eat with each other every day,” Hicks explains. “Despite being on one of the busiest, most vibrant, restaurant-filled streets in London, our café is always full.”

Providing for all

It could be argued that beer fridges and football games tables are actually outdated. So, how can employers ascertain whether such things are really valued by employees or just there for show?

Wiseman says employers are starting to think less about the gimmicks and more about the type of workspace they provide. “Progressive companies recognise that employees have a range of different wants and needs,” he says.

Taylor says employers need to factor in the more introverted employees too. “Extroverted individuals will thrive on having additional stimulus from their environment, but introverts generally prefer less stimulation at work,” he notes. “Like our schools, workplaces tend to favour extroverts – think of open-plan offices that are designed to encourage more conversation and knowledge-sharing, but also encourage interruptions.”

Employers are also thinking more about the surrounding area. “As the lines between work and life become increasingly blurred, we are now seeing companies looking to invest more in an area rather than just an office space,” Wiseman observes. “British Land believes that the public space surrounding a workplace is as important as the workspace itself.”

Chris Alldred, Design Director at office design agency K2 Space, states that it’s no longer about creating a ‘cool’ office but having a varied, bespoke workplace. “Traditional, long-established brands are creating workplaces that previously would have been unheard of,” he says. “Workplaces that now typically include showering facilities for cyclists, sit/stand desk solutions that promote movement and a variety of spaces that staff can choose to work from, depending on the task at hand.”

Such workplaces can also have a social element and several break-out areas for the three ‘c’s’ – collaboration, contemplation and concentration. “It’s about creating a space where there is a variety of work settings so staff can choose where and how they want to work,” says Byrne.

Workplace environments are, concludes Byrne, now up there with financial rewards and traditional corporate benefits. “People strive to work in an environment that reflects their values and that allows them to fulfil their potential,” he says. “While the calibre of the company and the monetary package still trump most other considerations, a comfortable work environment where people enjoy working is now seen as a must.”

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