Years and years ago when I worked on my PhD on office buildings and how they can be designed to enable people to achieve what they want to achieve, I came across a very common response whenever I introduced someone to my research: almost everyone said I should investigate their workplace, because it really didn’t work and here’s why… This was typically followed by a long list of complaints and woes, covering pretty much everything from overbooked meeting rooms to draughty offices, from noisy co-workers to smelly toilets, from lack of privacy to dull interiors and of course, most importantly, the wrong type of coffee.

These anecdotes highlighted a much bigger satisfaction and ultimately performance problem, backed up by more representative surveys. According to the annual Gallup Institute survey ‘State of the Global Workforce’, 24% of employees world-wide are classified as ‘actively disengaged’, i.e. unhappy and unproductive. Of course people can be unhappy about a lot of things at work and the design of the office need not be the main concern. However, surveys asking more specifically about workplace design reveal a similar picture. Gensler reported that only 26% of the workforce in the average company in the UK was satisfied or highly satisfied with their place of work. Corresponding rates in the US were slightly higher with 43% of staff satisfied. A 2013 follow-up study by Gensler with more than 2000 respondents highlighted that performance in workplaces in the US had dropped by 6% in the period from 2008 to 2013. Lack of opportunities for getting focused work done was one of the main reasons.

As an architect I began to wonder what it was that my profession did to contribute to all this unhappiness. Or asked the other way around: what could architects do to make sure offices actually inspired, enabled and supported people in their work practices? This question is not new at all. The Dutch architect Herman Hertzberger suggested in his 1991 book ‘Lessons for students in architecture’ that architecture needs to concern itself with “situations in daily life as lived by all people. (…) Every intervention in people’s surroundings, regardless of the architect’s specific aim, has a social implication. So we are not in fact free to go ahead and design exactly what we please – everything we do has consequences for people and their relationships. (…) The art of architecture is not only to make things beautiful – nor is it only to make useful things, it is to do both at once – like a tailor who makes clothes that look good and fit well.”

Of course, it is not just the architects and interior designers to be blamed. The focus on many design and refurbishment projects is purely on cost savings. Understandably, property costs are rising and in high-rent locations such as London this can be an issue for many occupiers. Optimising layouts of offices can save significant costs for businesses, and so construction professionals are often briefed to concentrate on this. One of the reasons this seems appealing to many occupiers is that benefits are easily measurable. Saving 20% of office space could mean releasing a floor and instantly saving on lease or rental costs. However, a recent book suggests this focus is misleading. “Don’t worry about the rent” argues that office space matters much more than just as an expense. Instead good design could leverage business performance, thus offsetting the costs of space. In fact, a report published by the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) in 2005 already proposed that 85% of average costs for a business are staff salaries, while only 15% go into the building (construction, maintenance, services). Hence it could be argued that improving staff performance provides a much better lever than focussing on building related efficiency.

So how could this be achieved? How could offices be designed to boost satisfaction and happiness and in turn increase business performance?

The obvious solution is listening to user needs, as suggested in the widely debated opinion piece ‘What Starbucks Gets that Architects Don’t’. It argues that more research is needed to understand what people need and want rather than applying rules of thumb when designing spaces.

This idea of integrating research findings into the design process is also known as Evidence-Based Design. Similarly to its neighbouring disciplines of Evidence-Based Medicine or Evidence-Based Management, it is founded on the practice of grounding decision-making in evidence from systematic research. So the basic idea is to provide better outcomes in healing patients, running organisations or designing office buildings by relying on scientifically established recurring mechanisms. Once research has established what works and what doesn’t, for example in office design, this could find its way into practice.

Since the 1970s an increasing body of research aimed to shed light on the various impacts that office design can have on its occupants. Many different spatial factors (light levels, thermal comfort, spatial layout, colours, noise, etc.) were scrutinised to understand the difference they made to behavioural responses of occupants (concentration, task performance, interaction, communication, collaboration, creativity, etc.). To name one particular example, scholars tried to answer the question, whether closed offices or open-plan offices allowed for more communication among staff. It turned out that this was not so easily settled, since contradictory findings emerged across different studies. The issue is still hotly debated today, for instance in a 2013 Guardian opinion piece arguing that ‘Open-plan offices were devised by Satan in the deepest caverns of hell’, which attracted almost 25,000 shares on social media to date.

Despite contradictory findings and assertions of a ‘scattered empirical evidence’ base, research in this field has been able to detect patterns of human behavioural responses to certain spatial conditions that hold in almost any workplace setting. Two effects in particular are worth mentioning: firstly the propinquity effect, and secondly the effect of spatial integration.

We know that distance matters – this is what we call the propinquity effect. The closer your desk at work is to a colleague, the higher is the likelihood for frequent face-to-face communication with this person. What was first established by the research of Thomas J Allen in the 1960s and 70s in US R&D Labs among engineers was later confirmed to hold across different knowledge-intensive industries and even in times of increased digital communication.

The effect of an integrative office layout was also found an important pattern with high consistency across cases. The more a floor plan of an office is compact and allows for short paths from and to different places in the office (also called integrated), the more those spaces brought people together and allowed for the generation of new ideas. This was first recognised by the research of Hillier and his colleagues at UCL’s Space Syntax Laboratory in the 1980s and 90s in unpublished reports and recently confirmed in a study on the ‘Generative Office’ with a much larger sample size of more than 60 different offices.

These research findings could now be used by designers when taking decisions on office layout and seating arrangements of people. For example, a recent paper on data-driven design highlights how the propinquity effect could be used to decide who should sit where in a workplace by putting strategic teams in central locations, or those in high need of communication next to each other. It also discusses how the idea of generativity could for instance help with property search and evaluation. A configurational analysis with the software Depthmap can identify the integrative qualities of a layout and could for instance compare various shortlisted properties of the same size against each other to assist a business in taking an evidence-based decision which of those spaces might suit their working processes and cultures best. Businesses with a high need to generate new ideas and bring diverse groups of people together should choose a more open, compact and integrated layout, whereas organisations with a more structured workflow involving smaller groups of people might prefer a layout enabling group identities and protected spaces.

In practice, however, Evidence-Based Design is yet to become more widespread. In a survey of 420 practitioners on evidence-based design, 80% perceived the need for explicit data gathering, however 71% of respondents admitted not doing anything in this respect. Only 5% engaged in post-occupancy evaluations (as one accepted form of data gathering) and only 1% used rigorous methods for this. None of the practitioners in this survey researched the same building more than once, for instance to test the impact of a design and compare it to baseline data gathered beforehand. Another survey in 2015 with more than 1000 respondents reported a slightly more positive picture: only 27% of respondents stated they had never done a post-occupancy evaluation, whereas 40% perform this informally and a further 8% in a rigorous way. 6% of participants engaged in multiple studies through the lifetime of a building. Maybe more interestingly, almost half of the surveyed architects were interested in finding out more about tools to engage with user needs.

Slowly, the idea of Evidence-Based Design is beginning to gain traction, as shown in increasing coverage in magazines such as an article in OnOffice on ‘The Science of Work’, the featuring of technology to design better offices in the New Scientist, or the article on a new generation of offices in the British Airways Business Life magazine. It seems that the age of using data to inform business decisions in a systematic fashion is on its way. And with it may come better designed offices, more suitable to user needs and enabling businesses to increase their performance, better coffee included.


About the Author:

Dr Kerstin Sailer is Lecturer at the Bartlett School of Architecture at University College London and acts as Director of Research and Innovation at Spacelab. She runs the blog https://spaceandorganisation.org/.

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